Let’s face it, you are gonna find a million and one songs that will remind you of your ex. Then, you will torture yourself by sinking into a sea of ice cream, chocolate and Tinder swiping... According to artist Lindsey Mendick, her latest breakup hurt so much it felt like her ex-boyfriend had punched her in the ribs. However, the artist is now finally moving on at ‘The Ex Files’, at Castor Projects, London, where her five former boyfriends have all been through the ritual of being fired in the kiln and, as if mutilated in an alien invasion, are immortalised as sickly and dribbling ceramic busts, in an endeavour for the artist to put the past behind. Words by Vanessa Murrell.
Over at her pottery studio near Elephant and Castle in south London, the artist shares with me how much she enjoyed the dramas of the home as a teenager, where she used to sit on the stairs impatiently with her sister and dog, Sultan, overhearing the aggressive shouting caused by her parent’s crooked relationship. In particular, she remembers a time when her mum threw a nail varnish at her dad’s head, which he dodged and it broke the conservatory window... sparking him to warn: “You’ll have to pay for that!”
This childhood memory serves as delightful entrée to the concepts around the exhibition, in which Lindsey is the narrator of an emotionally painful melodrama, and pushes the domestic past the point of the everyday. When entering the space through a clinical opaque curtain, a glazed ceramic Marmite jar is scattered on the floor, nearby a dust pan of the same material, awaiting for someone to dare to clean the mess up. There’s an office desk occupying the space with compartmentalised sections made out of rice cake ceramics, a food Lindsey recalls her mum being obsessed with eating.
On top of this table, one can look closely into the busts of the artist’s ex’s, including a beheaded monster, which is in fact a conglomeration of lots of teenage boyfriends whom now serve as a functional pen holder, or Idrissa, who the artist describes as always “looking clean and expensive”, however is now presented to us beheaded and fragmented, almost as if he has intentionally been left to over-burn and break in the kiln. Moving along in this cold environment, one can find a moment of warmth in a muscular torso of another of the artist’s ex-lovers, a Spurs supporter, who the artist remembers his chest being a place of comfort for her, where she’d usually lay her head on.
Mendick merges man and beast together through sickly sweet palettes in a following glossy figure, which seems to be both vomiting sausages and morphing into a snake-monster at the same time. “I’ve got you and I won’t let you fall” the artist says, as she plays with her fingers, moulding directly into his face. It’s interesting how another body can become one’s own playground, and how that familiar recreational field can turn into a strange land after a breakup.
Equally grotesque are the octopus-like creatures woven into the displayed office furniture, including a chair and an archival cabinet of files, which paralleling the process of her clay works, have been transformed from their humble, soft beginnings into a new, durable substance: ceramic. Here, the ‘sex chair’ (as Lindsey addresses it), is to the contrary, seemingly soft but incredibly strong. The strength of its high-heeled tentacles remind me of voracious mouths, consuming all obstacles that interfere with it. Not to mention its ability to escape predators thanks to its bone-less cushion padding and wheels. The physical flexibility of this domestic creature has the means to adapt to any given situation, squeezing its way into and through the tight structure of the drawers and handles its compressed in.
Despite its beast-like strength, this fetishised black object with an infused aroma of masculinity mimics the artist’s vulnerable position as a hoarder of her past male companions: it is clingy, grabby and it is difficult for it to let go of certain things... When asking the artist about the attachment she has to certain people and moments reflected throughout the exhibition, Lindsey describes the process as an initial humorous concept that has actually worked in spurring the first attempts to mentally detaching herself from these memories and ex’s. She extends, “each sculpture is meant to be a washed out trace of a relationship and actually more of a representation of me and the time that we spent together.” Far from humour though, she reveals “It’s hard not to feel heavy hearted when you’re scuttling around in the depths of painful and heartbreaking memories; especially ones when it was your bad behaviour that tore the relationship in two.”
Speaking of tearing things apart, there are some pages that seem to have been ripped out from a private diary in which one can glimpse through a set of clay selfies, where the artist is undressed and even engaged in intimate physical activities. I can definitely recall having a ‘stalking’ moment when looking closely into the artist’s nipples as she undertakes sexual actions, generally considered to be of a private nature. Embracing and taking control over her own body and sexual identity, Mendick invites us to intrude in her own privacy. The ‘publicness’ to the act may be seen as a portrayal of liberation, championing the artist’s self esteem, body confidence, and sexual agency, but the work taps into deeper connotations, crossing the boundaries between sexual objectification and even voyeurism, where we, as audiences, are the ‘performers’ of an unintentionally public-viewing activity, being fooled as both the ‘target’, who is forced to watch these sexualised representations, and the ‘assaulter’, who decides to keep on watching these depictions of erotic encounters between the artist and her past lovers.
It is not just us, as audiences, who are trapped into this conflicting condition, but Mendick herself is both a ‘martyr’ and a ‘leader’ too, a state that can be considered in particular across the performance that she undertook during the opening night of her ‘show’. Here, she referenced Miss Havisham’s character from Charles Dickens novel ‘Great Expectations’, a wealthy spinster, once abandoned at the altar, who is determined to wear her wedding dress for the rest of her life. Yet Mendick’s recreation of this persona involved a PVC dress sewn together by her mum and a context where she had no fiancée to get married to, distorting all of the symbolism surrounding the bride, especially those linked to notions of hope, fertility, and renewal, and rather functioning as an embodiment of perversity and contradiction. Forming a complex visual rejection of all that the traditional costume stands for, in this act, the artist replaced the traditional bride moment with the image of a woman perpetually signalling the failure of her past romances. Not just a ‘sufferer’, but also as a ‘conductor’, she entirely dominated the situation by passively working on her emails and admin tasks, superbly ignoring her past-lovers to whom she’s paying a ritual to, as well as giving no attention to her audience in her own exhibition’s opening night. But, does the artist refuse to take notice of these ceramic ex’s to get them back, or at least, to get a reaction from them? Or is this passiveness a sign of desire to turn the page?
Lindsey Mendick further sets a corporate scene through her use of an abundant number of ceramic post-it notes (250 ones as I recall counting), all stuck on top of a cottage cheese wallpaper, which apparently is the artist’s dad’s favourite food, covering the entire white gallery walls. Tangy cottage cheese is a staple of many low-calorie diets. However, resisting temptation from unhealthy snack food is never easy, and the artist invites us to consume the sugary, glazed treats from Gregg’s Temptation box with a ‘Please help yourself’ sign.
This surreal setting looks into the complicated relationship between what we eat and how we feel. Hinting towards the sensual pleasures relating to food and the joys of excess, in the eyes of the artist she is rather presenting a love letter to the office, a place Lindsey describes as giving her mental and financial stability and that has allowed her to dream big. Working in an office setting is often classified as a boring task, however Lindsey finds excitement in this environment, and in particular, she finds the eating habits that one can adopt by working in these fascinating, in which one might reduce what they consume given that the desk-based work often involves little or no physical activity, or one might over-indulge in sweet treats for a sense of satisfaction. Far from office tasks though, the artist’s numerous post-it notes are chronologically stuck reminders of conversations and thoughts of the time spent with each of her five lovers. The result is disturbing, with reminders including “You shouted me to sleep” amongst highly sexualised records of ideas such as “I knew I love you when I involuntarily said your name as I masturbated” and even naive ones that mention “You were the best looking boy in year 7”.
Perhaps it's this nostalgic touch that punctuates the language of this exhibition. Added to the mix is the fact that one is not able to view the past as Lindsey has actually experienced it, but as she imagines it now, satirised and edited. There’s something comforting about the past, isn’t there, but can this nostalgia ever help Lindsey move forwards?