The installation and performance ‘The Roach,’ was the first piece produced as part of The Unfamiliar, and which sparked the photographic series Roaches and Flowers: War in the Home (2007).
FULL WRITE UP BELOW, which I initially wrote and published in Small Axe in 2008, with thanks to Christopher Cozier.
In Late 2007 Jaime Lee Loy began working with the domestic space as a site of war, intimately exploring the psychological crisis that occurs, when something familiar becomes suddenly unfamiliar.
This exploration of a psychological crisis is in fact a visual narrative of conquest, where gender politics and violence against women become visible through the vocabulary, iconography, and mechanisms of the home interior. Domestic items such as cutlery and plates, intermingled with flowers and nails, form roaches and other unseemly insect-like forms. These roaches, sometimes camouflaged or constructed with flowers, represent invasion, the unwelcomed, the uncomfortable, the unfamiliar, found in a space associated with familiarity and comfort.
My installation and performance ‘The Roach,’ was the first of this body of work. Part of ‘Roaches and Flowers: War in the home’, I used real flowers that were delivered to my studio at The Vermont Studio Centre. Struggling with feelings of fear, repulsion, and anxiety, I created a large insect from the petals that I pinned painstakingly with silk pins to the wall. The insect was then photographed in different stages of decay. Landscapes of pins and petals were also made from this installation.
Attached to the flowers was a paper note from the flower shop stating: How to care for your arrangement, which really struck me. The flowers themselves were an intrusion, a bribe that many times before had been rejected and which had followed me outside the confines of Trinidad. These beautiful arrangements evoked an intense sense of terror bridging on paranoia, as memory and history refused to let me enjoy their presented offerings of peace. It was like receiving a bouquet of roaches. It was then I began to realize that unfamiliarity in a familiar space or through familiar means is like surviving a war. Nostalgia and new-found freedom cannot resolve the discomfort that remains.
While ‘The Roach’ dried on y studio wall I began to navigate a visual landscape within the illustrated physicality of a typical house structure. Here the house began to come alive to speak secrets of abuse, the battle for space and territory, the negotiations of survival, and the politics of the personal. Here the female subject and the female artist herself finds agency and defense-tactics through the very personification of domestic items as insects. Spoons and forks, plates and flowers – they become roaches, they become weapons. These images, these created spaces generate an unfamiliar feel in a familiar space, they are simultaneously ugly as they are beautiful.
This simultaneous feeling of attraction and repulsion is the paradox I have chosen to investigate. The domestic space is an intimate one, and the parallel narrative to power relations and control systems is emotional entanglement and the shifting of personal personas and the loosening of constructed identities. Oftentimes one does not really ever fully conquer, or become fully conquered, or fully gravitate in the singular realm of either the familiar or the unfamiliar. Many times these polar opposites co-exist. It is the struggle in the co-existence and the problematics of negotiating territory and space in this dynamic that I intend to engage the most.
‘The Race ‘ – From Roaches and Flowers: War in the Home
‘Conversation Piece’ was an installation which was also a part of “Roaches and Flowers: War in the Home.’ It was constructed from a second-hand book found in a garage sale in Vermont. ‘Savage Conquest’ was one of those stereotypical novels housewives supposedly read, filling their heads with fantasy and daydream. The plot involved a wealthy European female who visited an untouched island to pursue a torrid love affair with an indigenous male. Her furious fiancé follows her to wage war on the islanders. In ‘Conversation piece’ this type of book that deceptively creates fantasies that promote myths about relationships and desire, is being interrogated alongside the domestic space- another facilitator of myth and idealism.
Detail of ‘Conversation Piece ‘ – From Roaches and Flowers: War in the Home
Stripping the book sentence by sentence, I pasted excerpts that referred to a physical war to create a psychological one. Key sentences were used to totally cover the plate, which was then installed in my studio on a table which was set with cutlery, wine glasses, and a serving tray of clams. These clams were collected from dinner the night before at the studio centre and placed upright and open, alluding to moths and Venus fly traps. In the centre of the clams were rusty nails, slim phallic symbols inserted in the Yonic clam. These hard-shelled creatures which are fleshy in the interior now lie forced open with threatening protrusions.
‘A Meal of Clams’ (detail from Conversation Piece)– From Roaches and Flowers: War in the Home
The domestic space, a place associated with comfort and notions of belonging, continues to become more alienating and complex. There is an intense emotive response to such a transition of the physical and psychological realm that shifts incessantly from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This emotive response exists in the ephemeral and in the metaphysical. The construction of creatures that simultaneously mimic the appearances of flowers and roaches offer new codes, new language, new translation to the realities within which they exist.
These creatures are found in domestic spaces at a point of transition, at a point of collapse and decay. They scurry through the rubble strategically, transforming from prey to predator, blurring the distinction. The landscape changes to an ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ Kafkaesque world, where these creatures interact with each other, with themselves, and with no one.
‘Talk to me’ – Roaches and Flowers: War in the Home