Hirsute in Ennsikillen

Artist Grainne Bird uses human hair to explore themes of liberation at the Higher Bridges Gallery

Hirsute, the adjectivally titled solo exhibition by Dublin-based artist Grainne Bird, opens in Enniskillen’s Higher Bridges Gallery on February 6. It's not the only piece of art inspired by filamentous biomaterial.

Take Hair, for example. The smash hit musical was a dramatic expression of political and social trends in the 1960s. Marsha Hunt, the show’s leading lady, she of the voluminous afro hair halo, posed naked for Patrick Litchfield, and the photograph graced the cover of Vogue magazine.

Good Hair, meanwhile – American comedian and actor Chris Rock’s documentary film featuring awesome African American hair styles – recently made many waves in the States. Bird is, therefore, in good company.

When we speak on Skype, the 24-year-old Bird – a brunette who clearly takes pride in her own luxuriant locks – reveals that she began working with hair as a material during the last year of her fine arts course at Dublin’s Institute of Technology.

'I wanted to use organic materials in a different way,' she explains. 'I had been drawing or painting hair but when I decided to work with it, the project quickly took on a life of its own.'

As she made the rounds of some 50 Dublin hairdressing salons soliciting hair, Bird was affectionately dubbed the ‘hair girl’, but her requests for hair from shorn off pigtails, plaits and ringlets occasionally met with resistance. 'One salon owner complained that I would be stealing the DNA of her customers and asked me not to come back,' Bird reveals.

 

Once collected in mixed bags, Bird sorts the hair according to colour and length – a tedious task. Bird relishes a challenge, but she admits that her novel venture has been technically, physically and mentally demanding.

'When I am working with hair it gets into my clothes and feels really uncomfortable and itchy. I tried wrapping myself up in plastic overalls, tying my hair back and wearing a mask, but I now understand why in bygone times wearing a hair shirt was considered a penance.'

Bird constructed a spinning machine using bicycle parts so she can spin hair yarn for knitting, weaving and crochet work. 'It is a tiresome process, for the hair continually tangles in the spinning wheel and a couple of kilos of hair makes only a small amount of yarn.' Felting is another messy operation. The hair is soaked in hot soapy water then layered to dry between pieces of bubblewrap.

Over the past two years, Bird has created a range of unusual objects and clothing made from hair. A vintage hairbrush – its bristles removed – is enhanced with a switch of pure blond hair. Abstract landscapes made from felted hair are inspired by scenes around Bird’s home town of Kilkenny.

Intimate fashion items including bikinis, thongs, baby grows and slippers have disturbed some people, who have accused Bird of having a hair fetish. But she insists that these pieces are purely and simply works of art.

Undeterred, Bird continues to research her subject. She recently discovered that in the Victorian era, mourners made funeral wreaths from the hair of the deceased. In some of India’s holy temples, where pilgrims are obliged to shave their hair, it is sold to the west to make hair extensions and wigs for a lucrative multi-million dollar industry. Others in poverty sell their hair, which invariably makes it onto the heads of the wealthy obsessed with extensions and authentic wigs.

A five-week residency in the art and craft village of Raghurajpur in North West India allowed Bird to experiment with different techniques and art forms. While she was there, a fellow visiting artist, Melissa Dobert, invited her to spend ten months in her home town, Cleveland, Ohio.

As soon as she arrived in the city, Bird began another hair raising campaign, inviting 30 hairdressing salons and barber shops to participate in a new project. This time she made sure that the hairdressers – artisans in their own right – and their clients became collaborators. They all received an open invitation to visit Bird’s final show, where the piece de resistance was a hairy house.

'The house was made with bricks and clad with 400 pounds of hair,' explains Bird. 'A communion piece, it incorporated hair of all kinds, including afro hair and short trims supplied by barber’s shops.'

The reactions ranged from surprise to shock. By chance, Bird encountered a man in a Cleveland restaurant who recommended she visit the exhibition out of curiosity but warned that his wife had been sickened by the hair house. Only then did Bird own up to being the artist. She regrets that she did not film the reactions of visitors as well as the entire creative process.

But she is not the first artist to court controversy by working with human hair. In 2007, the Chinese artist Wenda Gu mounted an exhibition entitled United Nations. When it opened in Poland, many visitors were outraged, claiming that the installation – which displayed piles of hair – resembled the piles generated in concentration camps when Jewish prisoners had their heads shaven. Despite his attempts to deny any intentional reference to the holocaust, Gu was forced to close the exhibition within 24 hours.

One is curious to see what surprises Bird will bring to Enniskillen with her Hirsute exhibition, which opens in the Higher Bridges Gallery on February 6 and runs until March 8. Clearly she has no intention of giving up the hair habit any time soon. Her parting comment reveals her continued enthusiasm: 'Short hair cuts are popular this year, so hair will be plentiful!'

Main image courtesy of Suzanne Price.