‘The skin intervenes in the things of the world and brings about their mingling,’ wrote the philosopher Michel Serres in The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (1985). Like Serres, Camilla Steinum is fascinated with the ways in which bodies interact – intentionally or otherwise – with the outside world. Previous works have seen her cast human hair into soap (Consume Stained Ambition, 2015), craft sculptures out of toilet brushes (Shit Load, 2014), and assemble fabric structures from old shredded clothing (Soft Bin, 2016).
For her first exhibition at Soy Capitán, ‘In Spite of Chores’, Steinum has done away with the potty humour, but bodies remain central. Three textile pieces depicting nude figures are slung over metal structures, which stand at a respectable distance from each other in the single room of the gallery – a fourth acts as a rug beneath one of these stands. Most striking are the colours: in Determined Nap (all works 2017), a figure’s legs rest on a two-tone blue background and fade from turquoise to yellow to pink. Stitched-together sections of off-the-roll woollen carpet, the works immediately bring to mind the bright folksiness of patchwork quilts. Accordingly, their supporting structures straddle the line between mass-produced and handmade. The boxy four-legged metal frames – painted white, brown and grey – could have been run-of-the-mill filing cabinets in a past life, but their rough edges suggest that Steinum has gone at them with a hacksaw. This is typical of her approach: everyday objects are stripped of their original roles by being obsessively worked into and worked over – whether cut, felted, dyed, or painted.
The titles of these freestanding works – Don’t Sleep On, Discontent Slumber and Determined Nap – imply that the reclining woollen figures are resting, but the looping stitches that hold the bodies in place are too suggestive of scars for their slumber to be tranquil. For victims of brutality, dream-free sleep may be harder to come by – as the three titles suggest, slumber brings nothing but discontent. Here, the image of the skilled female weaver passing the time by her loom – one embodied by Steinum herself, who studied textiles before switching to fine art – becomes shaky. While the works do not explicitly reference the industrial revolution, the use of shop-bought carpet, first made possible by the invention of the power loom, nods to the transformation of weaving as its made its way to industrialization. Could this be the reason for the ‘discontent slumber’ experienced by Steinum’s figures – the move from the home to the gruelling factory?
Three bronzes of carpet beaters (all titled Beater) hang on separate walls, and bring the harshness of life in past eras to mind once more. These are beautiful and intricate objects – somewhere between fly squatters and spider-webs – but, I wondered, who would have used such tools? Most likely the servants hired by the many middle-class families who prospered from the brutality of the industrial revolution. Yet more bodies used and abused.
Life was hard for the children of industrial capitalism. Paid next to nothing, they were tasked with arduous jobs that made use of their small frames and nimble hands, such as crawling under still-running machines to fix broken parts. As I left Soy Capitán, I couldn’t help but recall the loss of innocence I experienced upon first hearing about such things. It was a simple lesson, but a hard one to take: money trumps human life. Despite this, there is an undertone of hope in this beautiful exhibition. Through her own labour, Steinum brings a dignity to the figures she depicts: bodies mingling with others, in spite of chores.