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Hair, Hands On: Melanie Boreham

Playing with hair is an activity that preludes external departures and reminisces childhood sleepovers, but recent COFA graduate Melanie Boreham has sought its significance and implications a little bit deeper. Proving that art both challenges and simultaneously transcends that which meets the eye, her current exhibition, The Departed, explores hair as a metaphor for grief, loss, and transformation. It is the common muse for the exhibition and is weaved throughout the artworks, which come in the form of paintings, drawings, jewellery pieces, sculptural installations and films. The Departed is the end product of 18 months of work; a time frame that, given the results, has evidently been worth it.

Melanie explains that the idea for the exhibition grew out of a dual desire to explore the versatility of human hair and the effects of separation: “It's been fascinating to see how closely related hair and relationships are, metaphorically. I used human hair, a grossly intimate material, as a metaphor to examine the effects of separation. The continual growth and severing of our hair is a mimetic act of the often destructive pattern of our human relationships. Just as we are constantly cutting our hair, our relationships are constantly evolving and breaking down.”

Such a theory at once becomes relatable when considering the symbolism behind the mere change of one’s hair style. It is a makeover that often occurs after a significant loss of some kind – be it through a break up, death of a loved one or a physical separation. Aware of the “apparent contrast between the seductive quality of human hair when it is on the head and its repulsive qualities when off the head”, Melanie deliberately subverted the inherent disconcerting attitudes towards human hair with aesthetic appeal. Nonetheless, she says she has long been obsessed with hair – both as a tool to create with and as an element to keep long after its expiry date. “Since my early teens I’ve been cutting my own hair and have kept the last three major cuts under my bed. For five years I have been farming my hair, awaiting the right moment to cut it. This is captured in my video piece, ‘Lapse’.”

Staying true to the process of creating art, Melanie found that once she started exploring loss on a more universal, sociological scale, she tapped into her own attitude towards the detrimental effects of divorce on children. “I slowly began unraveling my own anxieties regarding my parents’ separation. A number of the works in the show directly relate to my own experiences, particularly ‘Unnatural High’ which is a re-enactment of the demise of my parents' marriage. In the video, my mother is wearing her wedding dress and sits overlooking the ocean with red helium balloons attached to her hair. My father enters the frame and begins cutting her hair. As each bundle of hair is cut, the helium balloon and the wind carry it away over the ocean. This is an act which denotes my parents’ years of growth together, slowly being severed over time until they make the final separation. Just as throwing ashes over the ocean provides those left behind with an opportunity to put to rest their loved one and their own loss, this video is an expression of mourning, of my letting go and moving on from the past.”

Perhaps one of the most stunning parts of the exhibition is the floating installation, ‘Forest of the Inside’, where Melanie constructed miniature trees out of hair and wire – the branches of which are braided, naturally. As a set of nearly 40 trees suspended in the air, the piece is both captivating and curious, and propels an engaging sense of contemplation. She also created a variety of peculiar jewellery pieces out of her chosen medium and paintings inspired by it. Needless to say, Melanie had her hands on a fair bit of hair to pull off the exhibition.

“I began this project by collecting hair, travelling to hairdressers all over Sydney and asking for unwanted hair. About half of these hairdressers had hair to offer while the others either had just emptied their bins, were unable to give away their client's hair, the hair was just too short or it had been mixed in with food scraps. I spent hours sorting through hair covered in hair dye, tissues, foil and other distasteful wastes. Then each individual haircut was separated into neat packages and jars so that I was conscious of the hair I had available for use. I became aware very soon of the different types of people frequenting certain neighbourhoods. For example, people in Newtown, Darlinghurst and Paddington were more willing to have their
long hair cut off, while in more conservative suburbs such as Randwick, people usually only had trims. I received hair from most of my friends and several anonymous packages were also left in my studio. It was apparent that despite our separate experiences we had common connections.”

As a recent graduate, Melanie has been on the exhibiting scene for an admirable amount of time, presenting her work in four solo shows and a plethora of group exhibitions, along with being awarded a hearty list of prizes. It is an outcome that has not come without a steady commitment to hard work, proposal writing and competition entry. “I feel like I spend half of my time as an artist on a computer. I'm constantly applying for grants, prizes and other opportunities. This provides me with something else to look forward to as I work on a body of work. Deadlines are my markers throughout the year.”

Still, her list of goals is endless, and like any artist, she is keen on exploring what she is capable of. “Over the last year, I’ve had the resources to explore new media, and learn new techniques. This has meant that I can now choose to investigate my ideas through the medium which best suits them. I have a growing affinity with immersive installations, as well as video, but at this point I’m a little reluctant to say how my work will evolve, as there’s just so much I would like to do. I hope to start working in collaboration with other artists in the near future. Time will only tell what I do.”

Melanie Boreham’s exhibition, The Departed is currently on at Hardware Gallery in Enmore and closes at the end of the month.

words: Seema Duggal


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