Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Laura Nathan: Experiments with Soap & Hair


Laura Nathan: Experiments with Soap and Hair

Soap and hair are two substances we don’t normally like to see together. We rinse and rerinse soap from our hair, cringe at the sight of hair embedded in a bar of soap, and generally spend considerable amounts of time keeping the two far apart. They are antithetical materials, to put it mildly. Perhaps this is part of the reason why Laura Nathan’s display at New Designers in London last summer drew so much attention. Nathan displayed a carpet of small brown and white cubes that looked, from a distance, to be some sort of diligent study in color and texture. Closer inspection revealed the work to be made from a mixture of soap and hair, which shifted cube by cube from one pure substance to the other.

New Designers is an annual event that exhibits the best and brightest up-and-coming graduates from art schools around Great Britain. The majority of the work on display during the designated textile week is design, rather than art, although conceptual works like Nathan’s do make the odd welcomed appearance. Space restrictions dictated some adjustments to Nathan’s piece, which in earlier incarnations included no less than 20,000 cubes. One version, for instance, arranged the cubes in an ordered grid that carefully graded the white to brown cubes in a carpet of three-dimensional pixels. At one end the cubes finally dissolved into tufts of loose hair, giving the viewer a clue as to the materials employed. But at New Designers, Nathan strewed the cubes haphazardly, as though a clumsy intruder had stepped on her careful efforts at order and left a telltale scuff in the wet cement. A series of photographs displayed nearby recorded the many other arrangements of varying degrees of order and chaos that she has explored with the cubes.

Key to our attraction as well as repulsion to this work is that the cubes replicate the size and scale of the sugar cube. This very specific size brings with it associations to taste and the exploration of texture through eating rather than touching with our hands. But while the white grains of a sugar cube may prove an enjoyable substance to consume, there are few things we would less want to find in our mouths than soap or hair. Nathan’s recasting the sugar cube in materials that evoke associations so distant from our initial expectations causes us to reconsider our initial responses and realize that, as Freud taught, the uncanny is at its most disturbing when it is both seductively familiar and exceedingly uncomfortable at the same time.

FiberArts magazine (April/May 2007: 24-25)