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Mourning exists as a profoundly ritualised and circumscribed process; during the nineteenth century it culminated in a kind of performative practice concerned with the conspicuous display of grief, and its attendant customs. Martha McDonald’s recent performance/installation, The Further the Distance, the Tighter the Knot, draws upon the complexities of historical mourning practice in a work that explores the coexistence of the public, coordinated articulation of deep emotion alongside the genuine and private experience of such feeling. Incorporating elements constant to her oeuvre (song, flamboyant costuming, didactic monologue and autobiographical disclosure, knitted pieces and live demonstrations of knitting), the audience is invited on a tour of the physical, historical and psychological spaces of St Kilda’s Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts, in a work that is site-specific in the truest sense.
McDonald ornaments the exhibition spaces with tributes that recall its origins as a domestic setting steeped in mourning (the building was originally commissioned as a family home by German immigrant Moritz Michaelis in the mid-nineteenth century, and both he and his wife died there); knitted wreaths and forget-me-not sprigs soon give way to amorphous forms executed on a vast scale. Ushering viewers through the building, McDonald lectures on Linden’s history and that of its initial owners, divulges some of her own story as a recent arrival from the United States, and details aspects of Victorian mourning practice, punctuating these soliloquies with musical laments in the folk tradition. The inclusion of live knitting demonstrations serves as a deliberate analogue for the density of McDonald’s working method, as distinct narrative threads are woven together, personal and collective memories and desires all coalesce in an attempt to restore presence in the face of absence, of loss.
The relentless instructive quality and sheer intricacy of The Further the Distance, the Tighter the Knot becomes a little wearying at points, even as McDonald deliberately accentuates bodily effort and exertion throughout. Domestic crafts are amplified and distorted into enormous, exaggerated displays of labour that symbolise the physical demands of such ‘women’s work’. Mid-performance McDonald, singing a frantic rendition of Go Dig My Grave, looms thick black yarn over a window in a frenzy, feigning obliviousness to the presence of her audience, her body straining and seemingly stretched to the limit with every pass of the thread. Later, in one of the front rooms and again caroling a folk song, she sets about decimating a colossal black curtain of her own making, eviscerating the finely-wrought screen with vigour. It is a pantomime of private hysteria at (destructive) odds with dignified public custom, and a gesture that shifts the balance from an emphasis on making to unmaking, or rather, coming undone.
The public demonstration of ‘polite’ or ‘proper’ grief is its own performance, a synecdoche of anguish that requires a witness from the world outside. Mourning may occur in isolation, but it rarely demands invisibility. Despite the underpinning of achingly earnest sentiment, McDonald’s use of narration and gesture is so self-aware that it often approaches camp. It is a strategy that bespeaks a necessary exhibitionism, where the audience is present to legitimise the artist’s display of rehearsed sorrow. As a result, McDonald’s enactment emphasises the shared customs and expectations at play there, where artist and audience are both bound by the unspoken rules of performance that keep each in their place.
At the same time, McDonald slyly courts transgression: pressing knitted tokens into viewers’ hands and taking the opportunity for physical intimacy, beckoning and cajoling her audience to come closer, having viewers photographed by surprise as they emerge from one room to the next, needing them to be a part, to be involved—though only on her terms. Although McDonald might invite us closer at certain points, at others the group is cordoned off and then deserted, exaggerating the spectator’s blind faith, their need to be lead by the performer. In this way, The Further the Distance, The Tighter the Knot is as much a study in convention as catharsis. Mourning culture as performative practice is not simply grounded in visibility and spectatorship, but in the expectation thereof.
McDonald’s final, euphoric gesture sees her tearing off her heavy mourning garb to reveal her own contemporary dress beneath, a purposefully eye-popping ensemble of complementary colours, and heavy black lace-up boots. As McDonald strips off her hand-knitted widow’s weeds in Linden’s front garden, after having led the audience up to the balcony and abandoning them there, she skips off down the street, leaving behind both performance and audience. Though the artist seems to have happened upon a moment of gleeful liberation and neat resolution, those who remain, stranded still in her house of mourning, begin to feel themselves to be the uneasy prisoners of convention. After some time has passed, it becomes natural to wonder whether McDonald will return (she does, to bow), whether we should applaud her (we do, dutifully), when would be the right time to leave (shortly thereafter, though not too soon) and whether, indeed, it would be right to leave at all.