This summer I had the great pleasure of showing my work at the Society for Domestic Museology. I was very taken with this gem of an "institution" from my first encounter at the opening of Joshua Kristal's show, where I found Heather and Joel to have created a uniquely rich environment for discussion and engagement with the work-- which continues beyond the night of the opening as they reflect upon what it's like to live with each installation. Here is an excerpt from Heather's write-up. The full text is here.
The meditative process of working with hair in this manner evokes the melancholy of its origins and the intimacy of working with the hair of a loved one. The finished product is an outward demonstration of that feeling. Spencer’s work, however, removes the personal connection: the work uses anonymously donated hair fashioned into a portrait of an anonymous woman. Mourning and sentimentality become abstract, as if in rebuke to our contemporary insistence on keeping death at a safe and sanitary remove.
Indeed, a lot of our conversation that evening was about rituals of mourning in contemporary American culture, how incoherent and discomfiting they can be. The Victorians may have had too heavy a hand in prescribing appropriate demonstrations of grief and mourning, current customs seem to lack any guidance at all. Outside of particular religious frameworks, there really isn't a normative understanding of what it means to grieve.
It has taken me a long time to write about this exhibition of Spencer's beautiful and compelling work. Although the opening was a celebratory occasion and an opportunity to talk openly about a subject fraught with fear and sadness, maybe I was avoiding the discomfort of confronting such unpleasant ideas. But death is simply unavoidable. Weeks after the opening, as I finally sat down to collect my thoughts, I learned that a friend who had been there that night had died unexpectedly, giving my perspective on this work a new and personal dimension.
I have found that living with these pieces has been a comforting meditation on the fleeting nature of time, and also on the importance of memory. To my own sensibility, the Victorian aesthetic of overwrought sentimentality, particularly in their hairwork, appears almost insincere, but its emphasis on memorializing a loved one is something universally relatable. Spencer's modern hairwork, minimal in its ornamentation and anonymous in both the materials and subjects, strips away this layer of the sentimental and asks us to really consider the universality of grief that lies underneath.