But the elephant in the room only accounts for half of the magnificent scale of the show — there’s also a dining room table with a family of five seated around it; two figures emerging from the walls; and a gun rack, vanity table, two medicine chests and a set of bed sheets all packed with carefully arranged art objects. Using almost every kind of found object you can imagine, from a faded American flag to pantyhose with doll heads stuffed inside them, she has filled the gallery with a meticulous, multilayered meditation on topics including but not limited to race, class, gender, sexuality, politics, privilege, identity and Southern culture. The chockablock is hypnotic and a little irresistible. And yet the 23-year-old native of Mountain Brook insists that she is not an artist.
I’ve been to see it three times now — once with my boyfriend, the photographer Brad Daly; once when SOE hosted a panel discussion about the show with Wade and several local artists, art historians and writers; and once on my own, so that Margot could give me (and a friend of hers from high school) a personal tour of the installation. On every occasion, she began at least one sentence with the phrase, “I’m not an artist —”
The third time I heard this, I objected. “But you are an artist, Margot.” To me, the room we were standing in said so.
“I don’t have a studio art background,” she said. “I majored in art history and Third Reich studies. This show is not about technique or technology. It was about getting my point across in the most effective way possible, using techniques I could teach myself.”
Originally scheduled to close March 19, the exhibition has been so popular that it may be held over until the end of the month. At 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 18, Space One Eleven will host a gallery talk with Wade and Sylvie Fortin, the editor of the Atlanta-based journal Art Papers. The duo will discuss “Pubic Places, Private Spaces,” as well as trends in the national art scene. A suggested donation of $5 covers admission, sandwiches, beer and wine.
Interactive place settings
One aspect of “Pubic Places, Private Spaces” that differentiates it from a typical gallery show is its interactivity. Because Margot is gallery-sitting every day, she greets every visitor and urges them all to dig as deeply into the exhibit as they want. She isn’t pushy, at least at first; she doesn’t even enter the gallery at first unless she’s asked to. Instead she lets most visitors begin their explorations solo, then goes in a few minutes later to ask if they have any questions. We are trained not to get too close to works of art in galleries, let alone touch the displays. That entrenched behavior is hard to shake, even when the artist herself is nearby exhorting, “Look under my nightgown,” or “Go through my bed sheets,” or “Open my chest.” As a result, some visitors walk through the gallery without touching anything, while others rummage through the assemblages with gusto.
After Margot greets you in the SOE lobby, the first figure you see in the gallery doorway is a life-sized but faceless woman dressed as an old-fashioned Southern debutante. Margot calls the get-up “the Southern burka.” Crossing the threshold into the gallery, you see five more life-sized figures, all stark-white, seated around a massive antique dining room table. (Almost every object in the show came from the house Margot grew up in or from her grandparents’ house in Mountain Brook.) The table is set with fine china, but every plate has had at least one black-and-white photograph imposed over the delicate pattern, and each one has had at least one word hand-painted across it in bold, black type. They are what Margot calls “the five derogatory terms of the South” — Democrat, woman, Christian, faggot and nigger. One plate has a picture of Sarah Palin; another, the Christian plate, shows Richard Scrushy; a third shows a picture of a Mountain Brook city limits sign and has the words “Jim Crow line” written through the center. One figure is pushing back from the table; another has her head down; all of them are in postures of tension or morose complacency. The closest wall has the upper body of a woman mounted on it — on display in the way prize animals from big-game hunts would be displayed. The woman’s mouth is open in agony. “That’s a trophy wife,” Margot told me during my tour. “She’s hog-tied.”
When we return our gazes to the dining table, Margot offered a partial explanation of why she had rendered a Southern family dinner this way.
“Everyone is eating her words,” she said. “There are no words being said and there’s an elephant in the room. In fact, not only is there an elephant in the room, but it’s holding up the chandelier.”
Indeed, the gleaming light fixture that illuminates the dining table hangs from the animal’s trunk. And as if the metaphorical implications of an elephant in a Mountain Brook dining room weren’t powerful enough, Margot made the trunk from a fire hose, stamped with the brand name Imperial. The pachyderm’s puffy stomach is stuffed with sleeping bags that belonged to her uncles, “and newspaper stories about Larry Langford and the Jefferson County Commission,” she told me. Its tail, made of fine embroidered lace, reaches the gallery floor and stretches nearly six feet behind the animal, becoming a bridal train attached to a debutante ball gown, worn by another life-sized woman sculpture. This one is hanging in the corner, dunce-style or looking like a lynching, her head covered by a Ku Klux Klan hood.
