*part of this post is cut and pasted from elsewhere on this blog to provide easy access to contextualisation*
Context was the big surprise here. There was an absolute raft of useful material out there, but I really had to think about what I was looking for and where I was looking for it.
I started by learning everything I could about the Cottingley Fairies, up to and including fairly recent Antiques Roadshow footage. I read about housework, who does it, how long does it take, what are the attitudes towards it, how do attitudes change across different countries. See below. But there was still something missing.
I read about Disney which has a long tradition of showing fairies doing housework. I put the work up for peer review and was instantly pointed towards Martha Rosler’s video work “The semiotics of the kitchen”. I’d seen parts of this work once before, at the Avant Garde Feminism exhibition, but it hadn’t come to mind on this fairy work. Yet when you watch it you can see similarities in the isolation of features of the domestic, and the lack of smiles and joy in the subject (everyone in Disney does the housework with a smile whereas Rosler identifies and demonstrates the articles with a degree of detached violence). There’s a feeling of trappedness to both, and to my mind, resentment. This was useful, but it didn’t help me with contextualising the original work. Why would these fairy images, made a good 30 years before even Fantasia was released, have had such immediate and enduring appeal?
I found a 1973 paper by the president of the Folklore Society, considering the authenticity of the Cottingley Fairies (Sanderson, 1973), and I watched “Fairytale: A true story” (Fairytale: A true story, 1997) which despite its multiple divergences from the truth provided a fantastic amount of context and was pretty much the key to understanding more about the original work. We can look all we want at how the images were made, the way the two girls refused every opportunity to “come clean”, but that doesn’t tell us why their work seized the public imagination and commanded the time of luminaries of culture and the photographic industry.
The film reminds us of what else was going on in 1917 and onwards in Britain. The absolute horrors of WW1, households either bereaved of their loved ones or waiting anxiously to see if, when and in what state they would return. It shows us a society shown warmly welcoming distraction, escape (literally, in the form of Harry Houdini), fairy stories in the form of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan novel and play. A society where the spiritual and paranormal groups gained popularity as people sought to find comfort in the face of the losses and insanity of war. A society that welcomed the ideas of the innocence and peace of childhood, triumph over impossible odds and the dream that everything would be alright in the end. Conan Doyle, who I think was largely responsible for raising the profile of the girls’ work and hence the fame of the girls themselves, had himself lost a son in the war. When we look at all of this, the impact and appeal of the Cottingley Fairies becomes far more understandable. A hundred years on and our perception of fairies and fairy tales is formed and coloured by Disney, by the toy world feeding our children fairies and unicorns.
Contextually, there is something to dig into with the housework. My Grandmothers and their mothers would have laughed roundly at me complaining about housework, given that I have machines that do so much of it, a small family that was entirely of my choosing and timing, and I am currently in the fortunate position of being a most-of-the-time student and some-of-the-time amateur musician whilst my young daughter is at school. I have a partner who’s happy to share some of the load, particularly cooking. My two northern grannies would have looked at the flashing LEDs and jingles on the various appliances and pointed out that I have no need of fairies.
The fairies are unseen, but so is much of the housework done in the UK – often by women who are working full time plus jobs as well as looking after shopping, cleaning, laundry, meal preparation, often for more than one household. A quick online search suggests that the Daily Mail believes women are now doing less housework than ever and that those women who do more housework will live longer. Other sources (eg the Guardian article below) are quoting weekly workloads of thirteen hours a week or more, on top of other paid work. In Sweden, you can deduct half the cost of services such as cleaning, cooking, gardening from your tax return, a policy that has created many thousands of new jobs.
Housework is invisible – we do it when the house is empty, it’s something that we have to get out of the way before we can do the other stuff. It’s always there. Even now, women are judged for the quality of their housework, by people who have never seen the homes in question. Who remembers Godfrey Bloom of UKIP, telling a group of female politicians that they were “sluts” because they admitted to not cleaning behind their fridges? The increase in aging populations and ill-health has resulted in a huge increase of male carers, child carers, all with housework responsibilities as well as personal caring.
My tutor feedback highlighted the feminist component of the work which I had alluded to but not really developed. Embarassingly, despite regarding myself as a feminist practitioner, I often need to have the feminist content of my work pointed out to me. Here’s part of my response, taken from the self-assessment on this blog.
I still have a mental block with seeing my work as clearly feminist work. I keep reading feminist books and books about feminist work and hope that the connection and context will become apparent soon. In the meantime I came across Fliss Quick’s work Home-Maker which isolates domestic tasks, and labels her home museum style. Her work takes a different approach – whereas mine elevates the chores to fantasy, hers shows the routine as performance art in her own home, museum-style caption capture the activity, the frequency, the little failures to live up to our own expectations. http://www.flissquick.co.uk/index.html
In a moment of inspiration I looked at the mini catalogue from the show “Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s” which I saw at The Photographers’ Gallery a couple of years ago. There are, obviously, any number of appropriate contextual references. Marcella Campagnano’s self portraits showing herself in a range of roles including a cleaning lady, Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, Renate Eisenegger’s sisyphean ironing of a linoleum floor, Birgit Juergenssen’s womens who are both metaphorically and literally tied to the home, Leticia Parente’s Task 1 video subverting ironing. I can see now why my tutor highlighted the feminist aspect to the work.
Sanderson, S. (1973). The Cottingley Fairy Photographs: A Re-Appraisal of the Evidence. Folklore, 84(2), pp.89-103.
Fairytale: A true story. (1997). [DVD] Directed by C. Sturridge. UK: Icon Productions.