An Encounter with Marternal Materiality: Cathy Wilkes and the Green Dress

Chambers, Paula ORCID logoORCID: (2023) An Encounter with Marternal Materiality: Cathy Wilkes and the Green Dress. In: An Artist and a Mother. Demeter Press. ISBN 978-1-77258-428-8 (In Press)


In the British Pavilion for the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019, sculptor Cathy Wilkes installed artwork and objects that were sparse, melancholic and materially resonant. Moving through the rooms of this understated exhibition of objects made and found; it was the materials themselves that invited closer consideration, materials resonant of the intimacies of the home and of the maternal body. In room three of the Untitled installation, one encountered a doll figure clothed in a green dress of the kind known in 1950s Britain as a ‘house dress’, the kind made at home and worn to cook, clean and care for children in, the kind of dress worn by women of small means, the kind of dress worn by women in images of poverty and deprivation, like those by Walker Evans (1941) and Dorothea Lange (1939). Wilkes’ work invokes reproductive labour and female affects of care (Sliwinska, 2020). The green dress is adorned with small paper images of children eating soup, yet the figure who wears the dress is isolated from the smaller child-like figures who stand apart in other rooms, the dress invoking Rozsika Parker’s (1995) maternal ambivalence. Materiality in Wilkes’ installation is resonant of the temporality and spatial uncertainty of the threshold (Meskimmon, 2019), the unstable materiality of objects at the boundaries (Boscagli, 2014). As a sculptural object, the green dress in Wilkes’ installation inhabited the room like a mother guarding the domestic realm, a materialisation of the history of working-class women’s ambivalent domestic experience.

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