Landscapes of our Lives

An insight to the artwork Symbiosis by artist Rebecca D. Harris and how it represents the enormous microbial communities of our bodies.

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Welcome to your invisible world, for every single cell that is you, they are outnumbered 10:1. You are host to around 1,000,000,000,000,000 microbes, a community of microorganisms which are a vital cycle of life and this microbial community which colonises your body make you an ecosystem. In 2015 I was commissioned by the Eden Project (supported by the Wellcome Trust), Cornwall, to create an artwork to convey this story.

You are host to around 1,000,000,000,000,000 microbes

When we normally think of microbes we think of those bad for our health, never more so than within our current climate of Coronavirus. However, in the main microbes are essential for good health. In Symbiosis I created a hand and machine embroidered artwork which is bright and tactile, and so, enables the viewer to engage with the positive aspects of our microbial community. Our bodies are not blemished by the microbes, but like what I am doing with the embroidery, they are embellishments, a way to view the positive side of the microbes we share our existence with, and more so, owe our existence to.

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Symbiosis, 2015 by Rebecca D. Harris

The artwork took at least six months to complete, starting digitally with creating the topographical style map of the body and finishing with thousands upon thousands of hand embroidered French knots. The different colours represent the major groups of microbes present on the skin, and give a sense of the diversity, proportions and distributions of those communities. As part of the commission, I worked with microbiologists Professor Michael Wilson from University College London (UCL) who was also lead scientific advisor for the permanent exhibition. It was a fascinating experience to merge our two worlds, think together on this project, and to see what outcome would develop from this engagement. Part of which featured as a BBC World Service documentary, that did not air in the UK, but a clip and article can be read at the BBC website.

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Data from Professor Wilson

Professor Wilson presented myself with a large range of information and data on the differing groups of microbes. It was a huge challenge to resolve how to best handle this range of information for which I had no grasp of myself. With all my embroidery threads before me, I clustered them and simply assigned them to the major groups of microbes.

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Planning material for Symbiosis by Rebecca D Harris

It is not necessary to have ‘a key’ with the work. This was just my starting point to ensure I could give a sense of the diverse colonies of microbes and where they like to congregate the most or, as specific to my piece, where they are not congregating at all.

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Detail shot of Symbiosis by Rebecca D. Harris

The specific topic I covered for the exhibition was regarding how when in the womb we are microbe free, 100% human, awaiting our seeding of microbes when we enter the microbial world. To convey this, the In Utero part of the figure contrasts with its mother’s vibrant and multitude of hand embroidered French knots. During pregnancy, we have everything we need for survival from our placenta. It is through birth we acquire the first stage of crucial development of human health, microbes.

when in the womb we are microbe free, 100% human

There is a ‘small window’ of opportunity in early life for future mental health, immune health and gut health all from this microbial life. This is not to say that opportunity is our only opportunity. For my hand embroidered artwork Rhizome (below), produced for UCL Neuroscience Society’s SANE mental health charity auction, I was inspired by how gardening is said to alleviate depression. This is not only due to food production satisfaction, sunshine and the exercise — but also the microbes Mycobacterium vaccae found in the soil; absorbed by the gardener, which is said to then stimulate serotonin production within the brain. It fascinates me just how much of a symbiotic relationship our bodies have with the natural world, that there is a reward system for our interaction in tending to the land.

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Rhizome, 2015 by Rebecca D. Harris

Which brings me back to feeling a stronger link about how our bodies are like a ecosystem. Microbes forge the link between us and the natural world, ensuring good health, together forming the landscape of our lives. The painstaking process of months and months of hand stitching those tiny colourful dots to convey this, was time well spent. I enjoyed every moment of exploring this topic and especially for this piece of embroidery to continue its story where it can still be viewed (ironically, this particular exhibition is currently closed due to the pandemic) at the most fitting location, Eden Project.

Rebecca D. Harris who are your artist influences? textiles, affect & artists

Who are your influences?

In the lead up to Art Week Exeter (AWE) the AWE group have asked all participating artists to take part in a survey.  For the 60 days leading up to the event, sixty artists’ responses will feature on their blog and my contribution started it all a couple of weeks ago.  There are seven questions in particular I wanted to expand on here in the lead up to the exhibition I am doing as part of the city wide event in May.  Last week I shared the second, the second I expand here ‘Who are your influences?’, below is my response included on AWE’s post.

The audience, what they feedback about the work, in terms of stories they want to share, how they react/affected by seeing the work. In terms of other artists it definitely has to be Louise Bourgeois for her use of textiles and her personal experiences in her work, how touching her pieces are. You do not need to know anything of the artist to be affected by her art, they talk to the viewer of something of themselves. There are many other artist I draw from too for influence: Eva Hesse, Tracey Emin, Mona Hatoum, Doris Salcedo and Rachel Whiteread.

 

Today’s blog post I shall expand on four of those artists – Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Tracey Emin and Mona Hatoum.

The audience

In last week’s post in which I expanded on how memories and experiences play a role in my art making I mention textiles and how the audience impact on how and why I make the work I do.  Please check out that post for more information on how the audience informs my work.

