I made this fur lifejacket partly in homage to Meret Oppenheim, one of the founders of surrealism and most famous for her “Object in Fur,” a fur teacup and spoon. Oppenheim is yet another woman artist who did not receive the credit or status she was due. This lifejacket was exhibited in the “Material” exhibition at Toronto Harbourfront Centre in 2009 and in the “Cut/Copy/Paste” exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2010, curated by The Canadian Design Resource.
I actually made two of these fur life vests. I have decided, reluctantly, to sell the one that was exhibited one (I’m sorry to do commerce on here, but I am writing a book and the process has had an effect on my finances.) The first one was an experiment, almost a lark, and I kept it as a one-off artwork for myself. But when it was programmed into some national shows, I had to make a sturdier, more finished one for exhibition purposes. The original one, which I am keeping, is pictured above on the Adirondack chair. The two are very similar, though the one I am keeping is somewhat trashed from people putting it on at parties before I could stop them. It seems to happen every time (with every gender).
I constructed both pieces from vintage Hudson’s Bay Company short women’s fur coats that were on their way to being unceremoniously discarded at a “rag house” or used textiles sorting warehouse. Often when we visited the rag house looking for vintage fabric, the sorted pile of fur coats would be higher than my head. The best coats were picked off by vintage clothing stores, but there rest of the coats had enough of a flaw that no vintage clothing stored wanted to bother fixing them and the would end up in a discard pile. The rag house would sell them to us by the pound, in big sacks. I couldn’t bear the thought that animals had died only for hundreds of pounds of coats to end up in dumpsters.
The life jacket features the original coat’s label (Hudson’s Bay Company), buttons and pockets which I sewed onto a regulation life-jacket that I found in army surplus. The coat’s collar forms the curved top, while the back and front are the back and front panels of the coat, with the pockets placed in the appropriate location, bottom side/front. The hardware is stainless steel and 100% cotton webbing.
The Hudson’s Bay Company is one of the colonial fur trading companies on which the modern nation of Canada was founded, so the unceremonious discarding and picking apart of its old fur coats was liberating in terms of our troubled colonial history but also poignant in terms of the animals (and humans) involved. Maybe I was also interested in the idea of the sinking of luxury after an age of deregulation, but these analyses came after the fact; it’s an ambiguous object. A journalist once used a photo of it in an article about goings-on at the The LA County Museum. “Fur for LACMA”: “Following up on the announcement from the New York Times that the LA County Museum of Art isn’t getting Eli Broad’s collection, may I suggest this fur life jacket to be distributed to the museum committee. Nothing says “I am not embarrassed, I am only fabulously sinking” better than this Meret Oppenheim-inspired piece of surrealism.” The writer seems to have got part of the gist of this thing, but there are many echoes of North America’s troubled past in this object.
Meanwhile, it is an example of repurposing of historical material. From the Treehugger article on the R.O.M. show: “Design critic and futurist, Bruce Sterling has even suggested that as economic and environmental pressures grow, this strategy will become increasingly dominant, eventually replacing the professional designer with a new expert, the redesigner.”
In the Cut/Copy/Paste exhibition, Royal Ontario Museum, 2010
Earliest post about this piece is here. (I also had another piece in the ROM show, a quilt made from repeating the same souvenir scarf from the Montreal ’76 Summer Olympics, bearing the Amik (beaver) mascot.)