The dining table scene, the elephant and the Ku Klux Klan debutante create a continuous diagonal line that bisects the gallery like a lightning bolt. As the first three elements of the installation that Margot imagined, they make for the meat of the show, but the later additions pack a wallop, too. There are silk nightgowns embroidered with tales of sexual awakening and of molestation. There’s the “work of friction” mentioned in the show’s title — a 10-page type-written story about menstrual blood, intercourse, pregnancy and abortion, which is the most text-heavy part of the show. Whereas the words scrawled on the china and embroidered into the nightgowns are legible at a glance, every page of the work of friction is framed separately and written in 12-point type behind glass, so that visitors have to stop to read it. On opening night, a woman fainted while reading the story, which Margot took as a compliment. “Most men read only a little bit of it and then back off and move on to the next thing,” Margot told me.
My personal favorite part of “Pubic Places, Private Spaces” is a carefully cluttered installation of two medicine cabinets and a vanity table on the left side of the gallery. Dozens of pill bottles crowd the shelves of the two cabinets, which are labeled “Flaunting Females” and “Doting Dolt.” Nearly all of the bottles came from Ritch’s pharmacy in Mountain Brook and once held pharmaceuticals that had been prescribed to Margot herself. Leaving her full name and the name of each medication visible, she has glued a small strip of paper, the size of a fortune-cookie fortune, over each label. The pill-bottle messages say things like My insecurity is my privilege and Labia is not a country in Africa. She has transformed the chests from mere containers for drugs and cosmetics into a cabinet of curiosities. There are jars full of her fingernails and toenails. Margot has kept all of the body hair — leg, underarm, pubic — she has ever cut or shaved off before a debutante ball. All of that is on display, too. The vanity table is topped with accessories, hairbrushes, dozens of gloves. One pair is embroidered with the words, “I was born to lead but bred to breed.”
The medicine cabinet installation, perhaps the most literal “pubic place” in the show, is the most physically accessible part of the exhibit. Visitors who may have been reluctant to pick up the china settings or rifle through the nightgowns have few qualms about picking up the pill bottles to see what the prescriptions were or to read the “pill-bottle truths” that Margot affixed to them.
On the other side of the elephant is a locked gun rack with a stark white, sculpted, naked female torso the display area. “It’s my grandfather’s gun rack, with my rack in it,” she told me. Beneath the naked sculpted torso, there’s a set of deer antlers; a red, triangle-shaped swath of cloth that she referred to as a “vag badge” and a “Wallace for Governor” button. There’s a faded American flag draped around the whole assemblage. Margot says the gun rack is the only part of the show that’s about men. Furthermore, it’s one of the private spaces mentioned in the title.
“The rack is locked, so you can’t go through it like you can the medicine chest or the bed or the china cabinet, and you’re not really allowed to connect with what’s inside it because there’s a time delay in the glass,” she said.
Finally, rounding out the installation is a china cabinet, positioned in front of the elephant’s left front leg, just a few feet away from the dining table, right where it might be in a formal dining room. Amid the cups, plates, creamers and gravy boats, there are delicate ballerina figurines whose faces have been painted black and an Aunt Jemima syrup bottle with the face painted like a white porcelain doll. A few plates and cups have the same patterns as those on the table, but there are also other patterns and hand-painted slogans. One plate in the china cabinet has the words “Cultural Amnesia” painted on it and has a picture of former Birmingham police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor juxtaposed with an image of Heinrich Himmler, chief of the German police and Minister of the Interior in Nazi Germany. Another plate has an image of former Birmingham mayor Larry Langford. The legend scrawled on it says, “In the 1920s, Birmingham smelled like sulphur. Now it just smells like shit.”
Call & response
Margot’s grandparents, Robin and Carolyn Wade, are notable local arts patrons: The couple created the Thomas Project for Artists, an artist residency program at the former Thomas Steel plant on Arkadelphia Road; parts of their private collection are housed at the Birmingham Museum of Art and Margot is actually in the process of transforming their home into a private museum. When Margot began acquiring materials for her SOE show, they gave her full access — to furniture, fabrics, china, antiques. Still, in spite of all of the cooperation and support she received from her grandparents, before “Pubic Places, Private Spaces” opened, Margot feared her family’s reaction.
