Critique | Emma Wolf-Haugh ‘Domestic Optimism’

Project Arts Centre, 2 September – 30 October 2021

Emma Wolf-Haugh, ‘Domestic Optimism’, installation view, Project Arts Centre; photograph by Louis Haugh, courtesy the artist and Project Arts Centre. Emma Wolf-Haugh, ‘Domestic Optimism’, installation view, Project Arts Centre; photograph by Louis Haugh, courtesy the artist and Project Arts Centre.

Emma Wolf-Haugh peels open a multi-layered examination of modernism through the dark prism of a short encounter between the Irish furniture designer Eileen Gray and Le Corbusier, the celebrated Swiss-French pioneer of modernist architecture. Wolf-Haugh, a queer woman and artist reflects on Gray’s life, work, and lesbian lifestyle in early-twentieth-century Paris in parallel with examining Le Corbusier’s predatory and contradictory persona and his tangential legacy that influenced the 1960s social housing development of high-rise Ballymun. Comprising video, hanging screens, cardboard cut-outs, billboards, badges, collages, zines and cushions positioned around the gallery, the exhibition succeeds in reconciling the huge volume of content and material, galvanised through Wolf-Haugh’s lateral instinct for making things, exceptional writing, a consummate performance skill, dead pan humour and abundant pathos. 

Various narratives unfold in different object/image/video/text manifestations, the central one being the video piece, Domestic Modernism, Act One: Modernism – A Lesbian Love Story which is made up of three individually titled segments, filmed in what looks like a set for your typical Saturday night TV entertainment with a glittering tinsel curtain and Soft Modula hanging screens for added effect (made in the mode of Gray’s signature form for design interiors). Front and centre is a stand-up microphone, behind which the artist appears, comically wearing a military-style denim jumpsuit, corps hat and aviator sunglasses while standing, jumping, dancing, miming, and ‘signing’ along with the voice-over narration. 

The videos are edited to cut back and forth between wide and medium views of Wolf-Haugh performing at the microphone and close-up shots of a table placed in the set with the backdrop visible. The table is populated by hand-sized upright cardboard cut outs, featuring an array of left-bank lesbians from 1920s Paris and items of Gray’s furniture designs. For a moment, the intense close-up predicts an animated stop motion sequence, but instead the artist opts to manually reach into the frame to move the cut-outs in quick time to match the narrative. 

The first segment, Campaign Chair, sketches Gray’s privileged background that allowed her furniture to fit neatly into the established imperialism of her time. The camera pauses on one of Gray’s signature chair designs (cut-out) while a female narrator’s tannoyed voice didactically instructs: “Do take a seat and question this chair’s connection to imperialist obsession with domination…”. This is followed by a male narrator, speaking with unambiguous authority in a polished British accent: “Campaign Furniture, Educational Presentation, by the Lesbian Herstory Projects…”. Their voices are augmented by electronic vocal effects, complimented by a pleasant electronica, in the style of the Tomorrow’s World soundtrack. The segment evolves into a pulsating piece of spoken word poetry, using repeating parallel structure, rhythm and intonation to excellent effect. The tempo surges towards a crescendo of reverberation as the male voice repeats in finale, “Modernism and Colonialism”, over and over and over.

In the second segment, E1027, Wolf-Haugh outlandishly explains their earnest assertion of Le Corbusier’s ultimately unreconciled desire to be a lesbian, theorising that it led to his deliberate vandalisation of Gray’s ‘lesbian house’. Wolf-Haugh backs up this thesis by pointing to the hypocrisy between this act and his published manifestos about ‘hygiene’ in architecture. Despite being hysterically funny and potentially libellous, the artist’s writing is taut and measured. A critique of Le Corbusier and his ‘genius’ is delivered in a dead-pan and faintly scandalised, working-class Dublin accent, accompanied by an improvised ‘signing’ of key words in the script: ‘Lesbian’ – a flurry of hands waving inward towards the lower torso; ‘Genius’ – the right hand to the head that launches upwards with the fingers splayed out like a firework. Wolf-Haugh irreverently quotes ‘Corbu’ directly, impersonating him in a deep seedy voice with the same Dublin accent: “wimmin lovin wimmin, dats what appeels to me…”.  

The third segment, Gertrude Stein’s Portrait Chair, is a surreal and bizarre description of a 1920s lesbian salon in Paris, where the guest’s personal lives (named actual literary and arts figures) are indiscreetly historicised by the narrator (in a serious historian voice). They recount how they all, one by one, become entangled in the tapestry of the said chair, causing them to transform into a single heaving tangled blob. 

Wolf-Haugh’s evident performance skill and comic ability is kept in check by the tragedy that underpins the writing, mirrored by the everyday compensatory strategies women employ to prevail in a society rife with misogynism. The overriding sense of being serious but not taking itself too seriously harks back to 1980s political action in art, from the Guerrilla Girls to Keith Haring. With sharp concepts and biting humour, Domestic Optimism, Act One, Modernism – A Lesbian Love Story is a powerful and significant addition to the canon of Irish contemporary art and has been acquired by both the Arts Council of Ireland and the Irish Museum of Modern Art. 

Carissa Farrell is a writer and curator based in Dublin.