Supporting Intentions of a Sofa Cushion

Supporting Intentions of a Sofa Cushion

By Maike Hemmers

I work from home, mostly at my dinner table, between the fruit bowl and a candle, a basket filled with cables and a stack of post-its. Working from home is a conscious decision made in opposition to historically and culturally defined ideas and imagery of the professional artistic life. It is my skepticism towards studio culture.

I feel supported at home, not only by the functionality of items that fill a designated place of work, but by all things I have gathered and arranged to define my domestic life and myself. In general, support means to bear all or some of the weight of an object; it is a relationship between two entities. By seeing myself as part of and in relation to supporting objects, I find that I can better reflect on my position in the spaces I inhabit.

These relationships are also intimate: they are shared experiences. But what does it mean to be intimate with the objects that place and define my subjectivity? An intimate encounter usually happens within spheres of comfort and familiarity, yet, as Lauren Berlant, whose work explores affect in the public sphere, notes, “the inwardness of the intimate is met by a corresponding publicness.” (1) We trust in what Berlant calls “institutions of intimacy,” yet the space in which we feel able to define ourselves in privacy is actually publicly defined by forces of patriarchy and capitalism. Our domestic self is defined by forces outside of our control, outside of ourselves.

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The crease between two pillows

I have always admired Agnes Martin’s paintings, which I cannot separate from her assured self-presentation. Difficult to photograph or reproduce, the soft colours of paint and fine grid lines allude to the feelings that develop only when present with the works. Martin refused to adjust, align, or explain herself or her art beyond her own desire to create. She created her place of being and working, as well as her art. The feminist writer and cultural critic Jill Johnston wrote a poignant portrait of Martin when visiting her in the desert of New Mexico in 1973:

[...] agnes knows exactly who or what she is or isn’t she shot back i’m not a woman and i don’t care about reputations. i said well i wouldn’t come to see you if you weren’t a woman. she concluded the argument saying i’m not a woman, i’m a doorknob, leading a quiet existence. (2)

Martin’s response reveals her desire to define her own position, distancing herself from the expectation of choosing a side. She could have picked any inanimate object in opposition to the gendered description of her body, but it seems relevant that she chose a doorknob: an object that opens and closes the passage between two spaces. While space is divided by walls and doors, it is the handle that enables control over the movement through it. A doorknob is an object of agency and willpower. It gives access to, or locks away certain spaces. But a doorknob is also an object intimate with the bodies passing by: touch is a requirement to make it move—a handshake in exchange for passage. It guards privacy, it welcomes you inside.

 

The loose stitches of an edge

The artist Frances Stark works with objects available and apparent in her life, like chat-rooms, PowerPoint presentations, with her bed as the space of production. She unpacks gendered notions of labour in relation to the domestic in the collection of essays The Architect and The Housewife. I first read it while I was still maintaining a studio, working from home as an exception. Here, Stark refers to herself as a housewife though she lives alone, is unmarried, and pays her own bills. She makes the connection to the housewife through her production of labour as a worker (an artist) and a private person in her domestic environment. Free labour at home makes her a housewife, inside the (re)production of the interior. Her living room is her studio, similar to many artists. For the housewife, the house is not “a site of accumulating production but a site of a series of simultaneous productions which bear no evidence of productivity—save for the fact that the house isn't falling apart.” (3) Stark contrasts the housewife’s interior production to the architect’s exterior production. The architect makes sure that public and social order is maintained—he manages the outside. She handles the inside. A house would not exist without the architect, but without the specific labour of the housewife, a home is not created. Here, the architect is a symbol of the autonomous exterior that disrupts and transforms material reality. In feminist discourse Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own provides us with the foundation of thinking on the influence of culturally and historically formed spaces for production. Stark refers to Woolf when she introduces writing and literature as elements of production and consumption in relation to the interior. She links the independent practice of writing and reading to the notion of privacy. A room of one's own is a space of agency, as “the production doesn't extend into or employ much of the exterior environment.” (4)  The blend of different sorts of labour, invisible to the outside, makes me a housewife by Stark's provocation. What is the potential in “being such a housewife?”

