A Miami based contemporary art newsletter / blog

Agustina Woodgate: Letting Down at Spinello Gallery

Image from the series Rapunzel, 2008. Still from 120 min. performance. Music by Alexander Puentes and Federico Nessi.

In the last year Agustina Woodgate has been developing a large body of work using human hair. Previous sculptural gestures using hair have since developed into more precise choices and decisions, for example the use for certain hair, who it belonged to, and the processes through which both the hair’s physicality and anthropology are changed. Always working outwards from her own experiences, her work includes heavy autobiographical references. Expanded to the level of biographical, and finally global, Woodgate’s themes, which emanate from personal beginnings, belongings and stories to universally recognizable truths draw attention to a multitude of boundaries. From private to public, internal to external, she weaves together the personal and collective.

Currently based in Miami, Woodgate works in an interdisciplinary manner. Her interests in the relationships between the human body, identity and behavior, are manifested in a body of work that incorporates a wide variety of media including photography, installations, sculpture, video and performance. Captivated by the absurdity of definitions that we have voluntarily restricted ourselves with, and the structures of identity that we cherish despite their obscurity, she is interested in how humans relate to each other and how we naturally or unnaturally relate to materials and how they in turn contribute to form our identity.

I remember very clearly as a child four generations of hair; my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother and me, all of us with our real brushes and our real hair. My work has a lot to do not especially with hair, but rather that hair became the material that I needed to communicate the concept of identity. In that respect, the concept rather than the material itself drives my work. Its not that I am a hair artist; it just so happens that when I tried to say something about my life the material that contained the most meaning or honesty, the material which said everything that objects could and more was hair.”

From this point of departure Woodgate has developed a whole series of work based specifically around her own childhood. In 2007 she was selected to present at MOCA’s annual Optic Nerve—a juried exhibition/screening of emerging video artists. Here she showed a stop motion animation of old toys that had belonged to her when she was growing up. This sentimentality or nostalgic, memory oriented direction very much governs her current practice and in particular was the catalyst for her most recent series of performances based upon fairy tales, which “Rapunzel” (2008)—the focus of her recent exhibition “Letting Down” at Spinello Gallery—was a part of.

Pivotal to the genealogy of this current exhibition is the artist’s intimacy with a wig that her grandmother wore in her youth—at the time it was fashionable to use wigs. As a child Woodgate would wear the then retired wig, incorporating it in dress up games. Somehow the same wig ended up in her house here in Miami and it is that same wig which is currently on exhibition at Spinello Gallery; the only difference being that it is now over ten yards long.

Through ancient means, specifically spinning, Woodgate painstakingly made countless strands of human hair which she then used to extend her grandmother’s wig. Having successfully spun enough hair-based yarn to complete the wig, the opening night saw the artist wearing the finished article whilst recreating the process of spinning for the purpose of the performance.

An amazing aspect to her practice is the way that the artist collects the hair that she uses in her art:

I have a mobile salon that randomly appears in random cities and streets or venues. People call me. I put up the salon. I don’t know how to cut the hair. I am not a stylist. People know it, but they just let me do it. Its kind of funny because my whole concept has to do with human behavior and with tradition and with culture and basically with the relationships that we have between each other, between family, between strangers, between materials and between parts of our body. In many ways the whole occurrence of me cutting the hair is already complete as a piece, especially when people learn that it’s for an art project because the react like “Oh, this is for an art piece? My God, cut everything you need! Oh my God, my hair is going to be used in an art piece” etc so they kind of engage in another way with the piece—emotionally, as well as physically with their body; or at least part of it.

Agustina Woodgate in her studio making the wig for Rapunzel. Photograph by Gwen Williams. Courtesy of Miami Photo.

The act of collecting for Woodgate is first link to an ambiguous poetic narrative behind each piece. In this way, the meticulous process of creation is as significant as the final result, which often develops an absurd paradoxical relationship with the materials that assemble it. As the process has so much bearing on the final result, and in many cases is integrated in the final piece, it naturally raises its own standing in the approximation of what constitutes the work. Equally important to the final result is the time that the process takes as this too can corroborate themes inherent within particular pieces. In the case of the Rapunzel performance, for example, for which Woodgate spent three years toiling over the wig, this aspect was especially pertinent.

The process of creating the wig for Rapunzel absorbed Woodgate beyond anything she had previously attempted. The many people invited to participate, the many appearances of the mobile hair salon and the many instances in which the artist was fraught with the notion that if people did not donate hair she would not have a piece, created a particular environment around the work of demand and dependency; resulting ultimately in the formation of stressful tangle of hair. This dynamic between the artist and her audience at such an early stage in the work’s life fed the project with not only a healthy diet of interaction but also sizable amounts of tension.

From initially working with my grandmother’s wig I started to work with my grandmother herself and then I realized that I was telling a story. My work happens to be very narrative anyway and I have always had an attraction to literature, so in this new series, which Rapunzel is a part of, I am directly and completely based in an influence of literature in regard to my grandmother and the books that she used to read and all my favorite stories. So what I started doing was a series of performances based in fairy tales. What I do is I build stages, I put on lights and backdrops that I create; I make my own costumes, hairdos and every single thing. It’s about the elements of performance taken to the absurd extremes. Very much like when I was collecting the hair, people would hype what I felt was a simple and necessary act into a show when it really wasn’t supposed to be at all.”

Image from the series Rapunzel, 2008. Still from 120 min. performance. Music by Alexander Puentes and Federico Nessi.

