Paula Chambers:
Shoplifting in Woolworths and Other Acts of Material Disobedience

Paula Chambers, 'Domestic Front' (2018), found furniture, paper, plywood. © the artist.

Paula Chambers’ Shoplifting in Woolworths and Other Acts of Material Disobedience sprawls across the second floor of The Civic, Barnsley; three rooms of sculptural works made from objects of the home. These, the press release asserts, are ‘the stuff of femininity… yet they unsettle our expectations of the homeliness of home, for it would appear that the women and girls implied by the sculpture and installation exhibited have rebelled, they have become domestic pirates’.

The atmosphere of the installation itself feels less like one of happy rebellion or glib re-enactments of ‘piracy’, and more reminiscent of sweat-prickled scenes of domestic confrontation. Chambers presents the home as a tense landscape of combative objects, each with their own associative weight. With wry humour, the artist invites the viewer to see themselves as one of many actors among the objects in the show – to recognise not just the objects’ potential for agency, but also their autonomy by entering into a ‘direct, lived embodied relationship’ with them.

Knife

The exhibition opens with ‘Kitchen Shanks’ (2017), in which sixty-three domestic implements hang from a metal trellis. They have been repurposed to resemble the makeshift blades commonly associated with prison environments; soft fabrics wrapped around one end ensure protection and comfort for the bearer. The domestic and rather middle class nature of the assorted utensils – cheese knives, corkscrews, cake forks, mysterious small prongs and dainty spears for pickles and delicacies – are a reminder that there are many ways of being held prisoner, and that everyday scenarios and objects teem with potential for sudden violence.

In an interview with the artist, Chambers explained that, ‘I am interested in the domestic space as a site for feminist resistance… in women’s relationship to the material culture of domesticity, and how it informs their way of being’. This is palpable within a show concerned from beginning to end with guns, knives, petrol cans and barricades. Positioned in relation to the home’s claustrophobic corners and tenuous escape routes, these are the objects of domiciliary confrontation and refusal. They contain, in the artist’s words, ‘the concealed residue of performativity and agency’.

Paula Chambers, ‘Kitchen Shanks’ (2017), kitchen utensils, women’s tights, hairbands, security grill. © the artist.

Rope

In ‘Feminist Escape Route’ (2017) a thick bell rope hangs from ceiling to floor, twisted from the fibres of deconstructed net curtains. Its lower half disappears into a basket on the floor. The rope has direction, seeming to urge transit from floor to sky: Jacob’s ladder for a domestic emergency. Where ‘Kitchen Shanks suggested fight, ‘Feminist Escape Route proposes flight. Both works evoke the feeling of being cornered in a home setting.

While ‘Feminist Escape Route’ draws on the symbolism of the makeshift cord as a means for escape, rope’s other significance is its primary one: as a tool for binding, restraining, holding still. This physical restraint may be consensual – or not. Binding acts of the latter nature have associations with abduction, trapping, tying, keeping captive. They conjure visions of incarceration, fetters, shackles and handcuffs, witch hunts, assizes and state-sanctioned death. This kind of structural restraint is particularly antithetical to any notion of escape, and lies in uneasy tension with the work’s title.

Veil

In an adjoining room the net curtains that had formed the rope of ‘Feminist Escape Route are allowed to dangle in their commercially intended translucence in a work titled ‘You and Whose Army?’ (2019). The nets form a flickering veil, with all its associated inferences: astral projection and journeying ‘beyond the veil’, weddings, and again, death. On one side the forms of firearms are visible, carved from the recognisably interior patinas of formica, ply and veneer. The guns hang in uneasy suspension overhead, frowning at the chintzy, bucolic patterns woven into the curtains, of horses, dolphins, swans, and flowers.

Death runs like a cord throughout the history of feminist movements, which are often perceived to inhabit conditions of almost perpetual rebirth. The strongest binding threads are the taxonomies of capitalism, under which all things are coded and indexed, even and especially those movements that would resist it. This includes even radical feminism, which inevitably trickles into the mainstream in commodified, diluted forms. Here the materiality of the veil and the rope are the same, with death perhaps positioned as the ultimate escape route, a last-ditch act of refusal, an indisputable interruption. I am reminded of the poet Anne Boyer, who characterised death as ‘a partner to refusal […] often not the best option, but an option nonetheless’.[1] The life and death of emancipatory movements offer incendiary opportunities for renewal.

