Buttered Up

KATHERINE NOLAN REFLECTS ON ÁINE PHILLIPS’S PERFORMANCE-BASED EXHIBITION AT MART GALLERY, DUBLIN. 

Centered around the short film, Buttered Up, this exhibition by Áine Phillips explores embodied domestic femininities through performance. The form of the work varies across sculpture, painting and moving image, as well as live performances on the opening night by Phillips, Rachel Fallon, Helena Walsh and Ella Bertilsson.

Áine Phillips, Buttered Up in the Sink, Friday 6 March 2020, MART Gallery; photograph by Ewa Pypno, courtesy of the artist and MART Gallery

What does it mean to be buttered up? On opening night audience members were offered a viscerally charged, dynamic experience of the concept at the heart of the exhibition. Entering through the red doors of MART Gallery, visitors inescapably encounter a woman in a red pillbox hat, ensconced in a sink. Phillips, as the absurd hostess of the exhibition, rubs a mound of butter blocks and extends a warm but slippery hand. Before the formal introduction of social distancing measures, the intimacy of the handshake, now under scrutiny, further electrified this request for the viewer to break the fourth wall. Enlivening and lubricating not just hands but the social context, she orchestrates a room alive with exchanges and encounters. She is “trapped in a domestic underworld”, she explains, and is trying to get out using this butter as “lubrication”. The audience is welcomed and offered “ways in”, as she alludes to the other artists performing in the space. Enabling access through this explanatory mode of the address is directly and strategically oppositional to the reticence so dominant in contemporary artforms. 

The next encounter is Rachel Fallon’s Things Break Down/Altered Ego, in which she shapes a ball of steel wool. Under her hand it is moulded into the shape of an old woman’s hair. A mundane domestic object becomes memento mori and conjures archetypes of mother and grandmother. In a cream and gold apron, Fallon begins to work the material into a long plait. The acrid smell of apple cider vinegar rises, which over time will rust and degrade the strength of the steel. Evoking both the bristle of domestic toil and the warm feeling of watching a mother’s hands at work, this poetic honouring of women’s invisible labour is at once deeply individual and collective, affective and symbolic. 

Rachel Fallon, Things Break Down/Altered Ego, live performance, Friday 6 March 2020, MART Gallery; photograph by Ewa Pypno, courtesy of the artist and MART Gallery

A large sculpture of knotted red clothing snakes its way across the floor, stretching almost the length of the space. Red Weight is a train of used clothing that was carried by Phillips through the streets of Krakow in a 2013 performance. It speaks of heavy burden and of collectively. Laying on the floor, it is physically impossible to avoid, and acts as the spine of the space and the encounter, constantly returning the viewer to embodied experience. 

Passing over this obstacle viewers come upon ‘Performaphilia’, a set of watercolours that revisit other tropes and figures from the artist’s live practice of recent years. In the form of painting, the performance imagery is iconic yet tender and reveals recurrent themes. Bag Lady, Goddess and Boat Girl in Malahide Estuary, from the ‘Mot Juste’ series address domestic and sexual violence. Through the mobilisation and twisting of iconic femininities they make visible symbolic and physical violence inscribed on women’s bodies, as well as the artworks themselves performing symbolic acts of care. These sit alongside watercolours of the Buttered Up performances, such that themes of escape and protection emerge strongly. Crying Eye (Repeal Eye Banner) and Liberty in a Lina Stein hat represent activist aspects of Phillips’s practice, with collective action, solidarity and making public framed as enduring strands in her politics and approach.  

At the end of the row of paintings is Ella Bertilsson’s Squirrel, a giant cardboard box sculpture. Secluded in the DIY ‘fort’ Bertilsson, over the course of the evening, playfully spews out an idiosyncratic mix of items such as compact discs, lighters, chopped and whole carrots, nylon wigs, a novel and a word-search book. The scattered symbols begin to coalesce into moments and fragments of familial encounters in domestic space. This assemblage of ‘non-objects’ offers glimpses into a personal past and evoke how the mundane becomes formative with the passing of time.

At the back of the space, a two-seater orange corduroy couch is being slathered in butter by a lady-like figure in a red dress and kitten heel boots. This is performance artist Helena Walsh’s live enactment of Phillips’ Buttered up in the Couch. She inhabits the role through her physicality, bringing to bear her own practice of interrogating embodied femininities. Back straight, heels together she leans forward. As she covers the folds and gaps of the cushions in butter, they become discomfortingly vulvic. The fat appears hard from the cold, and as it is pasted on the groves of the material it contrasts the warm buttery handshake received upon entrance. This taps into visceral experience and the discomfort and abject pleasure of mess making. The act not only transgresses the permissible, but also upends the regime of order that women are tasked with imposing on domestic spaces. Donning a swim hat and goggles Walsh aims herself towards the couch hands poised. As she wedges herself into the ‘centerfold’, the ladylike postures of her legs are at odds with the subversive impropriety of the act. Whilst signifying being swallowed up by the domestic space, the performance also enacts a form of revenge, disrupting the quiet domination of homeliness. 

Helena Walsh, live enactment of Áine Phillips’ Buttered up in the Couch, Friday 6 March 2020, MART Gallery; photograph by Ewa Pypno, courtesy of the artists and MART Gallery

Indeed, this is a central axis that the exhibition hinges upon, and this live performance interplays with the screening of Buttered Up in the backspace of the gallery, Phillips’s original performance to camera, made in collaboration with filmmaker Vivienne Dick. A woman enters the domestic underbelly of the sink and couch, as if consumed by her own desires and fantasies of the self in the home. We get a sense of an identity subsumed, that is subverted through reappropriation, sexualisation and the absurd.  

Phillips’s commitment to enacting feminist methodologies is evident in her collaborative approach, which disrupts the persistent monolith of the solo exhibition. As well as radical acts of collaboration, the exhibition elegantly negotiates the problematics of transliterating live practice into static exhibition. Moving through a number of media, she mobilises the language of each to speak about embodied practice from different positions. Like many exhibitions, it is now in its own quarantine due to coronavirus. Indeed, in this context, the artist’s vision of the domestic comes sharply into view, as the spaces of home are reframed globally as providing both sanctuary and entrapment.

Collectively the works of Phillips and her collaborators evoke deeply rooted feminist thinking, critique and practice, from the early writings of Beauvoir to Chadwick’s Living Kitchen. The exhibition reminds us that despite critique, women’s oppression through the domestic continually finds new forms. This set of works strikes at the heart of embodied memories and affective schemas of the domestic. The show draws attention to the pleasures and pains of being ‘buttered up’, seductively coerced and performed by the mythic materiality of the labour-filled domestic spaces that we inhabit in the everyday. 

Katherine Nolan is an artist, lecturer and curator based in Dublin. 
katherinenolan.net
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Feature Image: Helena Walsh, live enactment of Áine Phillips’ Buttered up in the Couch, Friday 6 March 2020, MART Gallery; photograph by Ewa Pypno, courtesy of the artists and MART Gallery.