In addition to hand making the set, every one of Agustina Woodgate’s three fairy tale performances to date have been accompanied by live music. Previous pieces have included a composed musical score designed to emulate the sound of a music box; another featured a guitarist and a pianist. In the case of Rapunzel, local musician Alexander Puentes and gallery artist Federico Nessi provided an improvised, at times uncomfortable and unsettling soundtrack of disjointed noise and sound effects using a mixture of string, percussion and electronic based instrumentation throughout the two hour performance. In every performance—which are typically long, progressive narratives—the actions of the performers—typically Woodgate and a family member—are very much directed by the musical score, or at least the audience perceives a variety of moods, tensions or dialogues depending on the feeling communicated by the sound.

In the original story of Rapunzel, the character Rapunzel’s hair, which she lowered from the tower in which she was trapped, was her only connection to the outside world. Instead of being trapped in a tower, Woodgate appears trapped on a stage; however, the element of communication through hair remains, the act of spinning and the spectacle of the wig itself presiding over the performance.

The fact that the wig began with something personal, a family heirloom (insert pun there) and yet grew to involve the hair of many people is significant in that the wig becomes a fetishistic object. Symbolic of our shared humanity which by means of participation becomes a shared experience. By carrying all these people on her head she is showing in a what would seem a very obvious but somehow extremely subtle way how we all carry the same experiences around, the same memories, the same occidental traditions and fairly tales and how they affect the social and political ways in which we behave. In a way her work is a dissection of social behavior, an expression that we are all part of the same collective conscious.

As with all of her performances, a camera was set up in front of the stage that took a photograph every five seconds. In the end all that will remain of the performance are the photographs; some 700 per performance. For the short term, the stage and the artifacts of the performance such as the wig and the spinning wheel will remain, soon to be accompanied by a small selection of the 700 photographs that will be hung in the gallery for the remainder of the exhibition, together with images from the previous two fairy tale performances Hansel & Gretel (2008) and Sleeping Beauty (2008).

Image from the series Hansel & Gretel, 2008. Still from 25 min. performance. Music by The Setier Brothers.

In each performance the endeavor has been to distill the action to the basic components of the primary message behind each tale. Hansel & Gretel, for example, is about Gluttony. During Hansel & Gretel, Woodgate and her brother ate an entire sweet banquette to the rhythm of music. They were puppets of the music. There was a pianist and a guitarist and when the guitar played Woodgate ate, when the pianist played her brother ate—a musical duel.

Image from the series Sleeping Beauty, 2008. Still from 15 min. performance. Music by Lucinda Chua in a Music Box.

Sleeping Beauty was about protection. The garden of thorns represented the character’s fear yet at the same time she watered, cut and tended to them. Taking care of that which preserved her comatose state whilst dancing to the sound of a music box.

Rapunzel on the other hand is about lust. A young girl, a sexual being, is trapped in a tower in order that she is protected from the cruel world, in particular and the advances of potential suitors.

Still from Rapunzel, 2008. Music by Alexander Puentes and Federico Nessi. Image courtesy of Wet Heat Project

This sexual aspect to the tale took the form of a strong undertone in Woodgate’s performance. Dressed in puritan garbs, temptingly virginal in their appearance, the young Rapunzel with her pouting lips and gray schoolgirl-esq knee-high socks was juxtaposed (somewhat erotically) with her mother (the artists real mother who played the quintessential fairy tale role of the evil stepmother) who through out the majority of the performance (making her entrance about twenty minutes into it and exiting toward the end) hammered hooks into the walls of her daughter’s cell onto which she snagged strand after symbolic strand of her daughter’s weighty do; restricting her further still.

Rapunzel, 2008. Music by Alexander Puentes and Federico Nessi. Image courtesy of Spinello Gallery

In addition to the heady sexual vibe, the disjointed music and the scuttling camera crews, a further unexpected aspect to the performance was the communication between Woodgate and the other performers. For the most part seemingly absorbed in her own world, Woodgate would occasionally look up in angst from her tangled spindle and glare furiously at either the musicians or the audience. At times she seemed to be mouthing obscenities at the Stepmother who in a placid passive/aggressive manner continued uninterruptedly to tie her horny and resentful step daughter down. At first it seemed as though the communication from Woodgate was private between the performers, but as her demeanor became increasingly irate, it became clear that it much like the occasional flash of thigh, these silent screams were intended to heighten the tension that progressively built throughout the performance. Often the confluence of the music and lights and cramped seating combined with her expressions made for a uncomfortable, at times prickely hot atmosphere, which itself, although quite uncomfortable, did lend something special to the peice. A potentially interesting and as yet unexplored factor could well be the manipulation of the temperature in the room, which could slowly be turned up or down depending on the mood of intentions taking place.

At the end of the performance there was no grand finale. Just as simply as Woodgate had appeared with her hair bound with white ribbons, the lights slowly dimmed to black and the gallery emptied. The inconclusive ending to a seemingly uneventful yet oddly enthralling few hours harking to the anxiety of whether our femme fetale will ever be set free—if the music stops, how will the story end[?]


Agustina Woodgate was born in 1981 in Buenos Aires, and currently lives in Miami. She earned her BFA from the national University of Visual Arts in Buenos Aires. Her work has been exhibited and performed internationally and has appeared in the Museo Nacional del Grabado, Salon Nacional de Instalacion, Salon Nacional de Arte Textil, Museo Casa Blanca, Hollywood Biennial, MOCA North Miami and Portland Art Center, among other venues.


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Agustina Woodgate: Letting Down at Spinello Gallery