Stepping into Séamus Gallagher’s “Mother, Memory, and Cellophane” at the McCord Stewart Museum transports the viewer to a haunting world of artificiality and feminine identity, with a future in ruins. The exhibit melds femininity with the synthetic through drag performance, embodying imagined ideas of progress and their striking relevance in today’s world.
The exhibit takes its cues from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, whose theme was “The World of Tomorrow.” The fair featured the figure “Miss Chemistry,” the DuPont company’s living advertisement for the world premiere of nylon stockings. The next year, a newspaper survey found that mother, memory, and cellophane were the most beautiful words in the English language, thus inspiring the name of Gallagher’s exhibition.
Consisting of five prints, each made up of two images that change based on the viewer’s perspective, the exhibit creates a dazzling choreography for visitors. These images present a tension between visibility and invisibility, and much like the second skin of nylon stockings, prove to be elusive.
In video form, Gallagher plays the drag representation of Miss Chemistry’s ghost, circulating through the past, present, and future, posing a promise of innovation gone awry. What is most enticing about Miss Chemistry is her eerie face: Shadow and light dance across her mask, veiling her full portrait. She is unreachable by the audience, much like how the shiny material of a nylon stocking conceals the leg that wears it.
At the time of the New York World’s Fair, the nylon stocking was viewed as the pinnacle of chemistry and innovation—it harnessed coal, air, and water into a new, consumable form.
“Oil transmuted to stockings to rope. This material, less of an object, more of a movement,” Miss Chemistry’s ghost says. “Like those old nets and ropes, I’m unable to return to where I was before.”
These products, once hailed as symbols of progress, are now viewed in a new light. This material cannot be recycled—DuPont was responsible for the excessive pollution of rivers and soils within the United States. The boundless optimism of 1939 has since evolved into a sombre understanding, as the repercussions of industry, notably climate change and pollution, unfold before us in real-time. This exhibit perfectly captures the haunting of a past in which anything seemed possible.
This exhibit falls under the larger umbrella of the 18th MOMENTA Biennale de l’image. The event takes place across sixteen venues, with twenty-three artists presenting solo projects that all explore the theme of “Masquerades: Drawn to Metamorphosis.”
Curator Ji-Yoon Han told me that this project aids in reinventing notions of identity, opening it to new meanings. According to Han, identity is becoming, rather than being. Identity exists within a liminal space, between self and other; it remains unfixed.
“The title of the exhibition was the three words that appealed in 1940, and I think it’s perfect,” Han said in an interview with The Tribune. “You have all the plastic and the cellophane that has been so instrumental in the modern world, but there is also memory, which has to do with the past, and mother, this kind of impossible nostalgia of going back to a lost future.”
One of the main facets of the Biennale’s masquerade is mimicry. Gallagher’s portrayal of the original Miss Chemistry provides a glimpse into how various figures and ideas have changed over time.
“Drag culture plays a lot with the stereotypes of femininity and pushes them to an extreme. I’m really interested in that excessive part; that also goes with the slippery part that Séamus is creating with their work,” Han explained.
“You can see the defaults, it’s not quite there. And drag culture is also about that; you would never be completely fooled, it’s not like a perfect mimicry, on the contrary, it’s an imperfect mimicry.”
“Mother, Memory, and Cellophane” runs from Sept. 8, 2023, to Feb. 4, 2024. Student tickets are $15 and are available on the McCord Stewart website or at the ticket counter.