By Penny Modra
To me, Tai Snaith's work has always seemed like the product of an innocence both cheeky and brutal. A series of messages delivered in the same way a child might exclaim in the supermarket queue, "Mummy is that a man or a lady?"
In her installations, paintings and collages, Snaith has given us strange, displaced objects and non-animals—born not to charm but to challenge the deeply carved and mostly dead-straight ruts of human thinking. She is not an animist. She doesn't translate the statements of objects (or animals), but she thinks more like they do, and the general message seems to be, "Well, guys, you're missing something here, but don't blame us." It's a window to a beautiful new world for any straight-arrow logician—albeit it one marred by tension, absurdity and vague horror.
What happens, though, when the childlike soothsayer grows up, looks around, and finds herself surrounded by a legion of fantastical, grumbling, honest, beautiful, mean-spirited and whimsical artifacts? Suddenly seeing herself in them the way the rest of us see ourselves in our carefully chosen modernist stovetop coffee machines, or our show-offy deep-sea diving watches or our credit-debt leather jackets? Snaith is crossing over somehow with this new work—and along the way she's found more questions the rest of us didn't know we could ask.
Since cubism threw the aesthetic world into chaos, there have been seventeen thousand definitions of art, but let's pick one to use right now: it helps us think about our relationships with objects. How we physically see them, how they make us feel, how we place value on them. With thank you notes to Duchamp, Warhol, even Emin, today's conceptual artists are still re-purposing everyday objects as artworks. In 2009, Chinese artist Song Dong installed the entire contents of his mother's house at MoMA for a work entitled 'Waste Not'. Fearing waste as a result of a lifetime of poverty, Song's mother carefully saved every item she ever acquired—from a coke bottle to a paper-thin flake of soap. Her son helped her let go of these objects by granting them a new purpose in his work.
Snaith is grappling with a completely different problem: in the words of Talking Heads, "Well, how did I get here?"
What are these things to me? This pot plant, this jar, this plastic juice machine with a spout, this Kermit the Frog doll, this single billiard ball, this unraveled shoulder bag, these pastel-coloured Tupperware sporks? As if waking from a lengthy dream, Snaith looks around with a growing feeling of outrage and wants to know how these things invaded her life. And—worse—why she can't let them go.
It's embarrassing, right? That feeling you get at a garage sale when some lady from down the road tries on your lime green fingerless gloves and suddenly you desperately want them back. "Actually, those aren't for sale," you mumble, as you shove them safely away underneath the card table you're using as the purge checkout. What part of yourself are those horrible gloves harbouring? And how did they extract it?
And so it becomes a negotiation. You versus your stuff.
Just as we have limited days on earth, we have limited space for crap. What we fill it with, in the end, is who we are. Snaith is exploring the tension that emerges when those days and those spaces are hijacked. When we get moments and objects we never chose for ourselves—that instead chose us.
Unlike the prophets of purge, however (those Sunday magazine minimalists), Snaith has decided to offer her interloping possessions an amnesty. She has sorted them, stacked them and immortalised them on paper. In doing so she’s giving them a chance to prove their worth. And giving herself a chance to be who, it turns out, she is.