Femininity and the home are so closely connected that quite a few of my female friends seem to reject the idea of a living environment beyond its functionality. By refusing the conscious set-up of a home—through decorations, aesthetics, and the creation of a cozy atmosphere—women distance themselves from the cultural expectation of taking care of the home. Thus, I find it poignant that Stark frames the experience of buying her first cushion in terms of her pride at not having cared before. It suggests that an immediate fall into the domestic trap that feminists have tried hard to avoid occurs as soon as you buy yourself a nice cushion and prepare a thoughtful lunch. Caring or not caring for certain objects seems to be a feminist decision. But when we consider our intimate relation with everyday objects and the support they give and take, I wonder: How do you move beyond the expectations instigated by our bodies and the space they inhabit? Which leads to the question: How can a cushion be a supportive agent in the interior? Instead of rejecting the culturally defined relation of femininity and softness, can I use it to support myself in creating my own position within the domestic realm?

We associate specific domestic functions with certain domestic spaces, for example preparing food in the kitchen, sleeping in the bedroom, entertainment in the living room. Furthermore, spaces are traditionally divided by a gendered division of labour—traditionally the study is assigned to men, the kitchen to women. Virginia Woolf requested a room of her own inside the privacy of the home because even though private spaces were assigned to women, they actually left no possibility of privacy and self-expression for the housekeeper herself. The common room of a house was historically the main space women could occupy, whether for work or leisure, but it was also where, as Woolf describes, she was never alone. Woolf questions wether (good) work can be produced outside of the privacy of a space of one's own: “Her sensibility had been educated for centuries by the influences of the common sitting-room. [...] And, I wondered, would Pride and Prejudice have been a better novel if Jane Austen had not thought it necessary to hide her manuscript from visitors?” (5)

Interiority is privacy; it is a space of agency to oppose the forces of the public. The poet and critic Quinn Latimer compares stanzas to rooms and the space words inhabit, like paper or a screen, a void. Thinking is also a process of privacy, and again translates to a room inside a void. “And there is a world outside. What is inside? Another world: her privacy.” (6) Interiority surpasses its initial meaning as one part of the interior/exterior dichotomy of the physical house. Even our body is an interior—a space we can fill up, empty, or leave unoccupied. The interior space of reflection and creation can be a way to merge the architect and the housewife to obliterate the reductivism of both. Production happens in the inside, but the material produced eventually extends beyond its inner boundaries and penetrates the exterior to transform a reality unsuitable for our needs. I work from home to align myself with the objects of the interior, but all that is produced will eventual leave the home.

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The feather that pushes to the outside

Architecture, an industry for building space, is intrinsically tied to the constructed idea of public and civic modernity. The spaces it constructs are places of labour production and, historically, built to reflect a masculine ideal. In contrast, the domestic or private life is built for invisible labour and reproduction and traditionally assigned to the female gender.

Could I resist reproduction of capitalist norms by staying horizontal within the home? I hypothesized that writing from the supine position that I take on my couch, held up by three cushions with a slightly tilted head and my legs lying over the wooden armrest, would make me better able to write on the topic of support. How differently would I write when my body was bolstered by soft padding? I discovered quickly, however, that this only made me sleepy, and my body began to ache due to the resulting awkward posture. This was not a position for productive writing; yet, it seemed quite suitable for reading and thinking. When reading, the body could shift, turn, and reposition to adapt to holding up a page and supporting the book with arm muscles, all the while supported by cushions. It appeared that reading benefitted from a body that could shift and move slightly between different tender surfaces. But to write well, I needed the upright position of my back, my butt seated on a comfortable chair that kept me upright and prevented my body to slide into the horizontal position it seemed to so desire.

