Tails of the unexpected

Over the past year, Cat Auburn has been creating a large tapestry comprised of 500 Victorian hair-rosettes, made out of horsehair. She talks to Margo White about the ideas behind this project, and the response from the equine community.

Take a pair of scissors with you when you next visit your horse,” begins the instructions given to horse and pony owners willing to participate in Cat Auburn’s latest project, The Horses Stayed Behind. “Being very, very careful not to get kicked, cut a long, full length lock of hair from the centre of your horse’s tail, right up near the tailbone. The amount of hair should be about half the thickness of your little finger. Don’t cut a piece from the outside of the tail … I don’t want to mess up your horse’s look for the show ring this season!”

The Horses Stayed Behind is an exhibition commemorating the thousands of horses that left New Zealand in World War I, of which only four returned. The centrepiece will be a tapestry, five metres by one metre, made of 500 rosettes, intricately woven in the style of the Victorian hair-wreath. Each of them hand-made by Auburn out of horsehair. Each of them, in both style and DNA, unique to the individual 500 horses and ponies that have donated their tail hair.

Cat Auburn, Rest Cure, 2009, bed posts, hessian, straw, rope, fibreglass. Photo: Ken Stewart

Auburn is an emerging artist best known for her sculptural practice, who graduated with a Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Arts (Distinction) from Elam in 2007. Since then she has, among other achievements, been awarded the Tylee Cottage Artist in Residence with the Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui, won the Olivia Spencer Bower Foundation Art Award, the COCA Anthony Harper Art People’s Choice Award, and has been a finalist in the Wallace Art Awards.

Her works capture the familiar and disturbing, and often feature large fibreglass and polystyrene hybrid creatures; a horse in a four-poster bed, as in Rest Cure (2009), a carousel lion attacking a carousel horse, as in Stealing the Luck of George Stubbs (2010), a herd of fawns, as in Training Aids (2012), looking as if they could be collectively blown over in a gust of wind. One artwork involved bringing a live miniature horse and her handler into a Christchurch gallery. (It won the people’s choice at the COCA Anthony Harper Art Awards, 2010.)

The Horses Stayed Behind was mostly made while Auburn was the Tylee Cottage Artist in Residence with the Sarjeant Gallery. (The project was also supported by Creative New Zealand.) It’s about the horses, and about the war, about loss, memory and grief and the act of commemoration. “I went to the Anzac memorial service last year in Bulls, where they have a big procession of horses that are ridden up to the gravesite of one of the horses that did return, a horse called Bess. I’d been doing a lot of research at that time, and I guess I got really interested in the fact that our World War One experience is Gallipoli, but a lot of those secondary narratives haven’t entered into it for a long time.”

But Auburn traces the project’s genesis to when her attention was first drawn to Victorian hair wreaths, popular in North America, England and the colonies in the early 20th century. “When someone died, you would cut a lock of their hair, and weave it into a little rosette, a little flower. And then you would add it to the family hair wreath, which became a document of generations, a physical memory of your family.” Church groups made them too, and the resulting hair wreaths acted as a kind of map of a community.

She didn’t want to work with human hair though—that would feel a bit creepy—but she knew how to work with horsehair, having used it to make props, such as weapons, when she worked in the film industry. “And so I thought, man, wouldn’t it be great to do a work, with this idea of a hair wreath, with memory, with horsehair from all over the country. At the same time I had been looking into the mounted riflemen story, and their time in Egypt and Palestine. All the elements began to slot together.”

Cat Auburn, Training Aids, 2012, polyurethane, expanding foam, leather, dimensions variable. Photo: Cat Auburn

But how to best source horsehair? She didn’t want to use hair from unknown sources, but from animals that she knew were well looked after. She and Sarah McClintock, assistant curator at the Sarjeant Gallery, went on the road, attending A & P shows throughout the country, where they set up booths, explained what the project was about and invited horse and pony-owners to participate.

“And the hair just started flooding in. It was amazing.” Auburn labelled each donation (the name of each pony or horse, and their owner) and as the project progressed, posted a photograph of the resulting rosette on a Facebook page. “So that people could maintain contact with the project. It’s been a completely different way of making art; I’m not tucked away by myself in my studio, I’ve got a lot of external input.” (Anyone who donated a tail can go to facebook.com/catauburnartist and see the end result.)

Some people began sending in the hair of a horse that had died, or the hair of a horse whose owner had died, seeing this as an opportunity for their loved one to be commemorated through art. “So this project that is about memory and grief started to become a project in which people expressed their own grief and remembrance within that. I’ve had people send in horsehair from a child’s pony, when the child has died. So the stories have been quite emotional, and there have been times when I’ve received packages, and been quite teary. The project has gone in directions that I don’t need to control, it has its own life outside of me, which is exciting and lovely. “There’s this beautiful intention behind it … the idea that ‘my beloved has passed away, and a little piece of that beloved is going to live in perpetuity in this art work’. People have found comfort in that. But others have been incredibly practical, it was just something they wanted to be part of because it sounded cool.”

