Walk this way

Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, Townsville
7 May – 11 July 2004

Inspired by the sculptured shoes of local artist Jan Hynes in her 2002 exhibition Hynesight, Perc Tucker Regional Gallery recently hosted the exhibition Walk this Way. Featuring for the most part shoes, the designs of thirty-six local artists were interspersed with several pivotal works recognised nationally.

Superficially, the rationale of this exhibition is a lighthearted view of shoe and foot fetishes; however flowing through the works is an undercurrent much explored in feminist theory through the examination of literature and fairytales as well as through ideological constructs evident in artefacts.

The sexual connotations associated with the shoe fetish may have originated with the Queen of Sheba, a rich and knowledgeable pagan queen who bared her legs to cross a mirrored lake which had been disguised by her host, King Solomon, as a pool of water.' Because he gave her all she desired, the Queen's submission to the will and conversion to the faith of Solomon appears in 'The Book of Kings'. Shame or other dubious motivations for her compliance prevail in various ambiguous versions of the tale which describe the discovery of the Queen having a deformity beneath her dress: the hooves of an ass or perhaps that she was splay-footed or bird-footed, or even had mermaid or reptilian extremities. Perhaps she was simply hairy legged. Whatever the case, she was cured by the magic water of Solomon. Blurring of literal and metaphorical translations over time prevent the drawing of any real conclusions.

Nevertheless, deformity and transformation is a common theme in women's stories. Extant in often-cautionary seventeenth century fairytales 'the woman as heroine' had to change her way of life to secure the prince and his castle. Mid-nineteenth century female domestic fiction complied with the political and societal demands made on women, confining them to the home as the goods and chattels of their male counterparts.2 The female experience as the subordinate sex/sex object lingers. Simone de Beauvoir's famous study of women, The Second Sex in the 1950s pre-empted the examination of the female psyche by a bevy of feminists, including Colette Dowling in The Cinderella Complex, Women's hidden fear of independence.3

The Cinderella story has been told for more than a thousand years. The first written version in China around AD 850-860 bears striking resemblances to the Western form typified in Charles Perrault's Cendrillon. In this exhibition, the ornate focal piece by Timothy Horn, Glass Slipper (Ugly Blister) owned by the National Gallery of Australia, is simultaneously an impressive work of art, which any fairy godmother would be proud of, whilst it highlights polarities, questioning the point at which the beautiful becomes grotesque and vice versa. Victoria Nelson's kiln formed glass stilettos Live to Dance and Stella Swings are similarly delicate yet perverse.

The binary of beauty and deformity is the subject matter of the mutant reconstruction of the female foot (and psyche) in Julie Rrap's digital image Overstepping, just as they are evident in Anne Lord's Collection and Step/elevate/worship/purchase. Lord's works feature Lotus shoes referencing the cultural practices she encountered during her recent residencies in China. The Chinese version of Cinderella's lost golden shoe reverberates with the fetishism of bound feet established during the T'ang Dynasty and practiced until the mid twentieth century.

The binding of feet functioned erotically and physically to restrict a woman's movement. Sylvia Ditchburn's shoes were created from kitchen cleaning materials. Titled Kitchen Maid the work is a comment on the post World War II era when women were relegated to the suburbs and to keeping house whilst keeping up appearances in high heels and make-up.

The divide between the experience of women and men is implicit in the two series by Jan Hynes. From Salvador Dati: Melting Moments to Nolan's Ned Kelly boots, the first series pays homage to great, mostly male artists in history. Brainteasers for the art spectator, these shoes also engage the imagination of the uninitiated. Percentage-wise the number of dedicated female shoes is probably representative of the number of recognised women artists with titles Fiona Hall: Apples and Bananas in the Garden of Eden; Georgia O'Keeffe: Poppies with Black Abstraction; Kathleen Petyarre: Mountain Devil Dreaming in Colour and Frida Khalo self portrait as painting boots. Hynes' second more feminine series includes shoes as delicious cakes, watermelon and other exotic fruits and delicacies. Size D Cup Cake Shoes! Shoe breast food fetish! Other works in the exhibition reflect ethnic or lifestyle diversity, from Anneke Silver's Australian/Dutch heritage in Pop Thongs and Other Shoes, to Victoria Nelson's 0-Ren-Ishii's Geta and Beachcomber's Find which look at similarities in Australian/Japanese culture; to Byron Bay artist, Melissa Hirsch's career choices in The era of renovation size 8 1/2 blunnies; and freedom of movement in the aluminium wire Dancing Shoes Relational Object Series by Nicole Voevodin-Cash.

Freedom and transformation in the age of technology! Rhesa Menkens' computer animation A Duck's Revenge strides into a mysterious journey, to where I am not sure, but the familiar lyrics of Nancy Sinatra filter through the gallery, These boots were made for walkin ' and that's just what they'll do!

notes: 

1. See Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On fairy tales and their tellers, Vintage, London, 1995, (first published in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus Ltd,1994).

2. Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction, A Political History of the Novel, 1987, Oxford University Press, New York.

3. Notably Germaine Greer's Female Eunuch, Paladin, London, 1971. Dowling, C, The Cinderella Complex: Women's hidden fear of independence, Summit Books, USA, 1981.