At Piper Keys, London, the artist and musician shows intimate depictions of domestic labour
Images of Manuela Gernedel’s kitchen sink float on the walls of her solo exhibition ‘Snakes’ at Piper Keys. Since March, the artist-run space has been hosted at Raven Row (whose own exhibition programme finished last year) in its converted Spitalfields town houses at 56–58 Artillery Lane. Gernedel’s 18 drawings (all works 2018) are held behind simple sheets of glass, giving them a clean, archival feel. Meticulously sketched in graphite and coloured pencil, each offers a view into a simple aluminum sink. Familiar objects pass across the basin: a cooking pot, a pair of forks, a yellow scrubbing sponge. I never see the tap, but there’s a strainer catching the clods of coffee and flecks of tomato before they slip down the drain.
At the centre of the room, in a different register entirely, three ceramic foetuses are gathered on a tabletop. They are pink and glossy, and just over life-size. At first I ignore these gory creatures because they are a little difficult to look at. As human-animal composites, they have strange and grotesque proportions: their tiny hands are out of kilter with their swollen heads and they have old faces, which appear senile. Long umbilical cords snake around their bodies, fastening them to pink birthing sacs that remind me of booster seats. Glazed with streaks of scarlet, they look bloodstained and aborted.
Gernedel, who also makes DIY pop music under the name Manuela, is the mother of two small children and her visual practice explicitly negotiates making art and motherhood. The sink drawings began as a GIF, shown at Focal Point in 2015, in which a frantic loop of photographs depicted her kitchen in various states of disarray. ‘I had two very young children at the time, and not a lot (/no time) to make art,’ she explains. In response, she turned the kitchen into a studio, making housework into the subject of her art. This is not exactly new – in the 1970s, Mierle Laderman Ukeles performed domestic chores in the museum, washing floors and dusting vitrines – but, half a century on, it still feels quietly radical. ‘I will simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them as Art,’ wrote Ukeles in her 1969 ‘Manifesto for Maintenance Art’, written after the birth of her first child. By making the sink into a still-life Gernedel, too, calls for a reassessment of the value of housework, flushing up the daily chores and fixes them on the gallery walls.
Gernedel’s drawings really are marvellous: the silvery sink and shiny pots have a surreal gleam to them, as if the fairy liquid has made everything supernaturally reflective. Occasionally, her body can be found reflected in the aluminum surfaces: a shadow folding into the basin; her shoes poking into the frame. I read the still lifes in the same way that I read other people’s shopping in the supermarket queue. A hot-water bottle and a packet of Cystopurin in one drawing – a urine infection? A stack of take-out dishes in another – a night off? Like a diary, they are records of everyday living.
In an accompanying text, the writer J. A. Harrington alludes to haruspicy, the Roman art of divination using animal entrails – which might account for the tangled cords of the fetuses, the ‘snakes’ of the exhibition’s title. Are they auspicious? Perhaps they’re magical spirits who do the dishes secretly by night. It’s a nice idea, but when I look at the pink life-forms they remain defiantly uterine and it’s hard to separate them from the job motherhood. If there’s any epic sacrifice, it’s independence, art. As Ukeles puts it, ‘Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (lit.).’
Manuela Gernedel: Snakes runs at Piper Keys, London until 22 July.
Main image: Manuela Gernedel, Untitled, 2018, (detail), coloured pencil on paper, 42 × 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Piper Keys, London