Wednesday, 6 February 2019

The Hidden Sex

I have been extremely quiet on this blog since October, when I put my head down and started working my fingers to the bone to get my work ready for my solo exhibition, 'The Hidden Sex', which opened last Thursday at Craft ACT in Canberra. As it was the first exhibition for the year, it was a crowded opening, so thanks to all of you who braved the heat to come and see the work. The exhibition is on until 16 March 2019, and I will be giving a floor talk at 12pm sharp on International Women's Day, 8th March.

'Collecting Ladies I-III' series, 2018-9
Watercolour, marine algae on Arches 300gsm

'The Hidden Sex' is an exhibition that was inspired by my 2016 arts residency at the National Museum of Australia. My original project was to look at their botanical holdings but I quickly became inspired (obsessed!) by their two unprovenanced seaweed albums.  I have posted about these previously so will not go through my findings again here. The exhibition concept was to highlight the  invisibility of women in both society and science in the 19th century. Women were not allowed to attend university, and were hardly ever acknowledged for their contribution to our knowledge of our Australian flora.  All the kudos usually went to men, such as Government Botanist, Ferdinand von Mueller; William Henry Harvey, the great Irish phycologist; Joseph Hooker, of Kew; and Carl Agardh of Sweden.  However, not many know that Mueller conscripted over 225 women and children to collect for him, and some of these women sent their collections directly overseas to other scientists.  Hence the collections by some of our most noted women collectors, such as Jessie Hussey of Encounter Bay, SA; Louisa Ann Meredith, from Orford in Tasmania, and others are also in overseas herbaria.

'From Land and Sea: Rhodospermae, Melanospermae & Chlorospermae'
Three pairs of vintage kid leather gloves, embroidered with silk
Thinking about women collecting algae and vascular plants in challenging conditions wearing their heavy garments, skirts, boots and gloves inspired me to embroider some vintage leather gloves myself. Gloves were made in supple yet tight-fitting leather so that they could mould the hand into the proscribed shape - dainty, with long tapering fingers; not flaccid yet not too muscular. They also kept the skin unblemished from the sun. Indeed, I had trouble finding a 'glove model' for my photo shoot, as even the largest glove would not fit today's narrow hand! These gloves could not get wet, so there is a paradox between the gloves and the act of collecting. The three sets of gloves represent the three classes of seaweed, but the scientific name for them has altered slightly.  I have chosen to use the classifications instigated by Harvey in the 19th century - Rhodospermae (red); Chlorospermae (green) and Melanospermae (brown).

Women of the 19th century had proscribed pastimes to help them while away the hours - botanical painting and collection, needlework, music and languages. In the mid 19th century, a craze for collecting seaweed was at its height, having taken over from fern collecting, or pteridomania.  Botanical collections were pressed in special albums, on cards and in books, and became the subject of watercolours and dioramas. The series 'Collecting Ladies' references the etiquette of dress (handkerchiefs and gloves!) and the pastimes of lace-making, embroidery and botanical collecting.

Installation view, The Hidden Sex, Julie Ryder.
On the left of the installation photo are a series of large cyanotypes, made with seaweed I have collected on my travels.  The cyanotype process was the first photographic process invented by Sir John Herschel, but it was pioneered by Anna Atkins in the 19th century, who used this new technique to produce handmade volumes of photographs of British Seaweed that she had collected. The New York Public Library are currently holding an exhibition of these images from the two editions they have acquired, but they are only on for another week. My work references the life-sized work made by Anna, but I have enlarged them to make a bolder statement.

'Submerged' 2018-9, Julie Ryder
Vintage handkerchiefs, cyanotype, seaweed
In 'Submerged', a series of 42 vintage handkerchiefs, I have used the cyanotype process again to reference women's work.  The title refers to both the seaweed being submerged beneath the waves as well as the plight of women in academia and society.

My interest in Victorian Glass Microscope slides has also been described in previous posts, but for this exhibition I had always wanted to produce a series that contained real seaweed and referenced the lace making done by women that appeared on handkerchiefs and clothing. 

'Flowers of the Sea, I-VI', 2019
Glass, seaweed, hand engraving.
Each of the six large (25x70cm) glass microscope slides have been engraved with the place of the collection (Orford, Encounter Bay, Ballinskelligs, Frank's Beach, Macmaster's Beach and Bicheno). Some of these related directly to our past women seaweed collectors, whilst others are favourite places that have personal resonance with my seaweed collection obsession. I will show some details in a later post.

Lastly, as an avid collector of anything that the waves throw up, I have made a large wall installation 'Hortus conclusus' (which literally means hidden or secret or walled garden}.  Made entirely from cuttlebones, these have been collected over a period of years and reference the aggressive passion for collecting multiples of everything by scientists and amateur scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries - even to the detriment of the species, and many species did go extinct, as did many ferns and other botanicals.
'Hortus conclusus' 2019 Julie Ryder
Cuttlebone, carving.
In my collection there are two 'types' of cuttlebones that can be found - smooth ones, and furrowed ones, which are very labial in appearance.  These are not known to be 'male' and 'female' types, in fact conversations with marine biologists have not shed any light as to why there are two sorts. As they are NOT seaweeds I was wondering whether they belonged in the exhibition at all, despite my initial intuition and strong intention that they should be.  Whilst researching I came across an unusual feature of the Australian cuttlefish that not many people know about that clinched it's addition to the exhibition.  During mating times, once a year, all the cuttlefish gather en masse in Whyalla, SA, for an orgy.  Well, not really an orgy, because males only mate once, and then they die.  As there are more males than females, competition to hand her their 'sperm sac' (yes literally, with their tentacles!) is fierce, with the larger, more dominant males guarding the females from other weaker males.  However, these 'inferior' males have come up with a unique and very sneaky strategy to sidle up to the females in order to hand over their genes.  They camouflage themselves as females, even to the point of having a fake egg sac, so that they can mingle with them and avoid fighting with the stronger male. Ingenious. Hidden Sex..... 
There is an amazing podcast out at the moment which gives further insight into this gender swapping hosted by Benjamin Law, called Look at Me.  Click here , and listen to the end where a very poignant story is told by underwater photographer, PT Hirschfield (IG: @pinktankscuba)

I do hope you will get to see my exhibition at Craft and if you are on Instagram, you can follow my whole journey with the making of work for the exhibition @julierydertextiles

I love hearing your comments, critiques and thoughts about my work, so please don't be shy! And if you have enjoyed this post, or my work, please pass on my blog and Instagram details to others 💚

No comments:

Post a Comment