Ulysses and the Gloves
I have begun a project that addresses the crosscurrents between my need to make visual art and my awareness that my world view is shaped by reading (the instigator of empathy) and writing (a source of self-discovery). It has become increasingly critical for me to use words in my work in a meaningful and beautifully visual way. In this new piece I will engage not my own words but those of modernist master, James Joyce. Words once considered dirty; filthy; no better than household scum. 265,000 words so unclean that they were prosecuted for obscenity in the United States, and for 12 years after their first appearance in print, considered unfit for publication in the United Kingdom. I’m referring, of course, to the text of Joyce’s groundbreaking novel, Ulysses.
My father died in 2007; Ulysses was his favorite book. I remember that he kept numerous copies in our house when I was child, and when he could he went to the annual Bloomsday reading of the book, which takes 24 hours. A reverence for reading—Ulysses in particular—is one of my family legacies; cleanliness is another: work of keeping the house free of every kind of filth.
It’s from the intersection of these two legacies that my new piece derives. I am in the process of writing the entire text of Joyce’s Ulysses on pairs of workaday yellow rubber gloves—however many pairs it takes to copy the entire book. I expect it will use over 400 gloves in all, and will take me at least two years to complete. It may sound crazy, but I’ve not felt this passionate about my art for a long time; this is something I will do for myself, first and foremost. If others see and share in it, all the better.
For me, yellow rubber gloves suggest the simplicity and quietness of most people’s lives—especially women’s lives. As cleaning tools they come into contact with the filth we generate on a daily basis, and are designed to protect us from it, to keep our hands pristine, dirt and germ free. Rubber gloves are the objects that not only distance us from the byproducts of human existence, but help us (help working women) make those byproducts—the waste, dirt, dust, stains, stools, footprints— invisible. By contrast, Joyce’s Ulysses called the very same muck to the fore of literature, put it on display, and told us that this is it: this is who we are and what we make. This is life.
Writing the text of Ulysses by hand—by my hand, in my careful, calligraphic script—on the surface of hundreds of yellow rubber gloves is my way of asserting that we can never really make our filth disappear; like my ink it, too, is indelible. It’s also my way of questioning, like Joyce, whether the soot of our lives really is filth after all, or perhaps instead the raw material of art, and by extension, if the endless, unmeasured and unacknowledged work of women across decades, centuries, millennia is not, like modernist literature, a kind of performance art in itself.
Finally, this project allows me, as an artist who pieces together bits of found time in a crowded life for thinking, reading, writing, and making art, to create something epic. I am not James Joyce, but the act of writing on the gloves—a difficult and time-consuming undertaking—makes me feel close to him and his words as well as to my father. I speak aloud every word to myself as I write it: an act of near-total artistic and solitary absorption.