Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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My work, Home, explores the same ideas. But in my piece, I focus on how we consume in our families. My animal is trapped because it’s a pet, domesticated, tamed. It’s not under threat, and it’s not going to be eaten or skinned, but it’s already dead, absent, missed and because of that a symbol of loss despite remaining also a symbol of domestic bliss. Although a dog is still an animal, most dogs are now bought and owned because they give their owner identity. They are just another consumer item, chosen for their colour and size from catalogues and shops. And then they are used until they wear out, just like Rauschenberg’s tyre, not stuffed like his goat. I have included a car as well. Obviously, for most homes, a car is a must, but a car does not just have four wheels, go forwards, backwards and round corners. It says something about its owner, and this is why we are all encouraged to buy our dreams. But my car is a plastic toy, whose wheels don’t even go round. And because it’s a toy, it is going to be owned by a child, who, through the ownership of this toy, is going to learn how to become a consumer, how to be an owner, how to have likes and dislikes, how to choose, how to opt, how to become what he owns.

The dog’s lead is glued to the back of the car, and the collar is studded to tell others to stay out of this home. The collar does not go round a dog’s neck, but wraps around a battered teapot, that symbol of family sharing, either used so much it’s showing its age, or thrown across the kitchen in rage so often it’s been dented. The car will never move because the child has lost interest, grown out of it, graduated to something bigger and more expensive. The dog doesn’t exist - probably died or was put down because the colour of its coat didn’t match the new sofa and the lid of the teapot can’t open because it’s tied down by the dog collar. Home.

Home was one of the first objects that Eileen created in college. From this description it proved easy to reproduce the work, at least in concept. But it was when I later spoke to Linda, I realised I had it wrong.

Home was important to Eileen. The three of us spent a whole evening talking about that work. We were around the table in the kitchen. Charlotte had cooked. That’s why I can remember everything so well! It was awful, brown rice cooked to soggy, combined with underdone lentils that could break teeth. You don’t forget experiences like that!

I think Eileen wrote the entry you sent just after we finished eating. We were all still separate at that stage, so it must have been quite soon after we moved in. That’s right, because Alan wasn’t there full time until we got to the February.

Eileen wanted to make a point about consumerism, but the things she eventually used were neither discarded nor found. She bought them. The plastic car started new. She scratched it with a kitchen knife and roughed it up with a pan scourer, a Brillo pad, if I remember correctly. It even bleached some of the colour off the surface and she was pleased when that happened. She also bought the teapot from a secondhand shop because it was stainless steel and plain. She called it modern and characterless and then she spent hours with a little hammer making dents in it. She spent a whole weekend doctoring the car and the teapot. The dog lead was new, but it was a toy made from plastic, not leather, so she could stick it easily with UHU. It never did stick well to the teapot and kept falling off. Because the dog lead was plastic, it could never have been used to walk a real dog. It would have ripped in no time. It was the kind of thing you would buy for a four-year-old to attach to a toy, just for show. For Eileen it was a perfect message, something made to look like a useful object which was just a plaything that would break as soon as it was used. I remember the work well, because she did it just after we moved into the flat at the start of our second term. It would have been January 1971. It was the first time I had come across someone who wanted to do “concept” art and Eileen was special because she wanted to destroy it as soon as she’d made it. She couldn’t, of course, because she had to show it to her tutor. But it didn’t make it to the end of year show. It wasn’t just abstract - in fact now I think about it, there wasn’t anything abstract about it - it was all symbolic, loaded with significance, but you had to be Eileen to know what was going on. It caused our first argument because Charlotte dismissed it, ‘rubbish masquerading as trash’ is what she said. Eileen told her that was the wrong way round. Charlotte told Eileen she had no ideas, that she was full of hot air, making things up. Eileen told her to fuck off. They didn’t speak for a couple of days. It was a bad start, but we got over it. Certainly, Eileen and Charlotte got over it! I remember that Charlotte was painting flowers upside down at the time, for some reason. It was the flowers that were upside down, by the way.

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