By Rosina Godwin
Often viewed as a ‘nice old granny pastime’, knitting is entwined with women’s history – it can be homely and reassuring, or ironic and subversive. My knitted sculptures blur gender boundaries to explore the phallocentric construction of femininity (Rose, 2007). The pieces play with the nurturing associations of textiles to confront the traditional hierarchy of the arts – where painting and sculpture is considered high art, while female orientated disciplines such as knitting and embroidery are considered low art or… ‘craft’ (Parker, 1984).
Sigmund Freud believed that gender is formed in early childhood through the oedipal complex; with its conflict and resolution repressed within the unconscious mind. This vague impression results in the uncanny, when something once known is rediscovered and becomes unsettling, while something previously unknown seems strangely familiar (Royal, 2003). The uncanny is concerned with the strange and mysterious, and typically involves dolls, doppelgangers, automatons, déjà vu, ghosts and death.
According to Freud, as well as an individual unconscious, there is also a collective unconscious. Combining the homely with the uncomfortable, familial fabrics are sculpted into siphonophores (a creature composed of many separate organisms), representing the primordial horde of the collective unconscious. Triplet is made from upholstery fabrics and has a collection of spherical shaped objects hanging from its teats, while Herd takes inspiration from fungi life and features an amalgamation of mycelium roots spawning from a central point. These pieces are adaptable to any space and are often displayed as anthropomorphic creatures crawling across the walls and floor.
Carl Jung, a contemporary of Freud, believed the collective unconscious resulted in archetypes – a recurring image or thought found across cultures in art, religion or legends. The ‘Mother’ archetype can be nurturing in the form of mothers and grandmothers, or destructive in the case of witches and Medusa. The creature in the film Aliens (1986), present both sides of the ‘Mother’ archetype, simultaneously protective of her young and terrifying to all others.
Inspired by the minimalist creatures in the film Aliens (1986), Mutter III consists of multi-functional body parts, including an intestinal tube attached to a head formed by a mass of phallic-nipples. The piece fuses several of Freud’s oedipal development stages (oral, anal and phallic) into one piece, making it unclear if it is male or female, benign or malicious.
The ‘Trickster’ archetype is an alternative mother figure, which mocks authority and questions the social order, and despite being male is able to give birth and suckle young (Lee, 1995). The film Alien (1979) mocks the typical biological order, when a man is involuntarily impregnated, and subsequently gives birth through the chest (Screen Prism, accessed 23/5/2018).
The initially naive appearance of Cephalopod combines the saccharine colours of childhood, with the biomorphic forms of internal organs to hide a darker intent. Merging both genders, the creature has a comical phallic-like pointy-stinger on the head, and a more disturbing female-mouth-like opening with teeth on the underside, to play with oedipal castration fear.
In the same way as in the arts, there is also a hierarchy applied to internal organs. The heart and brain are valued more than the intestine and spleen – which, like knitting, are regarded as lower order and therefore inferior. TumTum is a disembodied digestive system, consisting of a mouth, gullet, stomach, intestines and anus. Intestines frequently appear in my work, due to their ability to evoke disgust, as they digest, liquidise and vaporise matter, which makes all humans equal (Miller, 1997). Intestines are snake like in appearance, and resemble one of the oldest ‘Trickster’ figures – the snake appearing in the biblical tale of Adam and Eve (Lee, 1995).
Disgust is a strong feeling of aversion and a fear of contamination through contact, ingestion or association (Miller, 1997). Holes and porous membranes are gateways between the inner and outer body (Phoca and Wright, 1999), which not only expel unclean matter and but also prevent the ingestion of prohibited objects. As a consequence, there are many complex taboos created around their functioning, as a way of maintaining the structure of society (Kristeva, 1982).
Mutter IV consists of a collection knitted tubes painted with wax, to create a rigid outer surface with a soft tactile interior. The work subverts the girly connotations of the colour pink, and features pubic hair to counteract the smooth, waxed bodies in the media, promoting a standardised beauty ideal (Phoca and Wright, 1999). The piece explores the desire, consumption and the manipulation of both genders, as the female body is used as a commodity by powerful capitalist agencies to sell products (Phoca and Wright, 1999). Certain types of female bodies are more prized than others – society tells women how to look, while telling men what to look at (Rose, 2007). The gaze is a psychoanalytical term used to describe how a woman is viewed passively from an unequal male prospective (Osborne, Sturgis, and Turner, 2006). Women may become complicit in their own suppression, by judging both their own beauty and that of others, within the prescribed societal framework (Scholz, 2010).
The choice of materials can also be used to challenge traditional stereotypes. While knitting is usually associated with garments, working with heavy jute twine on jumbo needles, removes the function and transforms the piece into sculpture. Applying plaster transforms a soft, flexible piece into a hard, rigid form, while wax is a visceral, malleable material, which can be pigmented and used to create uncannily life-like anatomical sculptures. Latex is a natural material, and like the body has a limited lifespan, as it decays in sunlight. The soft supple sensation of latex can elicit feelings of both pleasure and disgust – it can be applied to conventional knitting to create a rubbery, subversive feel. The pieces combine knitting, felting and embroidery, with sculptural materials, to juxtapose softness with firmness, or desire with repulsion.
To conclude, knitting has an interconnected bond with women’s domestic history, making it an ideal medium to explore a range of feminist issues. My artwork blurs gender boundaries by giving phallic properties to female body parts. Combining knitting with sculptural materials merges opposing qualities, such as softness with firmness or attraction with repulsion, as a way of confronting the stereotypical assumptions about textiles and femininity.
Kristeva, J. (1982): Powers of Horror. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lee, J. (1995): The History of Clowns for Beginners. London: Readers and Writers Ltd
Miller, W. (1997): The Anatomy of Disgust. London. Harvard University Press
Osborne, R., D. Sturgis, and N. Turner (2006): Art Theory for Beginners. London, Turnaround Publishers
Parker, R. (1984): The Subversive Stitch. London: The Women’s Press Ltd
Phoca, S., and R. Wright (1999), Introducing Post-feminism. Duxford: Icon Books
Rose, G. (2007) Visual Methodologies. London: Sage Publications
Royal, N. (2003) The Uncanny. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Scholz, S.J. (2010) Feminism – A Beginners Guide. Oxford: One World Publications
Rosina Godwin is an Artist and Sculptor whose work has been exhibited in London, Southampton, Oxford and Trebišov, Slovakia. She has organised several workshops – both in person and online – the most recent being Knitting the Uncanny at the Leyden Gallery in London in 2021.
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