Harriet and Plait 1976 consists of six almost identical black and white photographs arranged sequentially in two rows of three, from top left to bottom right. They depict the head and shoulders of a naked woman sitting with her back to the camera in front of a window at the head of a table covered in a white cloth. Her long plaited hair is stretched out behind her on the tablecloth. In the second image in the sequence, a pair of scissors appears in the scene at one corner of the table; in the next image, they have moved closer to the plait, the end of which is then snipped off and finally placed on a plate to resemble a triangle of pubic hair in the final photographs. Harriet and Plait is a unique work.
The photographs were taken by English in January 1976, in the dining room of her mother’s house in Herefordshire. Her sister Harriet was the sitter, modelling a long plaited wig that English had made for a site-specific performance proposed for the site of the obelisk in the grounds of Chiswick House, London. The performance, in which six women would have worn identical wigs with long plaits that were all to be tied to the top of the obelisk, was never staged. The plaited wig was subsequently worn by English in a number of performances including Park Cafeteria at the Serpentine Gallery in London in August 1975 and Walks on Water at the Hackney Empire, London in 1988.
Between 1974 and 1977 English created a series of theatrical spectacles and interventions set in non-traditional venues – including an ice-skating rink and a swimming pool – that sometimes took place over the course of several days. Drawing from dance, opera and the circus, as well as such specific cultural forms as the débutante ball or the equestrian show, English’s ambitious performance events were vehicles for a commentary on societal displays of gender and sexuality. In her first performance, The Boy Baby 1974, English mocked the aristocratic tendency to value a male heir over a female child. The work traced a series of similarities between horse-breeding and the Royal obsession with pure bloodlines, metaphorically comparing the status of upper class women to that of brood mares. In her performance Quadrille 1975 (see Tate T14673), which was staged in a dressage arena, women wearing horse tails and hoof-like shoes paraded in a complex choreography influenced by both opera and circus shows. Around this time English also collaborated with British filmmaker and choreographer Sally Potter and together they co-authored and featured in a number of performances including Berlin 1976 and Mounting 1977.
Harriet and Plait was first exhibited on 30 May 1976 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London as part of a performance season. It was made at a time when English’s performances were often preceded and partly inspired by the making of key objects, such as the horse-hoof shoes and tails for the dancers in Quadrille or the magnolia-leaf skirt worn by Potter in Berlin 1975. English would take photographs of these objects and arrange them sequentially, often suggesting a simple narrative. Such work was definitive in the way in which English came to understand what it meant to ‘direct’ people, both for the photographs themselves and for her early performances. The images for Harriet and Plait were taken at the same time as those in the series Harriet and Muff 1976 (Richard Saltoun Gallery, London), a sequence of four photographs that also depict a naked woman sitting at a table in front of a window.
In her work English has often tried to move away from traditional categories of art. She started working with objects during her years as a fine art student at Leeds Polytechnic and by the early 1970s she was searching for ways to move from the object to the event. She began to incorporate handmade objects in a series of staged settings that she would later photograph, much as she did in the works featuring Harriet. For English, it was in the performance that the object really found its life, often activated by the performers in what she has referred to as ‘tableaux vivants’, where both the objects and the performers had equal importance. The move towards performance was also a response to female artists’ overwhelming exclusion from, and desire to avoid, the gallery system. Often resistant to traditional media, the search for alternative spaces and sites in which to show work was key to feminist practice at the time, with many women artists including English presenting their work in unconventional venues, moving away from the art gallery or institution and into alternative art spaces, public sites or their own domestic settings. This allowed greater freedom than that provided by the gallery system, and for English meant that she could make her performances accessible to a more diverse audience and avoid the restrictions placed upon her by commercial galleries.
Sally Potter interviewed by Marc Chaimowicz, ‘Women and Performance in the UK’, Studio International, vol.192, July–August 1976, pp.33–4.
WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 2007, p.233.
Kathy Batista, Renegotiating the Body: Feminist Art in 1970s London, London 2013.