Tatiana Bilbao’s installation at NGV Melbourne initiates a conversation on 'care'

The Mexican architect invites collective reflection on the act of who cares for our garments and washes them, and how this labour has remained ignored in the history of domesticity.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Oct 15, 2022

Patches of different clothes sewn together hang on steel racks, a zigzag wash basin sits in the middle of the space, and walls surrounding these objects feature sketched vignettes representing scenes of communal life that unfold around traditional washing areas. This is the scenography of an exhibition, conceived by Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao, which is being hosted at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, Australia. Titled La ropa sucia se lava en casa, which translates to Dirty Clothes are Washed at Home, the showcase uses clothes as a medium of collective discussion, questioning the acts of our bodily care, and inequalities associated with domestic labour. Clothes being a symbol of protection of our body, the work meditates on questions like ‘how are clothes washed?’ and ‘who washes them for us?’

Tatiana Bilbao explains the idea behind the installation, Dirty Clothes are Washed at Home Video: Courtesy of NGV Melbourne

Bilbao’s installation is the inaugural showcase of NGV’s five-year series called MECCA X Women in Design Commission. A first of its kind initiative amplifying the contribution of women architects and designers in shaping the world, the commission invited Bilbao as its first participant to create a topical new work for the NGV Collection.

The installation uses collage, models and drawings to illustrate the traditional practice of communal washing| NGV | Melbourne | STIRworld
The installation uses collage, models and drawings to illustrate the traditional practice of communal washing Image: Kate Shanasy

Collage being a staple medium of enquiry in the design process of Bilbao, is a key vehicle of discussion here. Be it the textile collages that use donated garments by people who participated in Bilbao’s workshops that she conducted in Berlin, Mexico, and Melbourne in making of the work, or the mixed-media collages adorning the walls that depict communal laundries and washhouses from around the world. Bilbao is of the belief that collages, drawings and models allow a lot of voices to be gathered in one place, and is progressive and flexible unlike the unitary image of an idea generated by a computer rendering. Her approach with NGV’s presentation was also to present these mediums to invite collaboration and collective reflection on a universally ignored topic.

  • Different garments are stitched together to create a textile collage| NGV | Melbourne | STIRworld
    Different garments are stitched together to create a textile collage Image: Kate Shanasy
  • The clothes were donated by people who attended Bilbao’s workshops in Berlin, Mexico, and Melbourne, during the making of the work | NGV | Melbourne | STIRworld
    The clothes were donated by people who attended Bilbao’s workshops in Berlin, Mexico, and Melbourne, during the making of the work Image: Kate Shanasy

"We wanted to create an installation that would really put in the forefront of the collective conversation, the acts of care of our body. In this case we were focusing on the clothes that are the first layer of the protection of our bodies and that they embed a very important form of labour that is often unrecognised, or very precariously paid," she says in a video released by NGV.

In the centre of the space is a physical model of a traditional Mexican washing area | NGV | Melbourne | STIRworld
In the centre of the space is a physical model of a traditional Mexican washing area Image: Kate Shanasy

The translation of this labour in physical space is illustrated by a large-scale model of the 18thcentury communal laundry, Lavadero of Huichapan, from the historic Mexican town of Huichapan in Hidalgo. Featuring a central water channel flanked by crisscrossing square niches for manual washing, the structure reminisces a bygone space and a practice where an everyday chore brought people together, especially women, in a shared public space. It also looks back to the social bonds and conversations that people indulged in during the washing act.

The textile collage embed the idea of sharing personal experiences associated with garment care| NGV | Melbourne | STIRworld
The textile collage embed the idea of sharing personal experiences associated with garment care Image: Kate Shanasy

The act of collecting garments and stitching it to create textile collages was Bilbao’s idea of individual introspection of care, and sharing personal experiences associated with a garment – much like the communal conversations that happen at the public laundry.

"With this installation," Bilbao continues in the video, "we wanted to really reflect upon the fact that we believe architecture is one of the basic forms of care because it provides shelter for our own bodies. Care also means those acts which are not recognised labour but that it exists and is needed for us to be able to live on this planet."

  • Drawings on the walls illustrate historic events associated with the inequalities of domestic labour| NGV | Melbourne | STIRworld
    Drawings on the walls illustrate historic events associated with the inequalities of domestic labour Image: Kate Shanasy
  • Scenes of social bonding | NGV | Melbourne | STIRworld
    Scenes of social bonding Image: Kate Shanasy
  • The installation also includes multi-media collages on walls | NGV | Melbourne | STIRworld
    The installation also includes multi-media collages on walls Image: Kate Shanasy

By physically tapping into a collective memory, the founder of Mexico-based Tatiana Bilbao Estudio, "aims to free architecture from the conventions of the 20th century and to propose a new trajectory that is focused on community, sustainability and ethics," shares an official statement by NGV. Tony Ellwood, Director of NGV describes Bilbao as "a compelling voice from outside of the traditional canon of architecture" who "creates work that is as intellectually rigorous as it is visually dynamic."

Bilbao uses textile as a vehicle to start a conversation reassessing the meaning of care in architecture| NGV | Melbourne | STIRworld
Bilbao uses textile as a vehicle to start a conversation reassessing the meaning of care in architecture Image: Kate Shanasy

Touching on a topic that remained silently ignored in the history of domesticity, Bilbao’s critique of an architectural tradition hopes to ignite dialogues that matter as we advance in seeking the NEXT for ourselves and the world. While our buildings get built and environments take shape, what often goes unnoticed is how these spaces set certain values and codes of behaviour, which as seen through the lens of history, is that though time passes on, the ripples of these relationships continue to be seen. Bilbao's work with the showcase is essentially a reminder that what we have left behind isn’t too much behind us, and that unless we see it with discerning eyes and act radically, the future won’t be what we hope it should be.

Tatiana Bilbao's 'La ropa sucia se lava en casa' (Dirty clothes are washed at home) is on display from October 06, 2022 – January 29, 2023 at the NGV International in Melbourne.

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