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BAG LADY
Natalie King

Reproduced from the catalogue for the exhibition Bags Bottles Newspapers, Karyn Lovegrove Gallery, Melbourne, 1994 


I recall seeing a homeless woman wearing a ballgown dress constructed out of plastic bags: whilst aestheticising waste she metaphorically transcended her abjection.(1)

The artist as "bag lady" has reinvented objects from the everyday as a bagged corridor, a woven newspaper suspension and a passage of clear bottles. Berkowitz is not old and tired instead she rejoices in her refuse. Like the homeless woman however, she makes use of rubbish as a resource. Her materials (bags, bottles, newspapers) are accumulated daily and transformed into cool, architectural structures.

The process involves collecting, cleaning and placing so that vessels and containers are emptied of their contents and recycled as sculpture. The objects are denied their domestic function and reinstated as an aesthetic display. The resultant 'aesthetics of waste' conjugates the mundane with the history of minimalist and readymade sculpture.(2)

Bagged. Woven. Placed. Gridded. Taped. Suspended. The evocative and provocative usage of the ordinary revitalises waste as sculpture. From the flowing passage of bottles to the floating, amorphous wall of bags and the pliable woven newspapers, the effect is an assimilation of opposites - public/private, object/subject, inside/outside, hard/soft, robust/vulnerable.

By utilising recycled materials from the domestic fabric, she has created an installation that takes up the issues of waste and domestic labour while referencing the (full) history of women sculptors, in particular Eva Hesse. Through an exploration of materials, found objects are rediscovered. Refuse is collected by friends and gathered from the rubbish tip resulting in a labour-intensive activity of accumulation.

The works are overlayed with a personal history particularly since Berkowitz has lived in New York City over the past three years in the entertainment area, Times Square. Living amidst the American consumer culture where Barbara Kruger's slogan 'I shop therefore I am' is a household phrase and 'thank you for shopping with us' is printed on supermarket receipts and bags has directly affected her (obsessive) use of consumer products.

The autobiographical is conflated with the history of feminist sculpture, intricately bound like the webbed form of the newspaper suspension. Consumerism is taken up by Sylvie Fleury who renders designer consumerism as a constellation of readymade bags. Berkowitz however, removes the glamour of shopping, replacing it with a multitude of banal, utilitarian objects. Either way, bags are utilised as seductive vessels that intervene with the social activity of shopping.

Shopping as recreation, an activity marked by pleasure and compulsion, is often integrated into the daily rituals of women. The passive consumer glides through the shopping mall, an enclosed palace of consumption where desire and deprivation are played out in the urban context. The idea of the shopping complex or department store as theme park where '...barriers between real and fake, near and far, dissolve as history, nature, technology, are indifferently processed by the mall's fantasy machine.'(3) Abundance and variety are part of these central institutions of consumption. In the current instance, the gallery is located in the 'Love and Lewis' building which was formerly a shopping emporium and drapery store. The importance of site and context then, is integrally bound to the work.

The association with dirt and domesticity is played out alongside the gendered history of women's art practice in constructing the feminine in relation to the time women (and men) spend on domestic maintenance, cleaning, washing, vacuuming, scrubbing and the removal of dirt. The issue of hygiene and cleanliness is apparent in a group of mundane objects that have been transformed into sculptures." Vessels of purity and elimination have consumed the floor, ceiling and walls of the gallery, a process of systematic, intuitive and aesthetic placement of materials.

The expansive band of transparent, empty bottles return us to Eva Hesse's Repetition (late 60s) series of fibreglass cylinders while the suspended web of woven newspapers recall Hesse's string work Right After (1969). Hesse's Repetition series consists of hollow cylindrical elements, open at the top and lying on the floor in aimless but congenial disorder. Each unit has been battered into a different configuration. One is nearly perfect while another seems about to crumple.

Berkowitz's gleaming row of empty containers does not possess the awkwardness of Hesse's series, even though the use of fibreglass and glass are physically hard and ungiving substances. Berkowitz has taken containers of consumer goods and presented them as aestheticised objects. Issues surrounding containment, elimination, hygiene and cleanliness are traced by the use of the by-products of consumption. The cycle of purchase and disposal is disrupted, intervened as a socially instrumental act. In both instances, the cylinders are lying prone as an expanse of undulating shapes and sizes.

Read and weave are the premise for the newspaper suspension. Since weaving is traditionally associated with a woman's activity it has been adopted and overtaken to form an endless web. Through interlacing and entwining, the repetitive and laborious action is at once time consuming yet meditative. Herein lies the importance of process - reading, folding, stapling, weaving, threading, joining.

We can return (again) to Hesse's Right After which was strung up in her studio for a whole year. The relaxed loops of fairy tale gossamer thread created a '...magic, fantastic absurdity'.(5) Hung irregularly with an unfinished quality the work was a random tangle of line. While Berkowitz's woven suspension is rendered in newspaper, the sense of a chaotic structure is apparent in both works as drooping tangles of floppy weaving hang from the ceiling. For Berkowitz, random words emerge as a labyrinth of cross-word puzzles weave fragments of text. The mid-air suspensions are anti-monumental and risk imminent collapse.

The fragile and opaque bags flutter, cumulatively forming a wall - an enclave sheathed in translucent bags that are filled with air to denote a sense of buoyancy. She is playing with surface and facade. The bags form rows of pendulous sacks to make a corridor that resembles a digestive tract. The billowing, bulbous form references an androgynous sexuality of orifices.

Whether taped, gridded, suspended or placed, she is wasting no time adorning and filling the gallery with a sensual display of impoverished materials.

1. Notes from the artist to the author, August 1994 

2. Ellen LUPTON & J. ABBOTT MILLER. 'The Process of Elimination', The Bathroom The Kitchen and the Aesthetics of Waste: A Process of Elimination, MIT List Visual Arts Centre, Cambridge, 1992, pp. 1-9. 

3. CRAWFORD, Margaret. 'The World in a Shopping Mall', Variations on a Theme Park, ed. Michael Sorkin, The Noonday Press, New York, 1992, p. 4. 

4. See Dirt and Domesticity, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992. 

5. Lucy LIPPARD. Eva Hesse, Da Capo Press, New York, 1992, p. 161.

Natalie King
Copyright © 1994