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The Knowledge in the Clutter

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Sera Waters, Beloved I & II (Her and Him), 2015, Linen, hessian, hand-dyed string, lace, doilies, beads, cotton, each 50cm in diameter. Courtesy of the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. Photograph Grant Hancock.

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South Australia was ‘settled’ at a time when Victorian clutter was rife. For the newcomers, old clutter which proved too vast for the limited cargo holds, could soon be replaced by versions acquired after arrival. Along with migrants, shiploads of purchasable desirables were imported to Australian shores from a globalised network of trade routes. Shipping records from the mid to late 1800s support the speculation that many middle class and aspiring lower class South Australian homes kept up this English way-of-life; buying fashionable mass-produced goods, as well as materials to create decorative items for the home (1). Within mainly modest dwellings were rooms which held a cacophony of non-functional items whose sole purpose it was to create a homely atmosphere; patterned fabrics, wall papers, handmade textiles, embellished furniture, pot plant holders, ornaments, collections, souvenirs, and all manner of material stuff to cover and enhance bare surfaces. In the early years of this ‘new world’, homes as places of belonging were created by piling comfortingly familiar clutter from a faraway homeland atop one ancient and unfamiliar.

However, an aversion to such ornamental clutter was soon to take root. In the early twentieth century disapproval was buoyed most famously by architect Adolf Loos, then spread by such proponents as Le Corbusier, to eventually reach Australia. Their voices, alongside others decrying ornamentation and ‘feminine’ sentiments regarding home, spurred an ‘anti-domestic’ turn; an attitude whose legacy still frequents us today (2). From the early 1900s this ideal ‘home’ was culturally remodelled into one purporting masculinity with whitewashed walls, spacious rooms, large windows, and unornamented surfaces. Thrown out, at least rhetorically, were those material burdens of the past; crammed cabinets cleared out, dusty surfaces cleaned, mould-ridden homes demolished and lives tidied up. These modern shifts undoubtedly and necessarily improved living conditions for many families, yet what was lost in this remake of our domestic places? Whose histories were wiped away in this clean-up? What remains buried in the household rubble of modernisation? It becomes pertinent to ask, if this became of the complex clutter of domestic spaces, then what was cleared away in larger scale redevelopments, particularly in the construction of a national narrative? In a culture afflicted with a willful forgetfulness, especially around the murky details of colonial ‘home-making’, the clutter of long-lost homes proffers a reminder of those unheard voices and happenings.

Hunting for obscured clutter is difficult though. In the anti-domestic aftermath, ‘home’, as a serious subject of research has been disparaged, closed off, gendered, stripped bare, rendered white, and painted as so uninteresting as to reduce it to the realm of the invisible. The inside goings-on of the working class or middle class home have been under-examined and often scant records remain. This loss is two-fold however, as trapped within these historical homes are generations of women. They have been housebound by laborious domestic duties, especially throughout the nineteenth century when it was not ‘respectable’ to undertake paid work outside of the home (3). Early settler spinsters, wives, mothers or daughters, were not girt by sea, but by the walls of their homes and many remain there today, hidden behind their ever-closed front doors (4). Ironically, it was their dedicated hard-work and conformity which rendered their presence invisible to the attention of records and news; the creation and maintenance of the well-functioning home with cooked meals, washed dishes, clean floors, laundered clothes, mended items and chores done was not newsworthy it seems (then or now) (5).

Yet clutter, when found, provides a way. In a home that once stood in Port Adelaide from roughly the 1850s until the 1880s, lived Mary. She arrived in Port Misery in 1838 and was my great-great-great Grandmother. There are no photographs of Mary, no family heirlooms, and only a few obligatory records of marriage, births and death. Little or nothing is known of her daily routines, appearance, disposition, values or thoughts. While anecdotal evidence passed along a family line, such as stories, letters, sketches or similar can be invaluable, none remain. However from an archaeological dig that was undertaken at her home in 2003 (6) it seems that Mary was a keeper of clutter; clutter that told a story of her family and its values. One finding, an English dandy figurine, now headless, proves she had arrangements of non-functional items; a sure sign that the family were thriving (in their home atop another’s home). She was not just surviving but home-making and used decorative matter to do so; Willow patterned ceramics, fine textiles (now decomposing), a stone tool (of English origin), Cathedral shaped sauce bottles, varied pins and sewing implements, decorated hair combs, seashell collections, and much more. Over one hundred and fifty years later dirt-ridden matter reveals more clues about a life than can be discovered any other way.

Discarded and buried clutter matters when it is what remains of a life. In the case of Mary, the stuff left behind gives rough outline to her otherwise invisible ghostliness. In my work, as well as using needlework methods to dwell upon faces Mary likely saw with her own eyes (predominantly photographs of gentlemen), I locate her in these dig-findings. In her home, like other homes, stuff was curated by women like Mary; matter brought in, re-valued, and arranged according to hopes, memories and ways of seeing her world. Her practices of needle-working, collecting, cooking and carrying on other passed-down traditions were marked by such purpose too. By the basic fact they have been so little acknowledged, recognising these practices is now one way of countering and complicating those suspiciously tidy dominant national narratives. Whereas decluttering threatens to unravel untold histories, resurrecting clutter (in this case through art) can re-thread our connections to a messy but indispensable past.

Sera Waters, Ware and Tear, 2015, Linen, cotton, kangaroo pelt, crewel, rope, velvet, leather, 58 x 38 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. Photograph Grant Hancock.
Sera Waters, Ware and Tear, 2015, Linen, cotton, kangaroo pelt, crewel, rope, velvet, leather, 58 x 38 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. Photograph Grant Hancock.