Jessica Harrison: Feminist Figurines

Arriving in Jupiter Artland this month, in a pink plinthed and painted room, are a series of twisted ceramic ladies. Sculptor Jessica Harrison tells us about their genesis, feminism, and going viral

Feature by Rosamund West | 29 Jul 2014

It'll be an eerie experience to step into the gallery at Jupiter Artland during this year's Edinburgh Art Festival. With a pink floor, pink walls and even pink plinths, the space is being turned into a contemporary boudoir homage – the perfect space to house the lovely porcelain ladies whose mutilated figures are going to be displayed there.

Although they’ve been shown widely internationally, this exhibition marks perhaps the most significant showing of Jessica Harrison's figurines yet, with the largest selection in a single show and their first group display on home turf. The series, begun in 2009, has developed a significant online following, on which more later. A cursory Google reveals page after page of blogs wondering at the mind-bogglingly intricate work involved and the somewhat vivid subject matter, posted under phrases like ‘Bloody Boudoir,’ ‘Gory,’ ‘Horror.’

The discussion boards of the internet leave work wide open to (mis)interpretation, but to read it as simply an exercise in finessed shock and gore is to do it a disservice. “I’m not a grotesque person,” says Harrison. Rather, she’s using these figurines to explore ideas of feminism, beauty, the question of the gaze. Made starting with the found objects of the naff porcelain figurines so beloved of 70s housewives, the figurines are intricately worked into with chisels and diamond tipped drills, and dissected and rebuilt to form minutely detailed anatomical horrors – the lovely ladies now holding their unravelling intestines, or dancing gaily with a half exposed brain.

“The thing about these figurines is they’re these beautiful ladies with their impossibly fair skin and their worry free expressions and their buoyant skirts, but they’re hollow and empty; I wanted to turn them inside out and expose that hollowness,” she explains. In contrast to the prevailing orthodoxy of passive female representations ranging from Da Vinci to Nuts magazine, these ladies are being depicted as the active agents of their own desires. “They’re all participating in their own turning inside out. I take the pose that they’re exhibiting and I work with that pose, so they’re not being subjected to this disembowelment, or decapitation; they’re actually participating, they’re turning themselves inside out, they’re pulling off their own heads, they are the ones that are exposing themselves to us, really. They’re very much initiating their own demise.”

The anatomical detail was born from years of study of historical medical drawings. “They’re inspired by these traditional illustrations of the self-dissection from the 17th and 18th century. Typically the anatomical illustration is a very male space – the female interior is only shown when it’s a specifically female part, i.e. the womb, or the reproductive system in general, or a vagina. And the rest is a very male space,” she explains. “But that interior space is as much female as it is male, there’s no reason why the female interior space should be much more taboo than the male spaces. That’s why I only use female figurines. It’s a gender imbalance, that interior space, and I’m trying to address that. They may be grotesque, but they’re my small feminist statement.”

Harrison's work is incredibly detailed, with a laser sharp focus on process to evolve an idea to its ultimate conclusion. Another branch of her practice is stone carving, her Touchstones a series of large scale carvings of magnified fingerprints into limestone that makes the rock appear as malleable as plasticine. While at college, she covered the interior of a skull with multiple casts of her own teeth; another work saw her painstakingly experiment with different materials to find the perfect mimic for human skin, which she then used to make tiny furniture. “Sometimes it’s just right at the end [of the exploration of a material] that it turns into something interesting," she says. The figures’ genesis was, similarly, much more about the evolution of a process than an exploration of the grotesque. “They were originally supposed to be a maquette for something bigger. I had an idea for working in stone because I’d been working alongside the artist Daniel Silver and I really liked the way he approached stone. He took statues that were discarded, and he worked into them with hand tools and pneumatic tools, going over the surface to make them something much more hand made.” His process offered a way in to the previously quite alienating medium of stone, and sparked an interest in applying a similar form of thinking to another material commonly presented as finely finished, hard and cold.

“It was about starting with the ceramic and doing the opposite, really,” she says. “Ceramic starts as something that’s so malleable, it’s a really instinctive material for children, adults, the elderly. Everyone starts with clay. It’s thousands of years old, how we use it hasn’t changed that much.” These figurines, treated so preciously in their glass display cases with their inflated prices, were selected due to a deep-seated hatred of the form. Says Harrison, “They’re these mass produced things and there’s millions of them all over the place. I’d quite like to do all of them in the world because they annoy me so much. I don’t think I’ve got time to do that though. So I’m doing another batch for this exhibition and then I have to move on to other things.”

This will be sad news to her army of fans, currently numbering 15,696 according to the official reckoning of Facebook. This multitude have put her in the very millennial position of being able to sell her work directly, bypassing the usual gallerist middlemen and their 50% commission, thereby affording her the sadly all-too-rare position of being able to make a living from art alone. This situation came about in part through the odd contemporary circumstance of going viral.

Harrison, still shaken from the experience even some years later, reluctantly explains: “I put up a very short video that I’d made, a little self portrait thing.” The video, entitled Flylash and featuring a short clip of her blinking eye surrounded by false eyelashes made of fly’s legs, lurked online for 18 months, not attracting many hits. Then someone posting a blog about her figurine work stumbled across it and shit started to get weird. The different strata of sharers went from art fans to goth kids to beauty blogs inexplicably discussing whether this fly leg eyelash was a new trend (“Totes eeeeewwwww!”) and on to the animal rights activists, with a brief, bonkers, stop on Perez Hilton on the way. Harrison removed the video from the web: “I didn’t get many death threats, only about two or three, which isn’t that many in the grand scheme of death threats. But I did get quite a lot of abuse, which was upsetting.”

In the process of the viral madness a percentage of the sharers actually took the time to look at her work, liked what they saw and Liked it on Facebook. Suddenly she grew that audience of thousands with whom she can communicate directly about her new work, current exhibitions, and sales. “The internet has enabled me to do what I do, but it’s also the thing that scares me the most in the world,” she says.

The experience has made her hyper aware of interpretation, which is a mixed blessing. “You intend something as one thing and then people latch onto it as another thing and it becomes something completely different from what you intended it to be. I always now consider that when I’m making something, that maybe my intention could come across as something completely different. I can’t help it, because it was such an overwhelming thing at the time that it changed everything.”

Ultimately, though, that legion of fans that formed out of the experience have allowed her to blaze a trail as an artist who sells direct to her audience. She says, “It enabled me to make a living off of what I want to do. I think that’s pretty incredible.”

Jessica Harrison: Broken, Jupiter Artland, 31 Jul-28 Sep, part of Edinburgh Art Festival