In a blurring of boundaries between self and other, artist, writer, film-maker, shoe maker-wearer extraordinaire, Ellen Sampson, considers this tentative boundary through the shoe. For Sampson, the shoe is not just a piece of clothing but an artefact. An object understood as the ‘other’ through a conceptualization of the body. The shoe goes beyond just being a protector of feet, becoming a curious relic which when ‘worn closely’ incorporates itself into the body; here the shoe acts upon the bodily self, as much as the body acts upon the shoe.
Sampson’s lecture spoke in anthropological terms when describing the shoe as not just an art-object (when looking at her own curious creations), but as a relic, thereby focusing on how the shoe can be seen within the realm of art as well as material culture. For the shoe ‘does not end with skin,’ rather it is an attachment of the body which imprints itself against its leathery counterpart, the sole. With this exploration of wearing shoes and shoes’ object-status, Sampson gives the gift of the shoe.
The gift, in Sampson’s intriguing anthropological language, is that of Marcel Mauss and Alfred Gels, in which, like a gift which is ‘abandoned by the giver, (…) still possesses something of them,’ the shoe also possesses a trace. This idea of the shoe retaining a trace of the body was an intriguing concept. Even in an entanglement of sprawled out fleshy pink strings, or smooth cool copper against pine in a pair of shoe-like-stilts, or sublimely skin-like leather pressed against the curvature of one’s own foot, the shoe becomes both literal and metaphorical container and carrier of the present-absent self. For the shoe, as Sampson notes, withholds the present body while continuously carrying its absent impression of that which has been (now invoking the language of Roland Barthes); that being the absent body, with its toe-tip memory impressed against the memory of fabric.
The fleshy pinks of Sampson’s shoes from her series entitled CLOTH (2015) were shown to us in their unfolded form, left open to allow the viewer to read the shoes memory through its patina of rips and scuffs, all of which speak of the once present body tied up in these delightful strings. The shoes were worn by Sampson as part of her investigation into the concept of wearing shoes, and it was only after the creation and use of these objects when photography and film were employed By wearing the objects Sampson is able to document the bodily experiences written over the shoe, like a palimpsest of ‘experience over experience till [the shoe] finally breaks.’ But it is through photography and film in which this documentation (and the shoe itself) is reengaged in a more ‘truthful account.’ In using a 1970s-forensic polaroid camera to capture the shoes it is in their individual polaroid form which become for Sampson a study of time as well as a study of the body.
Dissonance of Object and Photograph – Worn (2015):
Discussing her photography, Sampson spoke of the twenty-four shoes she made and wore over the course of a year, taking pictures of their ‘development’ and transformation. As shoe-maker (like those which frequent many a fairy tale) Ellen pointed out that each shoe takes roughly forty hours to make (no instantaneous fairy magic here), so the shoes themselves through the act of making, wearing, and documenting, become attached to the body through both hands and feet.
Shoes speak, their silence is broken by tapping, knocking, scuffing and shuffling. Through the entanglement of the ‘emotional, motional and psychic self,’ Sampson’s films of the dancer act upon the viewer, not as a coherent narrative, but as a performative record of the trace of the shoe; here the shoes speak, of the ‘body and the worn.’ The films enchant with their ‘cognitive stickiness’ (a term coined by twentieth century anthropologist Alfred Gels, and is an idea explored further in Sampson’s writings), of the shoe as relic, thus it is through these lyrical vignettes of the body and shoe where one encounters in lively performance both the ‘touch and counter touch’ of the shoe, against foot and floor.
Sampson’s lecture concluded on this idea of trace, one which provoked an interesting discussion: how does the shoe speak of the absent body? How does the shoe function as a record of time? And finally, where do socks come into play amongst all of this? What was most intriguing was how through Sampson’s imaginative re-reading of the shoe as an extension of the self, which alongside her beguiling creations and their fascinating concepts, invokes the simple pleasure of looking, through the unfolding, re-folding and re-wearing of shoes.
Ellen Sampson completed her PhD at RCA London and is currently working on an exhibition soon to take place at the Northampton Museum of Fashion and Shoes.