Posted on September 25th, 2010
Arriving back at the gallery shortly before The Comfort Room by Jennifer Mesch and Scott Smallwood was to start, I have just enough time to be fitted with a bread dough baby sling by Alison Reiko Loader in the Culinary Cultures of the Kinder/Garden installation before heading into the performance space. Sitting on the floor with my new doughbaby slung around my belly, I stare up at The Comfort Room’s tables full of collections of inedible objects arranged like petits fours, hors d’oeuvres and pretty candies, and think about comfort, physical objects and things that pacify, things that lubricate pleasant social engagement and things that we want to be alone with.
I feel the bread warming up against my body and starting to rise, softening and growing and resembling my own soft belly. I am comforted by my baby dough and I am comforted by watching Jennifer Mesch put things in her mouth and I am disappointed when she spits them out, not because I wish she would have swallowed them but because I wish she wanted to keep them there. But her character is fighting with wanting them in her mouth, wanting to swallow them, wanting their weight deep in her warm belly, and trying not to be overcome by her compulsion to do so, trying to be “normal” and “healthy” and “good.”
Pica is the name for the disorder characterized by a compulsion to eat non-food objects. It’s also the Latin name for the magpie, after which the disorder was named, ostensibly because magpies are scavengers that will eat nearly anything. Strangely, there is another disorder named after the magpie, the “magpie syndrome,” which refers to the phenomenon of being irrationally or overly attracted to things that are shiny, colourful, new, or unobtainable. The comfort room set installed in the gallery oddly brings these 2 odd behaviors together; it is a collection of beautiful collections, an assortment of myriad attractive textures that do all seem like they would be perfect to put in the mouth.
So I think about psychological disorders, my own attachment to physical objects, my fears about becoming overwhelmed by “things” like those people on the hoarding TV shows and the horrific news stories about getting buried alive by a landslide of 50 years of newspapers. I think about the things I put in my mouth and how they make me feel. I remember what I sucked on as a child and I remember what I sucked on yesterday. I try to remember why I did it in the first place and why I did it again, and why I will do it tomorrow. I reach down to feel the rising dough against my skin and I take a deep breath, calmed by the physicality of the object that has become a part of me.
Jenn is occupying the space like a magpie, moving from collection to collection, running her fingers over and admiring her shiny objects, picking up handfuls of others and stuffing them in her mouth, turning in circles and rising and falling. Moving around the space, she seems to be playing as much as dancing with intention, and I imagine her as a bird that is surrounded by its favorite objects – giddy and awe-filled and overwhelmed – there not for sustenance as much as the compulsion to be there. It’s not just that, though; the human in her is also guilty, fighting against her desires and struggling to do what the brain says is right.
This comfort room, though appearing to be the place where a woman’s treasures are stored, where she can feel safe to do as she pleases and not be judged, is acting like more of a torture chamber, where all her comforting devices, her security blankets are laid out to look at but not touch – it is a room of control and self-denial, and I can see that in the movement, too (though more formally – now she is moving like a dancer thinks someone denying themselves would move). Then she puts something new in her mouth and she lets the new object move her.
The audio component of the piece, created live in response to Jenn’s movements, provides a lush soundscape reflective of her movements in the space and therefore helps evoke the fully realized environment of the comfort room. The sound also underscores the psychological weight of the piece and of Jenn’s movement, its’ creaks and groans and muffled shuffling calling to mind memories of sneaking into the kitchen after bedtime, vermin collecting rubbish and eating the walls, being warmed and lulled by droning heaters and rhythmic appliances.
The Comfort Room reminds me of Diane Borsato’s work Artifacts [in my mouth], where she went into museums and examined the collections by putting things in her mouth. Getting to know things by the way they feel in her mouth is, as the artist put it, is “a whole different way of knowing.” Come to think of it, this performance reminds me of several Diane Borsato pieces, including Warm Things to Chew for the Dead and Sleeping with Cake, works that attempt to uncover emotional knowledge of objects in hopes of applying them to our human needs. Food serves important emotional and psychological needs as well as physical ones.
Of course we develop emotional attachments not only to people and to food and to the things that are connected to or remind us of people, but to things and their “thing-ness,” their singularity. Because putting things in one’s mouth is comforting, (especially for those of us, like me and like Jenn’s character, for whom putting things in one’s mouth is comforting), getting to know objects by putting them in our mouths, licking them, sucking on them, and for some ingesting them gives us a completely different sort of emotional attachment and response than looking at things and recognizing their beauty, listening to sounds and hearing their music, feeling objects and appreciating their texture… It’s not always what something reminds us of that give them emotional power; things and how we interact with them are powerful in their own right.
Talking with Jenn after the performance, she tells me that she wasn’t sure ahead of time what she was going to do in the space. Did it even make sense that it was a “dance” performance? I don’t know anything about dance or how to talk about it, but in the end, I really connected to the content and to the improvisational nature of the work. If the artist didn’t know exactly what she was going to do before she got into the space and the performance started, then I think I can believe what I saw – that the things she put in her mouth made her move.