Kristina Veasey: A dirty but beautiful secret

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Kristina Veasey’s ‘My Dirty Secret!’ is an Unlimited (administered by Shape and Artsadmin) R&D commission which takes the form of an experiential visual art installation populated by vibrant patterns inspired by household mess. The installation opens at DC1 in Eastbourne, 24-31 March, before travelling to other venues. Veasey spoke to DAO about the project.

A sink with dirty suds in it

Kristina Veasey: Dirty Sink

As an artist, inspiration can come from the strangest of sources. As someone with chronic fatigue, Kristina Veasey finds it hard to keep on top of the housework and spends a lot of time in the house staring at walls, ceilings and under furniture. The assemblages of dirt that would build up got Veasey thinking, as she explains:

“My Dirty Secret! began as a photographic evidence file to prove to my family just how messy and dirty our house was. The photographs were borne of my frustration with my family’s nonchalance towards it. As close-up images, they looked quite colourful and striking, not what you’d expect from mould and dirty skirting boards. I loved the look of surprise (and disgust) on telling people the image they just said was beautiful, was actually soggy food in the sink after the washing up.”

And what a serendipitous accident those photographs turned out to be. Little did Veasey know that the everyday detritus that had initially been cause for concern would end up being a cornucopia of artistic delights.

“It was never my aim to make friends with my dirt; to celebrate it and give it the limelight. Far from it, but what began as a hostile takeover has evolved into a beautiful relationship. Perhaps I have Stockholm Syndrome, but I have come to love my dirt.

Held prisoner in my own home, I have had the time to look closely at it. Sometimes it’s the only thing I see. It taunts me, reflecting my loss of independence; my struggle to cope. Every discarded cornflake or dried bit of mud, a cruel reminder of my disabling condition. I can’t help but notice it all; the mess and the dirt have become a barometer for my demise. But, here’s the thing: keeping such a close eye on it, being so focussed, was actually a turning point.

Who’d have thought? But hidden right under our noses, there is a surprisingly glorious world where the most unlikely and curious of matter can be discovered. Oh the things I’ve seen! Beneath the sofa, in the corners, behind the curtains; this house has hidden landscapes just itching to be revealed. Why be so quick to tidy and clean? This is not something to be ashamed of. It’s something to celebrate!”

Lampshade and wallpaper with kaleidoscopic patterns

Lampshade and wallpaper by Kristina Veasey

Moving on from the initial photographs, Veasey began to develop kaleidoscopic, colourful patterns out of the untidy tapestries she found, sharing them on social media and documenting the developing series on Tumblr. With the award of an Unlimited R&D, Veasey decided to develop the work into an installation.

With household mess being such a personal yet universal topic, eliciting responses from others to inform the work seemed only natural.

“People seem only too keen to tell me their dirty stories; who the messy one in their house is, the relative who hoards, the state of the kids’ rooms, the reliance on others to help out. On social media I invited people to send voice recordings telling me about their relationship with domestic mess. I received some really interesting anecdotes. One woman told me if people come round at short notice she does a quick tidy-up by hiding anything she sees behind closed doors. This has resulted in her shoes being put in the fridge! There were also some profound ones that resonated a lot with my own situation, where people feel judged for the state of their house, or guilty for carers tidying up whilst they sit on the sofa unable to help.”

The installation itself will take the form of a domestic scene, with furniture and curtains upholstered with Veasey’s zany patterns. A selection of the soundbites she has collected from others will play on a Television set within the installation, with some of the more personal ones being told through a motion-activated telephone receiver.

It’s refreshing to see how carefully Veasey has thought about integrating the access elements into the installation, as she explains:

“It was through thinking about access to the phone calls that the idea for secret letters came about. A straight transcription seemed a bit boring and like an afterthought. So, next to the telephone lies a letter rack with mail marked ‘private’. The envelopes are addressed to the Messy House, Some Place, Everywhere, The World Over ME55 1ER. They’re postmarked too! The envelopes have already been opened and visitors are encouraged to read the letters, which are the transcriptions of the phone calls.

The audio description comes in the form of a ‘Through the Keyhole’ style TV programme. It is an audio-visual tour of the installation played on a telly within the sitting room area. Whilst there is video footage of the items in the room, the two presenters describe the wallpaper patterns, the armchair upholstery, the books etc in detail. Through their light-hearted banter they subtly disclose the themes and provocations layered within the project and add comedic elements with the cheesy, hammy-ness of it all. It’s audio-description without having to be labelled as such.”

Chair upholstered with kaleidoscopic patterns

Upholstered chair from My Dirty Secret! installation

Veasey is equally keen to make the work ‘accessible,’ in the broadest sense, to families and non-traditional arts audiences:

“So often art is something that can’t be touched. We are all multi-sensorial and I wanted people to enjoy every aspect of the installation. Visitors are encouraged to feel and open the curtains, to sit in the armchair, pick up the phone, scan the QR codes and open the books. The books talk by the way! I wanted to encapsulate the themes and questions and possibilities that this project throws up whilst immersing people within the chaotic and overwhelming space that I find myself in.”

Crucially, this aspect of the work won’t be lost in amongst all the interactive elements and whacky patterns:

“There is a mix of the fun and the serious within My Dirty Secret! and issues surrounding disability and independence are in the mix: the managing of PA’s, living with psychiatric conditions, being judged by social care professionals. I didn’t want the disability origins of my project to be lost. That’s why I was pleased to get the Unlimited commission. It’s hard for disabled artists to get their stories heard in what is still an ableist world, but there is so much richness in diversity and some great art can come from those stories. I love reading about other disabled artist’s work here on DAO because they reflect my own experiences and offer new insights; it’s not something I often see anywhere else.”

And Veasey has very high hopes for this work which grew out of the mess in her humble abode:

“The universality of the theme should resonate with audiences everywhere and the interactive elements should appeal to people of all ages. I’d love to explore the project further in an international context and take My Dirty Secret! to other countries.”

In the meantime, you can catch My Dirty Secret! at DC1 in Eastbourne, 24 – 31 March and then Apthorp Gallery, Arts Depot in North Finchley from 27 May – 3 June. For more information go to #UnlimitedCommissions #Spiritof2012