Hair Today | Jenny Mai Hall
Dates: 24 July - 17 August
Where: Current Projects @ Ryan Renshaw Windowbox
From: Melbourne Projection Space
Details: Video Stills
Writer: Isabella Pearson
Jenny Mai Hall is a visual artist who lives and works in The Hills of outer Melbourne. Her work explores 'the everyday' in connection with and/or in contrast to the fragility of the human condition. She works across various mediums including photography, printmaking, painting, performance and video. The artist's latest works are directly influenced by John Brack’s Self-portrait 1955 in which the painting is the reflected image of the artist shaving. Jenny has exhibited internationally and throughout Australia at various public, commercial and Artist Run Galleries.
Isabella Pearson is a Brisbane based freelance writer currently in her final year of Art History at the University of Queensland. Over the last three years she has worked as a volunteer for local galleries The Box, Institute of Modern Art and Boxcopy. Her intake of sugar filled treats is increasing, at what some may consider, a concerning rate.
by Isabella Pearson
The paradox of the human condition is that while its existence is predicated on being a part of a whole, it simultaneously renders itself in isolation. Further, these precepts determine the ways in which we feel people should and should not behave under certain circumstances. Whether or not these are determined by nature or nurture I will leave for you to decide, however, there are variations between the expectations placed upon men, and those placed on women. Our expectation of women – in respect to contemporary notions of feminine identity, is the issue Jenny Mai Hall wishes to open for discussion through her work Hair Today. Hall appropriates the image of the artist in the act of grooming from John Brack’s 1955 painting Self-Portrait and re-contextualises it as a comment on the creation of the feminine identity.
Occupying the window space at Ryan Renshaw gallery, Hair Today is displayed as a checker board of video stills and reflective adhesive tiles. The ‘gaze’ in both John Brack and Jenny Mai Hall’s work surpasses their audience and drifts out into the distance. This lack of audience acknowledgement emphasises the fact that they are looking in on a ritual typically carried out in isolation. In both instances the viewer is positioned in place of the bathroom mirror, adding to this sense of intrusion. While Brack explicitly references this use of the mirror insofar as the painting is a literal reflection of the artist, Hall’s tile like formation cheekily mimics that associated with a bathroom interior. The performative aspect of Hall’s work draws emphasis away from the individual and onto the performance itself. Documented over three weeks each square photograph captures a single shot of Hall’s face and hands as she pulls the hair from her head. The hair slides out largely with ease as a result of chemo therapy . However, without knowledge of Hall’s physical state, the work seems to tread the line between destruction and liberation. Hall’s deadpan expression articulates an unveiling of the self through the shedding of physical layers. This form of grooming is more than simply a physical alteration or adjustment, but rather a pre-empting of the inevitable. Significantly, as Hall points out, Hair Today is about contemporary society’s idea of how females should look. This question is thus put in place; does the loss of the physical attribute of hair equate to a loss in feminine identity?
Hall claims this question was answered for her by two women undergoing the same treatment.
‘’They were horrified when they saw my head after the second week of filming with my bald patches and long strips of hair still attached to my head. They became quite disturbed and questioned why I would do this and not simply shave my head when it started to fall out. My ‘look’ seemed to horrify them. It confirmed to me this obsession with how women should ‘look’ applied to how I should look and what is expectable even in this circumstance.’’
Both women were certainly not ignorant to the inevitable complete hair loss Hall would undergo, yet seemed alarmed to be presented with this process through its gradual transformation. These two women did not want to be shown the process, rather it seemed easier to digest if they were simply presented with the end result. They want to distance themselves from the slow reality and the process of loss, as if it’s easier to turn away and then turn back to see someone gone, than to watch while they run into the distance, getting smaller and further away. Even more interestingly, it appears as if the concept of feminine identity is physically bound with the idea of hair. Once you are stripped of a component that is read as attributing to this precept of femininity, you are consequently at a disadvantage once this visual signifier is not in place. By literally pulling off the physical layers we associate with the female figure Hair Today invites us to question the importance we place on them.
1. Jenny Mai Hall discussing Hair Today