YYZ Zine (Toronto)
Vol. 2 Issue 4 (2002)
Essay by Jenifer Papararo
I grew up in a town on the prairies surrounded by farms and the image of roadside bales is a part of my identity I suppose. The big joke from farmers in my area was to have a pair of boots sticking out of it like someone had gotten caught in the machinery and rolled up in it. I was always attracted to that image.
Jennifer Stillwell calls Bale a performance installation and sets up the gallery accordingly. The gallery becomes the set, studio, and exhibition site. First Stillwell turns the gallery into a domestic setting. She shops in local second-hand furniture stores or forages back alleys to gather the goods needed to convert the gallery into a home, or at least to convince a camera lens that it is a home. She lays down carpeting, paints walls, and pastes wallpaper. Stillwell then positions her video camera in the corner to capture as much of the set as possible for a series of shots that will take at least three days to record. Room ready, camera ready, Stillwell starts dismantling the room. Piece by piece, the artist breaks legs off tables, unstuffs upholstery, and ultimately makes all the big parts small. Stillwell is preparing the room for its final phase and for her last performance. She will wrap every broken bit into the carpet and roll the room into a tight cylinder, or a bale as she calls it. Bale turns into an exhibition once the room is rolled and the video is minimally edited (condensing over twenty hours of work into six hours). The work left in the gallery is not simply performance residue, but is the exhibition itself.
Whether or not the image of boots hanging out of hay bales made Stillwell laugh, Bale is evidence of the lasting impression of the joke. The bale conjures images of her past, but it is the element of play in the farmer’s joke that resonates in Stillwell’s work. The form of the object signifies her past and the objects rolled in it are domestic and personal. It is distressing to watch her struggle in her determination to rip apart the room with its familiar and worn items until one realizes that it is all a farce. It is neither her stuff nor her room. It is just a day’s work, or more correctly three. The anxiety of watching someone tear apar t their things and leave them packaged in pieces is undermined by the fact that we see, through the video and the installation, that it is the gallery space and not her home. I don’t know if Bale will lead anyone to deep belly laughs, but there is a subtle humour in all its parts that gestures toward something that is already known. It is a shared and acknowledged deception that brings us back to the work involved in making the exhibition and not the stuff of the work itself.