“I spent a lot of time sitting in my grandparents’ attic, writing the word cunt on the family china,” she said. “I just didn’t know how it was going to go over. It’s actually been kind of a Pandora’s box for my entire family.”
Instead of the artwork infuriating them as she feared it might, the show has actually opened up unexpected channels of communication within her family. She mentioned open discussions with family to whom she has never felt connected — after the opening, she had some of the first conversations of her adult life with an uncle, and she and her grandfather discussed politics for the first time (“He explained to me why he likes Sarah Palin and I explained to him why I don’t,” she said).
“My grandfather was just so proud of me that I thought and planned something out and then did it,” Margot says.
To her surprise, her family’s response to the show has been far more positive than what she’s gotten from some of their neighbors.
“My mom’s tennis groups came,” she said. “Several of them immediately stood under the trophy wife, grabbing her breasts and taking pictures of each other and themselves with their iPhones. So, there they were grabbing my different body parts, laughing at my pubic hair, laughing at my armpit hair. Later, most of them called my mother very upset, saying ‘I think that show was so offensive to you — the way Margot was just shaming you for the way you brought her up.’ One woman said to her, ‘I’m very worried about Margot after seeing her at that art exhibit,’ and when my mom asked why, this woman said, ‘She doesn’t even know what a trousseau is.’
“But my mom, she gets it. She told her, ‘If that’s what your upset about, wow. You missed the whole point.’”
Margot admits that a lot of the Mountain Brook women who have seen the show have appeared far more interested in the china, lace and toile that she used than in any of the messages she has tried to convey. In fact, when one of her family’s elderly neighbors came to see the installation, the octogenarian actually acted as the expert guide to the art: She took Margot around to look at the table settings, the inventory of the china cabinet and the fabric that comprised the elephant and told to the younger woman some of the history of the patterns and designs.
According to Margot, the most visceral reactions have come from people who appear to be struggling with their own personal issues of shame, whether that shame is about race, privilege or womanhood. After witnessing people’s reactions in the gallery day after day, she recognizes that parts of the show are confrontational. But creating “Pubic Places, Private Spaces” was all about exploring her life experiences on her own terms, not inciting conflict.
“The people that have had negative reactions, they have lashed out at me,” she said. “They ask me, ‘Who do you think you are that you can put a up a Ku Klux Klan debutante? Who are you to put up blackface?’ They can’t believe I would say something like this and invite my friends to it.
“I went up to school in the North. I spent four years explaining, ‘I’m from Birmingham, not Bombingham. I’m not racist. I’m not ignorant.’ And yet I also had to explain going home from school a week early for my debutante ball.
“So I’ve had this incredible education, I’ve been able to travel, I’ve had all this privilege,” Margot said. “Here, I feel that I’m using my privilege not to point a finger but to point things out.
“I did this because I couldn’t stand on a soap box in front of City Hall and talk about all of this. I just kept asking myself, ‘How can I take what I feel and make it not angry? If I can’t talk about all of this, can I make something that will speak for itself? The body of the elephant alone took 17 hours to sew,” she said. “That’s a lot of time doing a very repetitive thing. I had to keep asking myself, ‘What am I trying to say with this?”’
During that panel discussion a few weeks ago, much was made about the lack of an artist’s statement for the show. The panelists, several audience members and even Margot herself eventually came around to the idea that there should at least be instruction placards — some signage to let people know it was not only OK to touch the artwork, it was encouraged. But as for writing a couple of paragraphs to contextualize “Pubic Places, Private Spaces,” Margot was having none of it. “There’s no artist’s statement in part because I tried to minimize the discrepancy between what is presented and what is represented,” she said.
“That I spent three months making all of this, that I’m here with it every day, that’s enough as far as I’m concerned,” she told me later. “Just being here is my artist’s statement.”
“Pubic Places, Private Places: A Work of Friction by Margot S. Wade” runs at Space One Eleven at least through Friday, March 19, and may be extended until the end of the month. Open Tues-Fri 11 a.m.-5 p.m. as well as by appointment, Space One Eleven is located at 2409 Second Ave. North. Margot Wade and Art Papers editor Sylvie Fortin will give a gallery talk on Thursday, March 18, at 7 p.m.; suggested donation for the event, which will include beer, wine, soft drinks and sandwiches, is $5. For more information, call (205) 328-0553 or visit www.spaceoneeleven.org
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