The Remains of the Task

Polish: Mary Kavanagh
February 22 – March 23, 2002
a response to the exhibition by Alison Gillmor

You see a long, narrow table draped in white linen and heaped with silver. Hundreds and hundreds of cups, plates, trays, vases, knives, spoons. At one end of the table a woman is seated, patiently polishing a dish with a small white cloth. For four hours a day for the duration of the show, this is what she does: she chooses one tarnished object from the table, takes one clean cloth from a pile on a nearby wooden cabinet, and she polishes. When she is finished polishing, the woman removes a small, hand-written identifying tag from the object and pins it to the cloth. The object, now gleaming and free of tarnish, is replaced on the table; the cloth, now mussed and marked, is placed on another pile on the cabinet. This process is videotaped.

How you feel about this transformative, performative work by Lethbridge-based artist Mary Kavanagh might depend on your sex, your age, your class, on whether you’re a hoarder or a purger, a tidier or a messer. Is the polisher — whose name is Liz Moore — performing a sacred ritual or dull, debasing, repetitive labour? Does the silver shine with the glow of personal memory and cultural traditions or the empty glitter of striving for economic and social status? Does the table bend under the weight of oppressive materialism or is its plenitude a radiant reminder that life is a banquet? Does polishing the object reveal its nature or erase its history? However you answer these questions — and you might find that final conclusions keep getting away on you — Polish is a cogent, complex and beautiful demonstration of the idea that objects possess no absolute values or fixed meanings, just provisional placings in a constantly renegotiated system of exchange. The same object — say, a small bud vase — could be part of the dusty clutter left behind on the death of a great-aunt, an over-priced heirloom in a posh antique store, an objet in a glassed-in museum case, or a lucky find for somebody grubbing through a fly-blown junk-store.

Kavanagh gathered these particular pieces from second-hand stores in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, from garage sales, flea markets, and donations from friends, family and strangers. Whatever their origins, these objects became part of an art work being created and displayed in a Winnipeg gallery. This context, along with their remarkable visual unity when viewed from a distance, grants them a certain cool, formal authority. (The used cloths also possess an unexpected aesthetic quality, their gray-black tarnish marks and creamy smudges of spilled polish making unplanned references to 20th-century painting; leaf through the pile and you’ll see the repeated facets of Analytic Cubism, the quick calligraphic markings of an Abstract-Expressionist canvas, the flowing washes of a Helen Frankenthaler.) Look more closely, however, and the objects’ stubborn, particular stories start to creep back in, dragging the outside world with them. You see the monogrammed tableware of a ‘good’ family next to novelty gifts and tourist kitsch (a golf-ball shot-glass, a sombrero ashtray), the clean lines of Art Deco next to the ornate and murderously hard to polish curlicues of neo-Rococo fantasy. Some pieces come from Sheffield, some from Saskatchewan, some from Hong Kong or Taiwan. Some are heavy sterling, some silver plate, some silver in colour only. Many are imprinted on their undersides with the arcane, alchemical symbols of the silversmithing trade — letters, numbers, a little Maltese cross, a tiny trumpet or bell — a semiotic system that can be decoded only by the magicians of the Antiques Roadshow. Most of the objects possess a sturdy functionalism, but some seem like archeological artifacts left to mark lost rituals of Edwardian propriety or Jazz Age glamour — crumb trays and bed warmers, tea-strainers and trivets, chicken-feet ice tongs. One object is completely mysterious (even to Moore, whose intimate contact with the table has made her into quite a connoisseur), identified only as a slightly sinister-looking tool for something — flower arranging? sewing? gynecology?

Idle or informed speculations from viewer-participants, along with sighs of recognition, family anecdotes, and reminiscences about Eaton’s Grill Room, church teas, and the days when trains still served formal five-course meals are all crucial components of Polish. Far from being a solemn performance observed in silence, this work is more like a quilting bee, that companionable rural ritual that allowed women to gossip, share and bitch, all the while engaged in blameless industry. Moore engages with the people who approach the table to touch and stroke and turn things over, and she keeps a journal of events, observations and thoughts. She has been told that Golda Meir, the late Israeli prime minister, polished silver to relax. (I don’t know if this is true or not, but as a piece of mythology about women, power and domesticity, it’s pretty much perfect.) She has heard from a woman who, sparked by the sight of some anonymous sports cups, talked of how she had grown up looking at her mother’s swimming trophies but had never actually seen her swim — like many women of her generation, her mother had put aside her own pursuits after she had children. (Moore picked some tarnished trophies to shine up next, to honour this story.)

Kavanagh clearly leaves room for ambivalence about ‘women’s work’ in the show. Something about the scale and the proportions of the table suggests an impossible, never-ending task, a fairy-tale scenario — the room filled with straw that must be spun into gold overnight, the hearth filled with seeds that must be picked from the ashes before the ball. Polishing silver may bring immediate, visible, satisfying results — and not all housework does — but in another way it’s futile. Tarnish forms from a chemical reaction between air and metal, so that nature immediately begins to undo your good work. The silver objects can be read in different ways, too, from the promise — and possible danger — of Aladdin’s lamp to the sterile stage props of a Merchant and Ivory drawing room, signifiers of social, and usually sexual, repression. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day uses the state of the silver in a large English country house in the late 30’s as a central metaphor for class distinction and false consciousness. The butler is so intent on keeping up his unrivalled reputation for gleaming tableware — no other objects in the house were as likely to come under such intimate scrutiny from outsiders as was silver during a meal, and as such, it served as a public index of a house’s standards — that he neglects, perhaps, to notice that his employer is in the forefront of the British fascist movement, attempting to forge an alliance with Nazi Germany in the crucial days before the Second World War.

Though these negative possibilities hang in the air, alongside the sharp, unmistakable smell of silver polish, the performative components of the show — the polisher’s choice of objects, as well as her pacing, rhythm and touch — seem to favour a more hopeful reading. Moore brings a sensuous, soothing, unhurried concentration to her work that calls up a less frantic, more tactile era. Polish seems to support the idea that domestic work, no matter how endless, dull or difficult, has also been a way for women to connect with and transform their worlds.

Objects, in the end, may be considered valuable or not, beautiful or not. This table, where a piece can look dirty and downtrodden one moment and be rubbed into heirloom status the next, suggests how arbitrary these designations can be and how quickly they can change. The process of working with objects, however, the heft and weight and feel of them, the intimate relationship that develops as you change them, can be imbued with meaning. That is why Polish is not a still life but a work-in-progress.

Alison Gillmor received an MA in Art History from York University. She lives and works in Winnipeg and written on visual art, popular culture and film for the
Winnipeg Free Press, The Globe & Mail, The National Post, Border Crossings, C Magazine, Canadian Art and gallery publications.