‘Past Caring’ is the fifth exhibition at The University of Bradford’s Gallery II within a curatorial programme led by Amy Charlesworth since 2013. The programme has profiled work addressing practices of personal politics and aesthetics; and the site of a gallery within a University, its history and archive, hosting discourse and commissions relevant to, and a product of, both the city and contemporary art practice.
This latest exhibition curated by Amy Charlesworth and Dr. Sibyl Fisher, shows the work of five artists, Jane Allison, Katherine MacBride, Tracey Moffatt, Lucy Parker and Jo Spence. The motivations for the exhibition resonate with the increasing critical interest in prevailing hierarchies and social injustices through artworks preoccupied with political and social subjects, yet the critical interest here is in the rationales of an interior emotion. ‘Past Caring’ is an exhibition that explicitly makes central the subject of care as an active site for ‘intellectual and political possibilities.’ Importantly the curators seek to address its wider social and economic importance, asking where do the acts of caring take place, who performs them – paid or unpaid – and what are the aesthetics of care?
A large projection shows ’Night Cries’, a film by Tracey Moffatt, which without dialogue, depicts a middle aged Aboriginal woman nursing an elderly white woman until her death. Frustrated and bored, yet unrelenting, she cleans, watches over and attends to the woman who is her adoptive mother, a relationship that is a product of government policy. This policy, effective from 1909 to 1969, removed children of Australian Aboriginal descent and placed them in institutional facilities and white foster homes. The work invites caution in considering a relationship between care and gender that is non-classed and non-racialised.
The second video work in the show is by London-based film-maker Lucy Parker. ‘The Home and the World’ is an observational film shot at a rural care home which shows residents gardening, horse-riding, sailing, engaging in art workshops and other activities. With no narration or scripted dialogue, we hear the voices of patient and encouraging staff members. Time is slow and relaxed yet regimented in structure and productivity. This is after all an institution providing a home, a service and employment. The film-maker worked at the home for over a decade; the site first provided paid-work then a setting to observe through film and reconsider the relations and activities taking place.
Hanging in the centre of the gallery is Katherine MacBride’s ‘Listening and Speaking Devices’, two concave sculptures made from papier mâché, a technique that could have been learnt from one of the art classes in ‘The Home and the World’. The work proposes you enter between these large shells and speak, offering a public yet intimate platform for monologue or conversation.
The work of Jo Spence underpins the exhibition with her commitment to the 1970s socialist feminist position that ‘the personal is political’. Spence’s work was the product of a woman living in Thatcherite Britain, a woman living with cancer, her work in defiance of the control systems and oppressions that illness and institutional patriarchy bring.
The oil paintings of Jane Allison punctuate the show. Seeming at first as formal depictions of life in an elderly care home, they subtly extend the questions of class, gender and race within the task of care - a portrait of a British care-home, a site of social reproduction, the work done to sustain society, largely unpaid, unrecognised work within the home. We must also acknowledge that through progressions in global economy this work is not unique to the family household and now other institutions or bodies perform this labour. However, social care work remains one of the lowest paid and undervalued sectors of the labour market and as a result migrant workers are increasingly being employed to care for older people. Allison’s portraits of everyday life in the care home show these divisions of class and race in the depiction of those living and working there.
‘Past Caring’ presents and occupies a complex set of relations in translating and depicting care – those of power, economy, affective networks and social hierarchies. Perhaps by readdressing the everyday sites of care, work and the domestic we can begin to form new habits that, if shared, could become a sustained project considering a new set of politics.