 

Louise Bourgeois (1911 – 2010)

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Louise Bourgeois ‘Woven Child’ 2002

This one is probably a bit of an obvious influence.  If you know her work and of mine you would make the connection that this artist is a huge influence.  Bourgeois draws from the feminine, domestic, craft and the autobiographical, all strands I too like a tug at.  Touching on memory in last week’s AWE questions post, Bourgeois’s practice has much more of an emotional intensity and is a form of catharsis of dealing with the past.  Her childhood informs the narratives of her works and the techniques employed.  Much like what I wish to achieve, although the work starts with the autobiographical it become autonomous.  As viewers we can only interpret what we see through our own bodies and lenses of our own experiences and who we are.

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Rebecca D. Harris ‘Deep Seated Anxiety’ 2012

The act of sewing is emotional repair.

Louise Bourgeois

 

Much of Bourgeois’s influences and themes within her work links back to her childhood, of a time of trauma with her troubled relationships with carers and parents.  The artist came from a family of tapestry restorers in France.  This act of taking a needle to restore easily explains a huge influence on her later techniques and the desire to use a needle to repair her emotional past.  This differs to my own past where the techniques I adopt are not brought to me by a nostalgic or traumatised past, but just ‘stuff’ I taught myself when younger.

The artist was a hoarder and surrounded by a huge collection of kept clothing and cloths she would reconstruct into artworks.  Holding significance then, these newly formed objects stem from personal intimate beginnings.  Unlike myself, my choice of materials come from chance findings at car boots, charity shops, hosiery aisle at the supermarket and any decent haberdashery.

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Louise Bourgeois ‘Untitled’ 2002

‘I always had the fear of being separated and abandoned. The sewing is my attempt to keep things together and make things whole’

Louise Bourgeois

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Rebecca D. Harris ‘Untitled: stop tap’ 2012

A further influence the artist has on myself is her surrealism and the use of the body.  Often adding domestic found objects within the constructed textiles works to add a tension of materials and meaning.  These ideas really appeal and play with the idea of what the body is and what it does.

 

Eva Hesse (1936 – 1970)

Despite living a short life Eva Hesse has a huge impact on the modern art world.  Riding off the back of abstract expressionism and firmly setting her ground in minimalism the artist established herself as the queen of materiality.  With lightness of touch and terse construction of materials, the artworks are not without their bold and strong statements.  Utilising everyday and industrial materials, that sort of play on masculine and feminine notions is a huge influence of mine.

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Eva Hesse ‘no title’ 1970

With such simple additions of materials she could create, like some sort of alchemist, this gold, this art of wonder.  Before you the simple constructions convey organic, bodily suggestions, the sexual and psychological states.  With a major retrospective at Tate Modern 15 years ago it was said at the time the huge ripples of impact the artist would have on future female artists.  Unfortunately, for myself, this was not the case.  At this time, I had given up my art studies after divorcing my husband and went to the giddy heights of being a shop assistant to support myself and my daughters.  It did however place the artist on my radar in later years when I returned to complete my art studies a few years ago.

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Rebecca D. Harris ‘Untitled: house skin’ 2012

I spent a great deal of my first year on my masters degree playing with latex.  It was a very difficult material to work with but gave a perfect skin like rendering upon the surface of cloth.  Above is the indexical trace from the side of my house.  This piece is no longer ‘alive’, destroyed, after installation, it was folded away and I was never able to recover the sticky smelly mess.  Hesse’s work, due to its, significance and importance, is well preserved and latex is very problematic in preservation.  It raises interesting questions on permanence and physical lifespans of artworks, not something I will get into any detail here now.

 

Art doesn’t last.  Life doesn’t last.  It doesn’t matter.

 

Eva Hesse

 

Tracey Emin

Poor old Tracey is the wheeled out artist when a non arty type gets into a conversation with me about modern art.  Often riled by her famous non Turner Prize winning piece the unmade bed.  It is not those works which attracts me to the artist.  The influence I greatly draw from her is her tender and gestural drawings, especially the ones converted into embroideries.  Just stunning.

 

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Tracey Emin ‘Pavement Sitting’ 2009
Rebecca Harris life drawing embroidery
Rebecca D. Harris ‘Untitled (life drawing embroidery)’ 2016

Mona Hatoum

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Mona Hatoum ‘Grater Divide’ 2002

Hatoum’s work appeals for it affect and the assimilation of everyday objects and changing their status.   Through our understandings of the objects she recreates as artworks, we get a sense of how our bodies would interact with the works on show without in anyway having to directly touch the work.  It is what we bring to the work, what we already know of the things of the world around us.  Often dismissing what she refers to as ‘journalistic’ readings of her work, like with Bourgeois we have a tendency to delve into the history of the artist to understand the artworks presented.  Hatoum rejects this and seeks immediate autonomy.  It leaves you the viewer to form your own relationship with the artworks being served.

 

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Mona Hatoum ‘Rubber Mat’ 1996

The artist states that the embodiment of artworks is within the physical realm and our bodies are an axis for perception to be experienced both sensually and intellectually.  Hatoum asserts the body as highly integral to her work. Coming from the Middle East, Hatoum notes that the Arabs are much more attuned to their bodies, unlike the West who are ‘very caught up in their heads, like disembodied intellects’ *

I have always been dissatisfied with work that just appeals to your intellect and does not actually involve you in a physical way. For me, the embodiment of an artwork is within the physical realm; the body is the axis of our perceptions, so how can art afford not to take that as a starting point?

Mona Hatoum

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Rebecca D. Harris ‘Untitled: tumble dryer hose’ 2012

 

Who are your influences?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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