A working position is less likely surrounded by soft furniture. I am more productive in stark, stable, smooth environments. A table and a chair work well for stable support, though an extra cushion can be nice to relieve and straighten the back. Cloth only adorns the top of the table when we serve food for company. Cloth, like soft furniture, helps distinguish between work and non-work time in the home; it has less use during times of work.

But to live self-determined lives, we need flexible supporting structures between our bodies and the space we inhabit. Textile is a soft backdrop that lets us live our lives in concrete boxes; it leaves impressions as well as receives them. Textile is a medium of affects, responsive to bodies, changeable, and thus fluid and temporary. Fabric can give bodies agency and fluidity by allowing them to move and rest in different ways in space. In Affekpolitik und Raum, aesthetic theorist Heidi Helmhold defines textile architecture as the politics of affect in space. Textiles in space can function as a subversion against the brutal architecture of Modernism according to Helmhold. Textile architecture is “Gegenarchitektur”—an architecture against—and has the potential to act as a subversive agent against the beliefs of space that are culturally and historically formed. Helmhold makes a distinction between spaces according to their degree of use of textiles, such as low or no use of textile in the study and the prison chamber versus a high use of textile in the living room and the bedroom. In the bed, presumably the softest of all soft furniture, our body rests, loves itself or another. In bed we are alone, suffer, have sex.

Textiles speak to feelings. Cushions are agents of a relationship between space; they are formed by bodies, but also form our bodies. They enable us to be in a space otherwise too hard and uncomfortable to stay for any length of time. Cushions show signs of use, read as the eversion of emotional states outside the self. Muscles need upholstery to feel well. Cushions are thus a bodily extension through which the body sends signals of well-being to itself.

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The pale checkered underside

When we wonder about ourselves in relation to the rooms we inhabit we often are reminded of the rooms we have inside ourselves, already inhabited, some open and some closed. There is always a desire to have an empty room of one's own; this can be achieved in various ways outside, beside, and inside ourselves. An empty space is a possibility, but it is also a space of agency. But something is needed beyond these spaces to create them in the first place: a body to feel, a line to make a distinction, support to help us exist.

In Support Structures, the artist Céline Condorelli opens up in her research potential uses for various means of support that are valuable for cultural production and spatial practices. Support Structures is not only a collection of essays, but also a supporting structure in itself. Condorelli understands support not as formal knowledge, but as a relation, and therefore meant to be read alongside and with multiple ways and forms of supporting bodies. We can understand how things appear by looking at the support structures; eventually, this reveals “how support can form political imagination.” (7)

To support and to receive support means to position ourselves. Support, just like affect, is in between bodies; it creates relationships, brings them into being, and displays the tension between them. Support is never quite inside the subject but transgresses on the edge, influencing the subject as well as being influenced by the subject. And when we look beside rather than onto ourselves, we can see what supports us and what we support.

There is always a desire to move beyond support, to get up, become a free-standing being. But what does it mean to be autonomous and free-standing? It speaks to an idealistic and utopian desire of being centred on the self. Yet, realizing the support we need (even while standing freely) allows us to be grounded among the bodies we live in and the relations we keep. So, invest in some nice cushions and keep them by your side. At the very least, they will help you sit up straight like your mom always told you to.


Images by Mike Hemmers, pen on post-its, 2017-2018

 

 

 

Endnotes

(1) Lauren Berlant, “Intimacy: A Special Issue,” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2, Intimacy (1998), 281.

(2) Jill Johnston, “Agnes Martin: Surrender & Solitude,” in Admission Accomplished (London: Serpent's Tail, 1998), 300.

(3) Frances Stark, The Architect & the Housewife (London: Book Works, 1999), 12.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 78.

(6) Quinn Latimer, Like a Woman (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017), 104.

(7) Céline Condorelli, Support Structures (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2009), 11.


Bio

Maike Hemmers is an artist from Germany based in Rotterdam. After graduating from her MFA in art praxis at the Dutch Art Institute, she is working within the space of feminist architecture, focusing particularly on interiority as a mode of resistance. Recent and upcoming works include textile sculptures, drawings, and text works presented in printed and performative form.