Paula Chambers, ‘You and whose Army?’ (2019), net curtains suspended from curtain wire. © the artist.

Barricade

Furniture is piled into a large barricade, which slices the next room in two. As an object made of many other objects, the barricade, titled ‘Domestic Front’ (2018), has a kind of visual magnetism. It is the room’s centre of gravity. Improvised barriers built across thoroughfares, barricades tend to be unofficial and citizen-made, and concerned therefore with non-sanctioned borders. They embody notions of ingress and egress outside of that deemed allowable by authorities and the state. This is one form of material disobedience. Where in other works the forms of individual weapons imply personal resistance, the barricade connotes collective resistance.

Much of the furniture that makes up the barricade is from the 1960s and 70s, and the effect is rather kitsch. Rather than a mere aesthetic decision, or a blunt reference to the early feminist theory informing much of the work, this is a personal decision informed by the artist’s own experience: ‘Growing up during the 1960s/70s, this furniture is immediately recognisable and holds weight – not simply for its recognisably aspirational working-class aesthetic, but as a tangible reminder of those early, strident waves of feminism that held so much promise’.

Feminism’s oft-invoked ‘waves’ are both intrinsic and antithetical to understanding the history and potential of women’s liberation movements. The implication of repetition, of surging, receding and revisiting, defies the linear logic of hegemonic notions of time. This is more closely aligned with what Julia Kristeva called ‘women’s time’, which she characterised as suspended between the cyclical and repetitive (present in the work of caring and maintaining, long-coded as ‘feminine’) and monumental time (relating to eternity, to resurrection, and the cult of maternity in religion).[2] That said, there has been a pushback against the interpretation of feminism’s histories in waves, particularly against what Sam McBean has described as ‘reading generational inheritance [as] the primary means through which feminism reproduces itself’.[3] To speak of a global movement in ‘waves’ presents a false hegemony, one that positions the concerns and temporal patterns of Western cultural feminism as the dominant marker for progression. The barricade itself has been made and re-made by Chambers multiple times, different in every iteration, responding to the new conditions that it must inhabit.

Paula Chambers, ‘Domestic Front’ (2018), found furniture, paper, plywood. © the artist.

Broom

Is there a moment more primed for disobedience than the witching hour? ‘Witchcraft for the 21st Century’ (2018) features the brooms of twelve of the artist’s friends, photographed at around midnight. The broom has long been deemed the tool of women and apprentices. As with many of the objects in Chambers’ exhibition, its ritual significance lies in its everyday function: the ability to sweep away the unwanted and the harmful. Time once again is bound up with the iconography of the broom. Folklore cautions against sweeping after sunset, for fear of sweeping away happiness.

Traditionally, a new broom must always be used to sweep something in the house before sweeping dirt out, mirroring the barricade’s preoccupation with ingress and egress, the bodily membrane’s with permeability. The Atlantic also infamously speculated another use for the broom’s handle – for applying hallucinogenic ‘flying ointments’ internally to the mucus membranes of the genitals.[4] To hallucinate is to dream and also to refuse – to choose to enter a different ontological structure than that prescribed as the norm. Alongside a cup of salt, a ledge under each photograph contains a plastic keyring enclosing a poisonous plant – a contemporary talisman. The altar-like arrangements exude the contemplative weight of the votive: devotional, ritualistic, disruptive.

It’s interesting to consider the potential for supernatural/spiritual forms of refusal in a moment when mysticism and the occult are seeing a resurgence, and accordingly becoming somewhat subsumed and defanged by mainstream capitalist culture. As Silvia Federici notes: ‘The revival of magical beliefs is possible today because it no longer represents a social threat […] Astrology too can be allowed to return, with the certainty that even the most devoted consumer of astral charts will automatically consult the watch before going to work’.[5]

Figure

Figures of women holding guns adorn the barricade, perched on and against it. They are cut-outs, paper pasted onto wood – ‘like dolls’, says the artist, though they remind me more of toy soldiers. The aesthetic is decidedly vintage, with figures chosen for their physical presentation (head-to-toe) and their codification as female. This results in freedom fighters, backyard shooters and members of the military being uncomfortably mixed together, any nuances around their wider social positioning flattened to serve the presentation of a gendered shooter.

