Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Kate Higgins: In an Interest of Preservation

When confronted by one of Kate Higgins’ empty jackets, often a sense of loss comes to mind before that of preservation, as the title of her series would suggest. The well-worn tweed jacket hanging in the Window Box is startlingly animated in its frozen pose, despite lacking a body, lacking the history and stories behind its existence. Something is missing and we don’t know what it is, perhaps we will never know. But the charm of Higgins’ work is its appeal to our imagination to save some lasting moment from what would otherwise be a castaway.

Higgins’ jacket, bought at a used-clothing store, is locked in a permanent pose by her sculpting technique, while simultaneously appearing animated by some unseen personality. In this series, Higgins chose tweed jackets to be transformed into sculptures, believing they represent the passing of time. Indeed, tweed is timeless, it is durable and can be passed down from one person to the next. It is a material that crosses socio-economic boundaries, worn by poor and rich alike. Because of the lack of a body in this work, we are allowed to imagine anyone of any background with any history wearing this clothing.

Tweed is a fitting conduit for Higgins’ interest in the human condition and her concern for the environment. In and of itself, tweed is a strong metaphor for environmental sustainability. It is built to last, can be worn forever, and buying it from a used-clothing store (as Higgins did, first ensuring that profits are put toward social assistance programs) keeps it from going into the garbage and producing more waste. Her jacket challenges the current “green” fad of buying environmentally-friendly products. This trend is often counterproductive, with the cost of producing something new being higher than simply re-using or recycling that which already exists, as Higgins does here, so we may see new life in that which more often than not is taken for granted.

Supporting the jacket is a wire hanger covered in ridiculously lovely green moss hand-collected by Higgins while doing a residency in Italy. Moss connotes the strength of nature, its ability to permeate through all else and survive. How often have we spied a clump of moss clinging to a cement wall in the dead of winter, still bright as it was in the spring? The hanger, as a stand-in for the age-old crutch icon, if you will, signifies the dependence of humans on the environment. Notably it is moss, not roots, that the artist used. Stability and permanence are not implied, but rather mobility, transcendence of boundaries. We need nature, yet we slip through it so easily in the city. A rolling stone gathers no moss, after all. Yet the presence of green suggests in order for Higgins to create an identity for her jacket, she must connect it to nature, to pin it down for a moment long enough to be meditated upon.

This installation is only the first part of a larger project for Higgins. The jacket was taken to different places in Parkdale and photographed. Higgins finds places where the jacket may have come from, may have spent some time in someone’s life. In doing so, she creates a sense of returning home, giving value to an otherwise unwanted object. Her photographs and installations develop a narrative for the life of this jacket - the pose itself is not its only animating factor. For Higgins, this series of empty jackets is a way to literally put people back into nature, and connect them with their surroundings.

Seeing the jacket located in ephemeral homes, as in the case of the Window Box, another element comes in to play. Not only are we invited to imagine a life for the jacket, but we are also challenged into looking at the space it hangs in differently. What do we associate with the space, based on the jacket’s pose? What do we associate with the jacket, based on the space? Again, Higgins links transience with permanence, and destabilizes notions of each. In doing so, she epitomizes the paradox of our lives: our own struggle with creating identity.

The absence of the body in this work is parallel to our absence in nature as urban city dwellers. Caught in the confines of the Window Box, the jacket is specimen-like, encased and preserved, well-kept away from the world. With degrees in biology and psychology, as well as her BFA, Higgins is well-versed in the destructive effects of living in urban areas completely disconnected from nature. “As the 21st century progresses, the effects of climate change, environmental degradation, and growing economic inequality dramatically increases the potential for displacement and social conflicts,” she notes.

However, there is still a certain solemn whimsy to her work. The pervasiveness of hope is illustrated by the liveliness of the jacket’s pose - the sign that there is something there we can’t resist reaching out to, even through the simple gesture of imagining a story. All her jackets are representative of individuals, with closest ties to those those who have been cast away and are unwanted, as the jackets are, despite their everlasting quality. How often do we treat our environment this way, with complete heartlessness and total disregard? How lightly do we take our own lives, and those of others? With oblivion characterizing so many in the world, in Higgins’ work there is a shot at redemption for a conscientious outlook, for us, for the people around us, and for nature.

Kate Higgins: In an Interest of Preservation is on view at the Window Box Gallery, 1313 Queen Street West from 26 November - 21 December 2008.

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