Lucky Rabbit: Holly Newman
February 22 – March 23, 2002
a response to the exhibition by Heidi Eigenkind
Imagine being a child. A favourite adult takes you to a store. In the store there is room in which 200 objects are on display. The adult says, “You can choose any one of these and take it home.” All of them are lovely, although each of them is lovely in its own way. Some have tags hanging from them. On the tags, other visitors, both adults and children, have written stories. You can write a story too, if you want, at a small desk on which blank tags and pencils wait. Imagine: all that excitement and pleasure. All that tension: which one to choose.
For Lucky Rabbit, Holly Newman made such a store within the gallery space of aceartinc. On the walls of the large, central exhibition space, she positioned 200 stuffed rabbits. They took four shapes: 2 running positions; 1 sitting, its back to the viewer; 1 resting horizontal to the ground. Each rabbit was hung from a brass ring slipped over a stud hammered into the wall. The rabbits were sewn of printed quilt cotton, velveteen and silk. They were hand appliquéd, beaded, embroidered, and sequined.
Some of the embroidered imagery came from the 40’s and 50’s: outlines of flowers and cute little girls. Many had intricate edgings. They suggested Easter ornaments, jewelry pouches, cushions for a child’s bed. They inhabited a place between “bunny” and “rabbit”, between mundane and special, frivolous and serious.
In the middle of the space floated 3 sheer curtains appliquéd with sayings about rabbits: simple statements about how they bring luck, how easily they can be tamed, how they find comfort in the city. The curtains evoked a bedroom or kitchen, some safe and old-fashioned place. Some of the rabbits had tags carrying stories hanging from them.
Both the statements on the curtains and the written stories carried a number of meanings. Some stories were remembrances of beloved pets, or wild animals that escaped harm. Some stories were bleak or sad. After all, a rabbit’s life is fairly fraught with danger. Predators, cars and humans with preparing supper or saving gardens on their minds can shorten a rabbit’s life. Some rabbits are just plain unlucky. Some, because they are easily kept, become stew. Not all rabbits find comfort in cities. In Newman’s space, any visitor could write a rabbit story and hang it on the object of their choice.
In her artist’s talk, Newman explained that she chose to make 200 rabbits because that quantity was large enough to discourage any sense, on her part, of the objects as precious, and because it was a quantity small enough to complete within one year. Of course, preciousness is in the eyes of the beholder — the one invited not only to view this work, but also to choose a rabbit, give it a home for one year and then return it, hopefully with a tag on which some part of that year has been documented. For free.
Like Newman’s prior installation, The Nesting Project, Lucky Rabbit was a means of enticing the viewer into participation. The loveliness of the rabbits helped to insure success, much like orphans dressed in their best and paraded before possible families. Holly Newman’s long-range plan, once all the rabbits and stories have found their back to her, is to exhibit both archival photos of all 200 rabbits before adoption along with the rabbits as they are returned. This will most likely happen in another city, so it is unlikely Winnipeg participants will be able to view the second installation.
Lucky Rabbit raises a number of questions. About community participation and artistic control. About generousity. About ownership. The installation is a gift offered Winnipeggers: free art, and chance to become part of a compilation of narratives. It is, as Holly Newman described it in her artist’s talk, “a labour of love and devotion”.
It is also a structured experiment in which an artist releases control of the objects she has made according to an informal contract with those agreeing to take the objects. There is a time limit on outside ownership, a designated return date and the request for a story. There is a tracking device, a book in which every participant has written an address and phone number. A hedge against too much loss.
The gift is temporary. But a year is a long time, long enough to encompass the whole life of a rabbit, according to the artist. And in this kind of experiment there are no guarantees. Disasters happen. Objects can be stolen or lost or deemed too precious to return to their maker.
There is also a kind of loss for each participant. First, the loss of what may become a treasured part of a household. Second, a loss of control over whatever story is sent back — a story the writer has no guarantee of seeing in its final context.
So who is the owner, who is in control, who takes the most risk? It’s not clear. It depends, as does so much in art and life, on perspective. What I do know is that on my bedroom wall there is a running rabbit sewn of brown velveteen. She is studded with pearls, some of them long enough to resemble objects that have pierced her hide or stars shooting from her spirit into night air. I don’t know if she is hera or target. Maybe both and more. I have just under one year to find out. It sounds like a good trade, this rabbit and the possibility of some story about her and me to send back. I hope the rabbit feels lucky. I do.
Heidi Eigenkind is a visual artist living in Winnipeg who uses handwork techniques involving beads, embroidery thread, artificial hair and anything else she can find. Her current work involves the restructuring and embellishing of second hand women’s shoes.