Exhibition Essays

2004 Reviews

December 2004

My favourite skirt

Sophie Jerram


My favourite skirt - I just can't wear it any more for fear that its rips will expand into embarrassing, exposing holes and ruin what is left of its gorgeous but well-worn fabric. It's been sitting at the top of my wardrobe for enough time for me to realise I'm never going to have that wholesome night by the fire, darning it back to its former glory. As it's the New Year, I'm owning up to my weaknesses: I am not someone who sews, let alone mends. And I've read enough tragic novels featuring the decline of Indian tailoring to know that it's almost impossible to find someone to fix your clothing for under what it would cost you to buy a new piece. But wait! An e-mail catches my eye: Mendt: Garment Repair Services by Liz Allan, at Enjoy Gallery - payment by cash or barter. Barter doesn't sound too painful - what's this about?

Artist Liz Allan has set up shop for the summer at Enjoy gallery (top end of Cuba Street, above Olive Cafe): she's specialising in visible mending. That's opposed to invisible mending, in case you have any expectations that she's some kind of magician. Allan's been offering her services for a week now and I find her surrounded by people's jerseys, skirts, jackets and even t-shirts - all of which have clearly experienced the same use and sentimental attachments to their owners as my worn skirt. Most are mended with an obvious embellishment in a simple but effective chain stitch. It is apparent that she is genuinely committed to the tradition of handcraft, the value of personal care and the resurrection of our favourite items - because she understands that we just can't replace them.

Liz is particularly open to barter for the payment her work - reminding us that even in modern 21st Century life we have more than cash to negotiate with as a medium of exchange. So far she's been danced for, played music, given comic books and been offered dancing lessons alongside 'a free idea'. I've offered her homemade baking, but it occurs to me that she's not got a lot to actually live on. She suggests she could do with a desk, an electric jug, some signwriting - things to assist her with her work - or even some plants for her garden. Yet none of this is going to keep the landlord off her back. To do this she'd have to be charging a fairly hefty hourly rate, thereby putting off most of the custom she's so far generated.

Liz Allan's project is more than a whimsical idea. It cuts right to the heart of contemporary art at present, where the examination of both the value and values of our daily transactions is very much in vogue. Take, for example, the Dutch pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale, entitled We are the World. Five artists of different ethnicities were invited to create displays relating to the artists' cultural backgrounds. In one, you were invited to sit at a workshop bench and cut and sew a piece of red leather into "Flames" brand boots. The fact that visitors had a choice about contributing was no small irony for artist Carlos Amorales- the workshop was modelled on those his Mexican family had been working at -without choice- on the US/Mexico border. In another part of the Dutch pavilion you were provided, for no charge, a glass of ginger vodka cocktail mixed to the recipe of African artist Meschac Gaba. By contrasting these experiences, visitors were being asked to consider the underlying cost of their ' free' refreshments.

Back in Wellington, Liz Allan's Mendt project provides insight into the throw-away lifestyle and the decline of the 'lifetime guarantee' on our goods, but it also highlights the unsustainable nature of work such as Allan's. Which is why, sadly, the beautiful, intricate work of hers can only be found in a gallery, where the human transactions around her mending service are considered as valuable as the service itself.


Originally published by The Dominion Post