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Kathryn Spence: Wild
July 30–October 24, 1999

Kathryn Spence
Untitled (Pigeon), 1996–97
street trash, wire, string, rubber bands, glue
(each pigeon is lifesize)
photo: Ben Blackwell

How dirty is too dirty and how does dirt make us feel? To confuse the contexts I have brought trash and mud inside. I've dirtied things and put them into clean spaces. Working with little stand-ins which reference real life, I hope to call attention to the inseparable connection between the physical and psychological in everyday life. -Kathryn Spence (1)

Kathryn Spence's trash pigeons and mud animals expose the delicate balance between repulsion and desire. By using dirt and debris to make her mud animals and trash pigeons, she disrupts the seemingly socially legitimate order of things. Her work underlines anthropologist Mary Douglas's assertion that dirt isn't objectively defined but rather is socially constructed. It is, simply, matter out of place. Douglas explains, "Shoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining-table; food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom, or food bespattered on clothing; similarly, bathroom equipment in the drawing room; clothing lying on chairs; out-door things in-doors … In short, our pollution behaviour is the reason which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications." (2) As we know all too well, clothes become laundry (dirt) when we strip them from our bodies and drop them on the floor. Clothing can become dirt simply by virtue of its changed position in time and space. By bringing dirt and trash indoors—and inverting the process so that dirt becomes sacred object—Kathryn Spence comments on how clean and unclean are socially transcribed and understood. She knows that we understand dirt, in its most comprehensive sense, both psychologically and corporeally.

"I have used mud to … suggest that in our involvement with life we are physically and psychologically coated by our experiences," Spence notes. (3) Her trash pigeons and mud animals suggest vulnerability, for they are made of the most omnipresent, yet ephemeral materials. Underlying themes of ecological responsibility, the problems of home-lessness, and our culture's casual disregard, at times, for both, buoy her work. Dirt and trash - however they are defined - may be washed away or picked up, but they always regenerate, as do those experiences Spence suggests with the layers of mud. Therefore Spence's mud animals and trash pigeons paradoxically imply fragility and permanence.

Spence's pigeons suggest transformation, transgression, and redemption. She notes, Our culture is incredibly disrespectful. I can feel the weight of all this stuff. I want to help by reusing it. I want to participate in the dialog of using materials originally used long ago. I try to find where wholeness resides in the imperfect, where permanence exists in the temporary. That's why I make things that look like they're about to fall apart. (4) Spence encourages us to commute common to uncommon through an act of faith. Through her pigeons, she asks us to believe in the redemption of trash from social worthlessness to cultural value. Spence's use, then, of the dirty newspapers and magazines that comprise the pigeons becomes a reaffirmation of our humanity - she is a social and cultural recycler.

Because Spence makes the trash pigeons life-size and in various poses, she endows them with an actual pigeon's quirkiness. She has bound each one with bits of string, rubber bands, and wire, the effect of which is to barely stabilize the tiny figures. The works' fragility may suggest their association with homelessness. Spence's degraded ephemeral material also suggests the vulnerability and ostracized humanity our homeless citizenry embodies. The unstable distance between having a home and not is a reality for many Americans. And any fragile security we have is often based on elements out of our control such as corporate downsizing, opportunity, and simple luck of the draw. Spence understands the tender spaces we travel between good luck and bad, between trash and treasure, and suggests the easily collapsible distance between them. By creating pigeons - often seen, like the homeless, as dirty - from our detritus, Spence asserts the cast-off as salvageable and even transcendent.

Spence produces her mud animals from stuffed animals, furry bathrobes, and mud. By using such quotidian materials she creates works that contain and articulate the disparate experiences that the stuffed animals and furry bathrobes may represent. As French semiotician Roland Barthes has noted, no object eludes meaning. Everything may be viewed as a sign of something else. For instance, stuffed animals can signify childhood and may remind us of a specific moment in our own childhood. In psychological discourse, stuffed toys are transitory objects which help growing children separate from their mothers. Stuffed toys, then, carry with them imprints of childhood - of insecurity and security, of need and fulfillment. Bathrobes carry their own messages. Because we often wear bathrobes over our naked bodies, bathrobes sustain traces of bodily intimacy. Bathrobes may also signify comfort, as a special robe may be worn to a tatter because of the physical and psychological comfort it holds. As Spence notes, her work "retains all the things that have touched it. That contact is what I'm interested in." (5) It is perhaps this human gesture in not only the stuffed animals and robes but also the hand-sculpted mud that lends the mud animals their startling warmth and humanity. The effect of the mud animals is one of both pathos and humanity. Spence notes they "have a weighty quality, [they] feel the weight of being affected by life, by time, by the heaviness of having a body. I want them to seem weathered, like they're decomposing. I like them to feel like mud, like dirt." (6)

If the human body is the measure for how we make sense of the world around us, then our sense of scale may be skewed by these animals whose small and gigantic sizes help sustain an unreality or hyperreality, like Alice's experiences down the rabbit hole. Susan Stewart, in her discussion of the miniature and the gigantic and their meanings, notes, Whereas we know the miniature as a spatial whole or as temporal parts, we know the gigantic only partially. We move through the landscape; it does not move through us. Consequently, both the miniature and the gigantic may be described through metaphors of containment-the miniature as contained, the gigantic as container. (7) Spence's mud animals represent both, for they are either miniature representations of real animals such as bears, or gigantic representations of a child's tiny stuffed animal from which they are made. Their ambiguity propels them into the spaces between the two. Stewart's metaphor of containment is particularly apt. The mud animals are containers for the responses we bring to these figures from the outside looking in. We may understand our own bodies the same way: contained, sometimes metaphorically by outside cultural and social forces; and container, of all our experiences.

Kathryn Spence's mud animals and pigeons embrace the notion that dirty and clean are based on rituals we employ to order and make sense of the world around us. Our desire to divide the world according to clean and dirty becomes, as Douglas has noted, a creative force to understand our experiences. Spence accepts the human desire to order, and understands how we are shaped and layered by our experiences. Based on our myriad emotional, intellectual, corporeal, and to whatever extent, spiritual responses to our environment, our experiences become, like the mud Spence uses, our bodies' invisible and sometimes visible sheathing. By creating culturally recognized "value" from trash and dirt, Spence establishes alliances between disparities, such as those in our ecology and economy, and strives to reveal the linkages that must exist between our internal and external experiences.

Dana Self

1. Kathryn Spence, artist's statement in 1999 Biennial, an exhibition catalogue for an exhibition of the same name curated by Bruce Guenther, (Newport Beach, CA: Orange County Museum of Art, 1999) p. 39

2. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York, NY: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1966), p. 36.

3. Kathryn Spence, artist's statement in 1999 Biennial, p. 39

4. Spence, in "Sculptor Makes it to SFMOMA," by David Bonetti, San Francisco Examiner, August 31, 1997.

5. Spence, in "Call it Trash, She Won't Be Offended," by Jesse Hamlin, San Francisco Chronicle, Datebook, Wednesday, October 1, 1997.

6. Spence, as quoted by Jesse Hamlin.

7. Susan Stewart, On Longing, Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 71