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[Art reviews]

State of the Art
A woman’s work . . .

BY MIKE MILIARD

" Curiouser and curiouser " is exactly the reaction Merry Conway and Noni Pratt are hoping for when visitors slip through the rabbit hole of their massive installation piece " A Woman’s Work Is Never Done: A House of Curiosities, " which is at this very moment growing like kudzu in the cavernous 10,000 square-foot expanse of a Jamaica Plain warehouse. The pair might be familiar to you from the " Small Museum of Women’s Experience, " the gallimaufry of donated personal items, video installations, and scrawled quotation fragments they created in a Chelsea storefront in 1999. The idea for " A Woman’s Work . . . , " which will open on Wednesday, is similar, if on a significantly larger, gloriously more disorderly scale: a multimedia exploration of womanhood and feminine identity.

Conway and Pratt, who have been collaborating on large-scale installation-performance-art hybrids for 15 years, have transformed this former stonecutting plant into a labyrinthine warren filled to bursting with sensory stimuli. With performers, musicians, super-8 film, video, soundtrack, and found items, it’s the kind of place where you might come across an actress reciting a soliloquy on the Biblical Eve, the archetype of feminine identity. Or navigate a " dark land " that evokes a woman’s depression via video and live action. Or listen to a " whispers tape " of the story of Pandora. Or smell baking bread, perfume, and make-up powder. Or inspect a " cabinet of curiosities " filled with bric-a-brac and pocked with holes waiting to be peered through.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is the " Memory Museum, " which comprises the personal possessions of hundreds of Bostonians, female and male, from all walks of life. " We asked lots of different people to lend us memorabilia that has deep emotional value but no monetary value, " Pratt explains. " The guy who delivers water to the space gave us something; we’re hoping the mayor will lend us something. We’re looking for the value in everybody’s personal experiences. "

Some of the donated articles are fanciful — say, a hideous pink bridesmaid’s dress. Others have deeper meaning. " We wanted to have more articles from women in extremis: homeless women, formerly incarcerated mothers, survivors of domestic violence, refugees, " Pratt says, recalling, for example " a formerly homeless woman who lent a ceramic pot made by her daughter; she dragged that thing around for 12 years. She said it was the only thing that was consistent from one life to the next, a symbol of her daughter’s strength and creativity. "

This is obviously no ordinary museum. " We want to give participants the sense that the rules are different. In the majority of museums, people are encouraged not to touch things. Here we have little doorways, things for people to open, for people to smell. " And of course, this commingling of objects and memories from so many walks of life can only enrich everyone. " It’s like a barn raising to put these things on. "

Pratt hopes visitors will come away from the exhibit with a new understanding of both their own lives and the feminine experience. " We’re talking about different perspectives, different ways of looking at things. Opening up rooms in our minds that perhaps have been shut for a while. "

" A Woman’s Work Is Never Done: A House of Curiosities " is at 71 Armory Street, Jamaica Plain, from September 19 through October 14. The exhibit will be open from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Call (617) 747-4495.

Issue Date: September 13 - 20, 2001