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August 6, 2018 | by  | in Visual Arts | [ssba]

Death and Desire

What initially seemed to be a rather sensational title for an exhibition about hair proved to be entirely apt: the themes of Death and Desire interlace and tie various items from the Turnbull collections together like a neat braid.
Though hair is not usually included under the “human remains” label, the surprising amount of this bodily material found in the Turnbull collections lends a macabre quality to the historic items on show. This exhibition doesn’t just consist of portraits either—it includes actual locks of hair that belonged to now-deceased folk. Memento mori objects like the Victorian jewellery made of hair — worn to commemorate the dead — are only considered morbid in modern times. Like vanitas paintings that incorporated skulls into still lifes, these objects were once commonplace due to high mortality rates. Death was once so pervasive that carrying the remains of a loved one, whether in a daguerreotype compact (an object similar to a locket) or woven into earrings, was arguably an act of social obligation more than it was sentimental.
When its purpose was not to memorialise the dead, hair functioned as a substitute for subjects of desire. A particularly disturbing case in point is a diary of a settler that includes women’s hair, likely taken as a token of his sexual conquests. The diary dates to 1860-67, and it is suggested that the women were from Ruapuke, an island “where few Pākehā ever went”.
While we can only speculate over the motives for taking their hair — or whether the women consented to having their hair collected in this way — the curator makes a case for the correlation between this instance and colonial ethnographic practices. What this would reveal is not only the disturbing sexual motives of the settler, but the inherently fetishistic interests of more “official” ethnography.
Hair has always been a politicised site upon which intersections of racial, gendered, and class-based identities and oppressions have been enacted and embodied. Artist Sonya Clark makes the incisive point that “hair can measure hegemony within our culture”. It is for this reason that Katherine Mansfield rebelliously cut her locks short—you can see them here. Photographic portraits of wāhine Māori with long shining tresses are comparatively hung next to portraits of tightly coiffured Pākehā women. It is noted that the decision to let their hair down would have been the photographer’s: loose hair on indigenous women was regrettably stereotyped by Europeans to signal availability and lust, a trope that the photographer has played on here.
If you’re not turned away by a phobia of detached hair or an allergy to libraries, this exhibition is worth a visit for its contemporary works in particular. One of Justine Varga’s cameraless photographs, made with hair from the shower, complements Alison Maclean’s short film entitled Kitchen Sink (1989). Taking cues from B-grade thrillers and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s film Un Chien Andalou (1929), the film follows a woman torn between lust and horror when she accidentally grows a hairy spouse in the bath (not unlike an expandable water toy). Through a delightfully absurd narrative, this work encapsulates the opposing forces often at play in our relationships to hair.


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