Images of the rosettes posted on a Facebook page set up for The Horses Stayed Behind, where those who donated horsehair could keep in contact with the project as it progressed. Photos: Cat Auburn

Of course, the project obliged her to learn how to weave Victorian hairpieces. This was challenging; she could find instructions, but they were written in shorthand, which she didn’t understand, and there weren’t any illustrations to help her either. ”So it took a bit of detective work, but I managed to work it out.”

A video of her making a rosette will be made available online. Making these wreaths is a lost skill, she says, so she wanted to share it with others. “And if anyone misses out on the project, they can still make their own and be part of the project in that way.”

As you might have gathered, there’s particular generosity about Auburn’s approach to art, a concerted effort to be inclusive, to encourage a wider community to take an interest in art, to visit a gallery.

“We had horses and rode competitively, until my mid teens, so I was really interested in reconnecting with a community that I am quite divorced from as an adult. But they’re the same women, the same children … It was a really good opportunity to engage with the public about why this is art, and to provide the opportunity for a really accessible positive experience of art. There’s been a lot of negativity in the media about arts communities and arts projects, so I wanted to have a really positive experience with this project, in terms of public perception.

“Once the work is finished, we’re going to make an info-graphic map so that people can find their horse in the project. An extra effort is being made to contribute back to the community … the project wouldn’t have been possible without those people participating.”

There are two other parts to the exhibition. It will also include an oud, a Middle Eastern string instrument, or Turkish lute, which a UK-based luthier is making out of donated horsehair. It will be played during the exhibition; two Lower Hutt-based musicians are collaborating with Auburn on this aspect of the project.

Auburn has been working as an exhibition preparator at the Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, for two years, during which time she observed the different ways that people respond to an artwork. “And while a lot of the artworks are luscious, enticing objects, people aren’t allowed to touch them, for fear of damage, because the gallery wants to keep these artworks safe for future generations. But by not letting people touch, you cut out one of the major senses, and some people don’t necessarily engage with all the ideas in an artwork just by looking at it. I had all this horsehair, so I was trying to think of another opportunity to let people engage with the ideas … Horsehair traditionally is used for musical instruments, so I thought music might be another way … a musical instrument might offer another opportunity for them to engage with the ideas.”

She adds: “Middle Eastern music often plays on minor notes and minor keys, which to Western ears feels really emotional, a sad kind of sound. To a Middle Eastern person’s ear, the minor key doesn’t sound melancholy, as it might to a Western ear. I’m interested in that … and the oud is a native instrument to the area that all of those horses and men were fighting, in Palestine and Egypt.”

Cat Auburn
Cat Auburn, I Alone Can Contend Against the Power of Men , 2013, pewter maquettes, sizes variable. Courtesy of Bartley+Company Art, Wellington

The third part of this project is a small bronze fragment from a memorial sculpture that was destroyed more than half a century ago, a memorial to the Anzac Mounted Rifles, Camel Corps and the Desert Mounted Corps, which was erected in Port Said in 1932, but which was destroyed in the 1956 Suez conflict. The fragments were shipped back to Australia, and two replica sculptures were built. Yet the narrative changed; rather than Australians and New Zealanders riding into battle, it was remade to represent an Australian riding in to save a New Zealand horseman. “So it’s now popularly known as the Light Horseman Monument, so the New Zealand part of the story has been divorced from the original intention.”

There are two remaining fragments of the original sculpture; the head of the statue, now on display at the Australian War Memorial, and a fragment from the reins of the sculpture, which is being sent to Whanganui from the Museum for the exhibition. Having researched the memorial, Auburn is using this tiny bronze fragment, to draw attention to the way public memory is usually represented within 
giant bronze monuments, that invoke might and glory, and which are supposed to reflect the experiences and sentiments of the many, but rarely do. “And I don’t think that way of looking at people’s stories, is enough.”

The theme will also be explored in her solo show, Ways to Leave your Lover, at Bartley + Company Art. Also opening in June, this show features leather sculptures, with echoes of death masks and shrouds. These point to ways of capturing immortality, in the way public monuments present frozen and sometimes hollow monuments from ‘glorious’ histories.

In August Auburn will leave for Brazil to participate in the TRIO Sculpture Biennale in Rio de Janeiro, before heading to the UK, to study for her Master of Fine Art, at Northumbria University, in Newcastle. It’s a unique programme, which the University runs together with the Baltic Institute of Contemporary Art. “I’ve spent seven years out of university and hunting around for somewhere to study, but nothing really excited me until I heard about this institution.” So the equivalent would be if the Elam School of Fine Arts teamed up with the Auckland Art Gallery and ran a Masters together. It’s a really unique partnership.”

“I’m so aware that I’m of New Zealand, I have a New Zealand perspective on the world, but there are lots of other perspectives. I’d like to be able to see where we are and who we are as a culture, from a different point of view, a different space. I’d also like to see our creative industries bolstered and big and robust … that there is room for everyone. And I think that by continuing to be generous and going overseas and doing well there, that will help [the world] make more room for us.”

Cat Auburn, The Horses Stayed Behind, Sarjeant On the Quay, Whanganui from 27 June to 20 September 2015, and Ways to Leave your Lover, Bartley+Company Art, Wellington, 3–27 June 2015.

Published in Art News Winter 2015

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