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This Woman is Not a Car: feminist funk art of the Holden era

Arts & Culture

Artist Margaret Dodd’s early ‘funk ceramic’ Holdens were a response to the often bleak suburban life many women in Adelaide experienced in the 1970s. More than 40 years later, she still finds inspiration in the iconic car.

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Dodd’s interest in cars began early. In fact, she can remember every car her family had from when she was about five years old.

“It was a very big deal when you got a new car [in the 1940s],” Dodd tells InDaily on the eve of a new exhibition of her work, This Woman is Not a Car, at ACE Open.

“You had to write to the government to get permission; it was just post-war, so there were still a lot of restrictions. So my father had to write a letter to say his family had got too big for the Model A Ford … we moved to a Ford Consul and a Ford Zephyr and then we had a Vanguard.”

As a young artist, however, Dodd was inspired not by the Ford but by that quintessential Australian car the Holden.

Her early ceramic sculptures, which had their origins in feminist ideology, include a Holden wearing a bridal veil, another sporting hair curlers, a wedding cake car, and the unsettling Ravaged Holden.

Dodd originally trained as a teacher but studied ceramic sculpture with Robert Arneson, one of the founders of the Californian Funk art movement, while living in the US with her academic husband in the mid-1960s. Her work was exhibited in a group exhibition and a solo show in California.

Returning to the Adelaide suburbs in 1968 was a culture shock.

“We were in basically a Trust house just out past Holden Hill police station and to me it was like a really bad contrast to what I had enjoyed working with other people and having a little artistic community and exhibiting in the US,” she says.

“The basic wage was for a man so he could support a family and if you had children you were definitely supposed to be at home. I was a school teacher before I went to America and I had to resign when I got married.”

Dodd had a pre-schooler, and like other suburban mothers at the time she found herself essentially trapped at home when her husband took the family’s only car – supposedly a symbol of independence and freedom – to work each day.

“I got some Bennett’s white clay and tried to make a Holden in the spare room, but the kids got in and wrecked it so that wasn’t very encouraging,” she says.

Nonetheless, it was the start of something.

After the family moved closer to the city – and following a brief period in the Netherlands where she made “some strange clay boats” – Dodd bought a kiln and started making more ceramic sculptures at the Jam Factory, which was then in St Peters. She had an exhibition in Sydney in 1971, and a Link Exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1977.

Holden with Hair Curlers, This Woman is Not a Car series, Margaret Dodd, 1977.

Some of those early works will be on show in the new exhibition, which is curated by Susan Charlton and is part of a state-wide FRAN Fest event celebrating the ground-breaking The Women’s Show of 1977 at the Experimental Art Foundation (now ACE Open). Dodd will also be showing some of her more recent sculptures, her 1982 experimental short film This Woman is Not a Car, described as “suburban melodrama meets horror road movie”, and material from the original Adelaide film shoot.

The film – clips of which can be viewed here – was shown again recently at the Sydney Film Festival, where the exhibition of Dodd’s work was also presented. Completed over several years from 1976, it explores themes of Australia’s culture 
of masculinity, the objectification of women, and women’s role in Australian life.

Part of a new wave of feminist art, the film inevitably proved controversial – even among feminists.

“A lot of women would come to me and say, ‘that’s my life, that’s my life’,” Dodd says.

“[But] there was a very strong feminist movement in those days, which divided itself into different schools of thought, and some of them wanted only positive role models and this woman [in the film] really didn’t attempt to be a role model, she was basically trapped, so it’s sort of a horror move.

“Some people think it’s very funny and it is in places, but it’s certainly got a horror aspect to it.

“It got a mixed reception … people were very intense about things in those days.”

Margaret Dodd directing Phil Colson in This Woman is Not a Car, 1976. Photo: Doug Nicholas

Dodd’s more recent work includes a ceramic sculpture series called Holden Hypotheses that has particular resonance given the impending closure of the Holden factory in Adelaide.

The artist has created what she describes as “a fake archaeology”, where tiny robot-type creatures emerge in a futuristic world and unearth a cache of ceramic objects, including small fossilised Holdens which they think are their ancestral beings.

Dodd, who previously created a full-size “fossilised” Holden made from concrete and steel which is on display at the Birdwood Motor Museum, has written an artist’s statement to accompany the AEC Open exhibition which gives further insight into the ideas behind her work. In the 1970s, she says, people were in many ways more optimistic; now, “visions of the future tend to the dystopian”.

Ancestral Figures, Holden Hypotheses series, Margaret Dodd, 2014.

“I am quite concerned about what’s going to happen,” she tells InDaily. “Holden’s going to go and manufacturing is going to go.”

Dodd also has mixed feelings about “cars with brains”, particularly the vision that there will eventually be fleets of self-driving cars.

“If it does come to pass it’s going to be a bit Orwellian, I think… we have to trust computers completely with our lives and I think it’s a bit scary.”

A Woman is Not a Car opens at ACE Open, Lion Art Centre, tonight, alongside Kate Blackmore’s Girls, a video work created in collaboration with a group of girls growing up in a housing estate in Sydney. There will be free artist talks at the gallery on Saturday afternoon (bookings here). Both exhibitions will continue until September 30. For other events in the FRAN Fest program, click here.

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