Similarly treated figures appear in ‘Rupture(2018). In this case children are suspended at uncanny angles above twitching furniture. Chambers is concerned with notions of historical hauntology – a philosophical concern with the return of elements of the past, and with the life and death of movements – citing the work of Avery Gordon as an influence[6]. The repetition and reappearance of figures, aesthetic elements, and social conditions from the past disrupts socially constructed notions of linear time and progress, translates in the work as visual representations of poltergeist phenomena. The artist has stated that:

this led me to further investigate the agency of objects, both as inherent in materiality itself, and as an index of the maker/performer. As sculpture, domestic objects perform an uncanny dialogue that can be seen to position the disruption of domesticity as aligned to the ‘feminine’ supernatural. Feminism too is haunted by its uncanny relationship to house and home; the unresolved past returning as artwork appropriating the language of domestic dissent.[7]

Chair

In another instance of Chambers’ sardonic conflation of women with objects, the video work ‘Folding Chair for the Feminist Resistance’ (2018) begins: ‘Folding chairs, like women, are mindful of the space they take up’. The artist’s narration is made uncomfortably lisping by sibilant interference through the microphone – another intervention by a rebellious object. It continues:

‘The chairs from the 1960s and 70s […] were known to snap shut suddenly, the spring mechanism ensuring considerable pain and often resulting in trapped fingers and bar shaped bruises on backs of thighs and backs of heads. One could get stuck in a folded folding chair’.

The metal folding chair is deemed resistant because it snaps back; it injures, it bruises, it performs its function differently than expected. ‘Yet the aggressive tendency of the folding chair has not dulled its appeal’, the narration continues, ‘in fact the opposite, it almost seems a shame that safety catches have been introduced’. Chambers wryly laments an object whose power has been undermined, perhaps like the mainstream neoliberal appropriation of feminism in its so-called fourth wave. And yet previous iterations of the movement are often accused of being elitist, and particularly of contributing to the marginalisation of groups such as women of colour, and poor, working class and trans women within the movement, through an unrelenting focus on the concerns of white, middle class, cisgendered women. This homogenising tendency is present in the titular reference to the act of shoplifting: the press release calls it ‘girlish waywardness’ and yet this does not fully engage with the racialised assumptions around ‘innocence’ that affect different groups of women unequally.

Chambers asserts that ‘Like feminism, the folding chair will continue to serve a purpose whilst we still need it. Supportive and ultimately portable, the folding chair comes with us as we head up the feminist resistance’. As feminism continues to reckon with its own still-unfolding histories, this resistance requires an expanded notion of the domestic and the feminine. While it is true that domesticity relates to the running of the home and to family relations, and that such concerns have long been coded as feminine, the word ‘domestic’ contains multitudes. It describes the state and the nation (as opposed to the ‘foreign’ or the international), as well as a menial form of labour, and those who perform it paid and unpaid. Informally, it is also a violent argument between a cohabiting couple. Any consideration of domesticity must reckon with class, labour, violence and the state, as well as gender.

Paula Chambers: Shoplifting in Woolworths and Other Acts of Material Disobedience is at the Barnsley Civic from the 25 January to the 7 March 2020.

Jay Drinkall is a writer and editor based in the UK.


[1] Anne Boyer, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018, p.11

[2] See Lisa Baraitser, Enduring Time, Bloomsbury Academic, 2017; and Julia Kristeva, ‘Women’s Time’, Signs, vol 7 issue 1, 1981, pp.13–35

[3] Sam McBean, Feminism’s Queer Temporalities, Routledge, p.7

[4] Megan Garber, ‘Why do Witches Ride Brooms?’, The Atlantic, 2013

[5] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, Autonomedia, 2014, e-book p. 502

[6] Specifically Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2008, University of Minnesota Press

[7] Paula Chambers, paulachambers.co.uk/about-and-cv

Published 25.02.2020 by Holly Grange in Reviews

2,294 words