Ruth Barker

Motor Mouth



Jessica Harrison’s curious cabinet-bound collection of fastidiously worked maquettes seems suspended in contradiction as a series of possibilities hang in the fragile balance of dental casts and metal threads.


Tucked away in the recesses of the National Gallery and strikingly juxtaposed with Jannis Kounellis’ mighty ‘Works: 1958-2005’, Harrison’s pieces are presented behind a pristine vitrine-like window, which emphasises a meticulous aesthetic. Strong elements of Victoriana cannot help but exude from this self styled ‘cabinet of curiosities’ as casts of Harrison’s own teeth are combined with orthodontic implements and the more incongruous addition of motorbike parts to create delicately realised structures presented in a series of polished glass bell-jars.


The distancing devices of the glass window and the bell-jar presentation allude to a clear reserve within the work – a removal of any visceral or haptic sense which is remarkable in the extreme given the associative impact of each piece’s component materials. The implicit narrative suggested by any description of the exhibition – some ghastly mouth-shattering motorcycle accident – appears flatly contradicted by the artist’s calm and deliberate manipulation of the elements. Individually, the chosen materials of teeth, dental equipment and machine parts clearly connote a logic of the ergonomic or pragmatic. Their highly and deliberately aestheticised re-contextualisation, however, explicitly robs each element of its capacity for functional implementation, revealing it instead as a decorative or embellished miniature, and a thing of beauty rather than use.


Conceptually, Motor Mouth is firmly located within a long and well-explored tradition of self-portraiture through which artists (notably female) have used their own bodies as both subject and object within autobiographical practice. Here, Harrison chooses to duplicate and re-present her own teeth as appealing rather than explicitly grotesque items within the jewellery-like constructions of this fetishised window display. This gesture forces a consideration not just of Harrison’s own personal history of invasive dental surgery, but also perhaps hopes to suggest the span of the viewer’s own body, body limits, and body image. Echoes of a curl of hair preserved forever in a lover’s locket, of a child’s lost milk-tooth folded in a mother’s drawer, may indicate something of the artist’s position in relation to the work. The specificity of her exploration however, seems marred by her reliance on such stylised archaic trappings as the bell-jar; an object perhaps too comfortably signifying ‘short-hand’ for the exploration of the female psyche since Silvia Plath’s appropriation of its symbolism in her canonical book of the same name.   


Harrison is clearly expert in seductively blending juxtaposed materials to present a highly aesthetic, superbly crafted collection of dental curiosities in this unusually oral take on female self-portraiture. Whether the work of this recent graduate will evolve into something a little less sanitised, a little less safe, and a little more challenging, remains to be seen.