Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Labour relations

Artist looks at the everyday experiences of Mennonite women through a lens of housework and insect life

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The atmosphere inside Homemaking, Chantel Mierau's exhibition at Aceartinc., is almost like that of a slightly sleepy beehive or termite colony. The space is dark, dimly lit by the four video projections and two flat-screen television monitors. The sounds you hear are muffled rustlings -- crunching grass and a distant highway (ambient noises from one of the videos), the whirring of projector fans. The dusty second-floor gallery is, as always, slightly too warm, and everywhere you look there's a flurry of squirmy, single-minded activity.

In Tuesday-ing, a swarm of young women in conservative attire -- plain, high-necked dresses, pantyhose, sensible shoes and shapeless cardigans -- engage in an odd, self-perpetuating sequence of labours. We watch them diligently mop a wooden floor for several minutes then, in steel bowls, mix the mop-water with flour to form a dough, which they roll out directly on the floor. The mops come back out to clean up the excess flour, and the video repeats.

In Wednesday-ing, the hands of an unseen "quilting bee" flit in and out of view, picking threads through a simplified, circular loom, weaving the shaggy "cobweb" on display near the entrance. In Cocoon, another woman binds her hand in layer after layer of white thread. In Hatching we see a similarly "cocooned" hand fighting to wriggle its way back out. In Larva, a crouched performer, sewn completely into a pinkish, knitted sac, hops around sightlessly in the grass, pitifully struggling to tack up a line to hang a piece of laundry out to dry.

Mierau's practice combines fibre and performance, drawing heavily on strains of feminist art beginning in the late '60s. Mierle Laderman Ukeles's 1973 Maintenance Art Performances, where the artist mopped museum floors during visitor hours to question the idea of "women's work" and its place in the gallery, is an obvious point of reference, as are experimental textile works like Faith Wilding's immersive 1972 Crochet Environment (or "Womb Room") or Boarders at Rest (also 1972), where artist Annette Messager clothed dozens of dead sparrows in tiny handmade sweaters.

Mierau brings these well-worn themes of obsessive, repetitive and "gendered" labour (with their overtones of comfort and caretaking) to bear on her particular upbringing in a rural Saskatchewan Mennonite community. In likening her "Mennonite housewives" to industrious but not exactly "self-actualized" social insects like ants and bees, whose roles in the colony are genetically determined and immutable, and by highlighting particularly meaningless, ritualized labour, Mierau seems to advance a critique of overly rigid, deterministic gender roles.

If that's the case, though, it's a critique softened by her clear fondness for and admiration of both her subjects and the labour itself.

Mierau's oddball approach and occasional wry humour, perhaps most evident in the two narrated videos, also complicate the work. There Were Socks sees her rewriting the book of Genesis to be about folding laundry, with God separating the light socks from the dark, while the voice-over in Cocoon begins with a grandfather telling Peter Rabbit stories and ends with a freshly bereaved farmwife eating her way out of a cocoon of frozen casseroles. This jarring, often dreamlike handling of everyday material is one of the Homemaking's more compelling features, and it should leads us to reconsider "familiar" subjects -- household chores and honeycomb -- that only become stranger the longer you think about them.

Chantal Mierau will give an artist talk at Aceartinc. on March 9 at 2 p.m.

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator.

Art Review

Chantel Mierau

Homemaking

Aceartinc., 290 McDermot Ave.

To April 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 7, 2013 C14

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