exploring art and writing

The Unseen and the Unspoken: Jenni Steele.

In Fine Arts, Interview, New Media, Video on April 4, 2011 at 8:10 pm

See Jenni’s videos on Vimeo here and visit her website to read more, including an interview between myself and the artist: jennisteele.com.

'New Years Day on the Fens' 2010, Jenni Steele

Jenni Steele is a digital video artist with a fascination towards an often-overlooked feature of most outdoor environments: the washing line. In its simplicity is where this concept finds its strength and Steele uses her observations to frame, emphasise and challenge our perceptions (or lack of them) towards this loaded symbol of erotica, domesticity, social unrest and poverty.

Steele’s interest in washing lines is perhaps not so surprising considering her current theoretical studies. Her PhD research revolves around the interpretations and traditions surrounding dress and drapery within painting and how these themes translate into film. This fascination in domestic drapery, from 17th Century Dutch Curtain Painting to the violently intuitive use of washing lines in contemporary cinema, is far more indicative of the human condition than most people are aware of.

In order to discover the various interpretations and meanings behind the subject Steele has delved into an entire host of content: the news and media use washing lines, for instance, to accentuate poverty; television programmes such as Life on Mars have used them to convey an invasion of privacy; Hollywood films such as Halloween and Girl With A Pearl Earring utilise them to highlight tension, whilst The Full Monty is one of many films that use washing lines to represent men who are outside of their gender’s comfort zone. The list goes on, and Steele has fortified this research by looking as far as The Library of Congress in Washington, by instigating discussions with various directors and staff from television shows such as Coronation Street and Life on Mars, through researching the ‘Right To Dry’ movement in America and much, much more. The result of such thorough research is a body of work that reiterates this array of sentiments, its strength being evident due to Steele’s ability to question and challenge the context that fuels her own artwork.

As a Masterclass Artist for the Women’s Arts Association Steele is applying this body of context to themes of ‘the unseen and the unspoken’. Such an application loads the subject matter even further with connotations that are simultaneously private and public, a contrast reflected in the polarities that washing lines are imbued with: inside and outside, natural and domestic. Her artwork is a direct reflection of this. In her video My Place we are offered a view of the intense and enclosed kitchen environment, a domestically gender-specific place of work as the washing gets done. Following this Steele takes the viewer to a sparse, sandy beach where we see a washing line stand alone as the wind bombards each item of clothing; the wider, open spaces of the natural environment possess chaotic qualities as the clothes billow in the wind. Reiterating this hint at a domestic ‘clamour’, the indoor shots in My Place and other videos such as Encroachment are so closely scrutinized as to be verging on abstract imagery. Not all connotations need be so claustrophobic, however; Steele is sensitive to the positive implications of the washing line, both in an artistic and a domestic sense:

“Generally speaking, I think that women love to see a line of washing hung out to dry.  It is a sign of shared work and experience and women can quickly ‘read the signs’ that various articles imply.  More deeply, lines of washing can represent life’s experiences from birth to death, and what it takes to love and care for a family or an individual.”

As a primarily digital filmmaker, Steele first expressed her artistic inclinations through textiles and then found herself drawn towards video due to its transformative nature; a cameras conversion of reality into fragments and layers is, after all, not dissimilar to the layering and sifting of materials required in textiles. As a result of carefully considering the construction of each video Steele is intending to extend the digital experience for the viewer by maximising the audio as well as the visual, be it sounds from the beach, from a radio or a washing machine. The domestic implications suggested by the contrasting indoor/outdoor sounds are an imperative aspect of each artwork. This in turn may lead not just to sound pieces, but also to poetry and interactive projections.

To summarise, Jenni Steele’s work does what any successful body of work should do: it draws the audiences attention to a highly informative and challenging subject matter, raising political and social questions that the artist, and undoubtedly the audience, can empathise with. This process is executed with interest and inquisitiveness, and, of course, each video is also an extremely beautiful piece of artwork, reflecting Steele’s own view of her subject matter as being “a thing of beauty – sculptural, animated and painterly…A line of washing can be equally spectacular on the beach or on the balcony of a high-rise”. Her artwork is a celebration of domesticity and intimacy, of the natural, man-made, public and private lives that we all lead. As Steele herself claims, “what it shows is who we really are.”

'Hattie's Line' 2010, Jenni Steele

See Jenni’s videos on Vimeo here and visit her website to read more, including an interview between myself and the artist: jennisteele.com.

  1. As amazing at it sounds when put on paper and video, this ‘line’ rings true with me.. “I think that women love to see a line of washing hung out to dry.” I think that is what I miss the most here in Atlanta summers, when I want to dry out my clothes and have to set up a whole equipment of clothes line outside for daily need-basis use.. I have been Florida, and then recently to PuertoRico, where I saw multiple clothes lines, outside everyone’s homes and it was interesting to take pictures.. I personally thought that my fascination came because of an underlying longing for my childhood and my Indian home.. I liked your interview and her videos.. They literally make me take a break, stop and smell the flowers..
    Thanks Lucy!

  2. Great to know it touched you, Rachana. My love for the line of washing definitely comes from early childhood – unusually for 60s Norfolk, my mum imported a Hills Hoist and it was my job to hang out the family laundry.

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