A fun, brutal show for the art made of – and around – hair

Sometimes the most ordinary things have the richest meaning. Artists have long been interested in human hair – the most primal extension of our bodies, both revered and reviled – and a new exhibition at Heide Museum, Hair Pieces, brings together 38 artists from eight countries whose medium is hair and as their central theme, exploring its specificity and power through sculpture, photography, conceptual art and performance. It is strange. It’s even a little creepy. It is also very exciting.

Curator Melissa Keys had the idea for the show ten years ago – she had friends who “ran a commercial gallery housed in an old hair studio” – and ideally she would like to schedule more hair-related exhibitions.

“It’s a huge thing,” she says as we walk around the space. “So many artists work with this material, so there is an opportunity for several shows. I wanted this one to be open and suggestive, rather than exhaustive.”

Although Pieces of Hair may seem like a strange thing at first, a strange cabinet of oddities, it quickly becomes clear that hair has a lot to say about human history, race and gender. Hairstyles, a photo series by JD Okhai Ojeikere that shows the intricate and elaborate hair of Nigerian women, depicts the triumphant years after the country gained its independence from the British Empire. Large sculptural hairstyles are refracted through colonial history and serve as a strong symbol of gentrification and pride.

Johannesburg-based artist Kemang Wa Lehulere’s 2012 video installation Pencil Test 2 questions racial taxonomy and classification, in a video loop of the artist sliding pencils through his seemingly light-hearted hair. its context. In South Africa in 1950, authorities used “the pencil test” to enforce racial hierarchy – if a pencil inserted into a person’s hair fell out easily they were classified as white, but if it remained in place they were categorized as “black”. , “Indian” or “coloured” and denied basic human rights.

Gender and feminism feature strongly in much of the artwork, perhaps content that is contested and attributed to that is inevitable in a poem. Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens has created a collection of cod and aluminum panties called Warrior Woman, one with a mass of human hair flowing from the crotch. They reinforce gender expectations to a great extent. Julie Rrap’s The Horse’s Tale, from her 1999 series Porous Bodies, cleverly conveys Lee Miller. And Louise Weaver and Peter Ellis wrap Kim Novak’s hairstyle from Hitchcock’s Vertigo into a powerful sculptural set called Leonardo’s Dream. Since the film’s obsessive fetishisation of hair, a receptacle of male control and desire, it is heavily loaded.

There is a fascinating tension in many works between hair as an expression of individuality and a kind of discordant anonymity. Rosslynd Piggott’s Unknown Woman – From China to Brixton and Elsewhere is a brooch made from a strand of a woman’s hair that the artist bought in London’s Brixton Market. Jim Dine’s Braid is a detailed drawing of a myth cut from the skull of an unknown woman. Charlie Sofo and Debris Facility have created a stunningly colorful collection of found and discarded combs, some with strands of hair still attached, in a macabre yet poignant ode to self-care.

The Surrealists, and the symbolists before them, understood and embraced the eerie, uncanny quality of using human hair. Works by Man Ray and Dorothea Tanning depicted hair as unruly and willful, almost sentient. Hair Pieces flows into this surrealist vein, with many artists deliberately leaning into chaos: Hypnagogia, the opening work of the show by Melbourne artist Christina May Carey, shows braiding of hair mixed with pieces the tails of the rats, connected by black cables like strands of hair, as a large photograph of the artist’s eye looks over the scene. It draws from Carey’s own struggles with sleep paralysis, and clearly shows the “rough eye” of André Breton, the dissident pupil who draws surrealists from Dali to Magritte.

Perth-based artist Tarryn Gill’s Guardian depicts a small figure covered in thick layers of blond hair from which emerges a set of teeth, at once alluring and repulsive. This piece has a kind of inverted twin in John Meade’s Self-portrait as Mary Magdalene; thick black hair covers very little, his hands and feet molded from the artist’s own material in a material called Reducit, which stretches as it dries. Both bring to mind Cousin It.

Hair Pieces goes into some dark territory: Wes Placek’s Hair of Murdered Women, one of a series of photographs taken in Auschwitz in 1975, and Edith Dekyndt’s Native Shadow, which shows a flag of human hair marking the slave ships in Martinique, especially brutal.

But it’s also fun. Taiwanese artist Shih Yung-Chun’s Braid Cabinet is a vintage outfit filled with severed animal and human heads, thick woolly hair cascading down the back as they stare unflinchingly out at the viewer. And Lou Hubbard’s absurdly funny art books obsessively cut out and pasted the coins of Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Monica Lewinsky.

There are also works by major artists such as Patricia Piccinini and Marina Abramovic, but it is the strange relationship between works in Hair Pieces that is most successful. It’s a show that unravels and untangles our most basic and unconscious memories of hair – its psychological, mythic and even spiritual aspects. It will make you think twice before booking that next haircut.

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