Becoming body

Notes on Thea Meinert’s exhibition ‘Polyesterday’
by Espen Johansen

I have been thinking about what would happen if you were able to unlearn how to use everyday items; how would one perceive a toothbrush or a mouse trap if they knew nothing of their purpose? I presume one would approach them merely as aesthetic objects, ignoring how a toothbrush is developed to fit in one’s hand or how the brush is proportional to the mouth. Rediscovering the usage for such items would happen through bodily experience and thinking through the material, not by intellectual analysis. Oblivious to the function of a brush, it is but a peculiar assemblage, like a surrealist artwork comparative to Meret Oppenheimer’s Object (or ‘Luncheon in Fur’) or Man Ray’s Gift. Plucking the hair of a boar to turn it into a teeth-cleaning device or using badger fur for shaving brushes is absurd. The animal is long dead but their remains still have agency, cleaning teeth and prepping beards for a shave. Is the toothbrush really so different from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? No, it is not.

The French anthropologist Bruno Latour calls for a new social theory to also include nonhumans, stating:

"To balance our accounts of society, we simply have to turn our exclusive attention away from humans and look also at nonhumans. Here they are, the hidden and despised social masses who make up our morality. They knock at the door of sociology, requesting a place in the accounts of society as stubbornly as the human masses did in the nineteenth century. What our ancestors, the founders of sociology, did a century ago to house the human masses in the fabric of social theory, we should do now to find a place in a new social theory for the nonhuman masses that beg us for understanding." (1)

The unlearning (and rediscovery) of mundane objects is a useful exercise approaching Thea Meinert’s work. Her sculptural installations are often comprised of different household items of little value; things we all keep but rarely notice because of their triviality. In her work, such items are often frequently held in place, displayed or residing in/on various support structures that mimic clothes racks or minimal display units. These structures are both a part of the artwork and a platform for the artwork to unfold itself. Everything seems to be in order, but nothing is what it seems. The trivialities we seldom pay attention to become very present in Meinert’s work. We notice them because they no longer serve us. Sponges or electric sockets cast in plaster, brushes and fleshy curtains… Trying to reveal and make sense of the system they follow is futile, and an attempt will instead reveal our own human desire for order and to be in control. Human evolution and development are largely successful thanks to our ability to make use of resources and tools for unintended purposes. After all, wearing another animal’s skin for environmental protection is as genius as it is bizarre.

Because of industrialization we no longer skin our own animals, and as centuries pass, such a task gets more and more estranged to us. Natural brush hair becomes unnatural through industrial processes. Through Meinert’s meticulous and intuitive practice, it looks like the artworks are partially restored to their natural state. In her work, the unkempt brush samples are closer to the animal than they are at passing for a domestic item, often accompanied by large fragments of fleshy latex, sometimes with sown-in brush hairs. In this mode of existence, the artworks appear to be in a process of both collapsing and strutting at the same time. This tension is eerie and evokes a sense of the uncanny.

The artworks are not anthropomorphic, but their fleshy substance and the hair found throughout her sculptural installations makes it easier to regard them as autonomous entities. But if Meinert’s artwork – and indeed all nonhuman objects - are separate entities, then what is their agency? The artworks reveal something to the observer through the material qualities they possess, the way they have been made, and through the tradition from whence they originate. Recurring references in Meinert’s work to the domestic sphere, to the body and to hair, as well as an affinity for textile and crafts typically carried out by women might encourage us to see her works in a feminist perspective.

It can be interesting to speculate on the agency of the nonhuman. Bruno Latour gives an amusing description of the moral superiority of a seatbelt over himself. He decides to be bad and drive without a seatbelt, but his rebellious attempt fails when he is eventually defeated by the incessant beeping from the seatbelt sensor. Using his own example, I propose that it is more constructive to blame the product designer rather than the nonhuman object, because there is a disturbingly large gender bias when it comes to stuff being made. Innovation is almost always developed from a male perspective. Even the seatbelt is designed for a man, and as a result, women are more prone to serious injuries in an accident. (2)(3) Though almost invisible, product design is both political and gendered. We may never understand the nonhuman objects’ plea, but Meinert’s practice both question, challenge and redefine their agency and the design behind them.

Her work does not end with the liberation of the object, and always expose something more; a trace of the hand that made it or alluding to an industrial mode of production. Meinert’s work reveal an honest curiosity for material culture and respect for the craft, possibly even a hint of nostalgia or envy for the basically extinct manufacturer or craftswoman who got to immerse herself in a finite system or rules and repetition. The artworks encourage us to look again at our surroundings and the structural systems we inhabit, and to examine the manual or industrial production process behind even the most trivial item in an attempt to reach a deeper understanding through bodily experiences.