Elle Freak celebrates Margaret Dodd's This Woman is Not a Car

In 1957, at the age of sixteen, Margaret Dodd received the book Design and decoration for the home as her school art prize. Her heart sank, as she later remembered, ‘right down into my brown shoes’. The young and aspiring artist knew, even then, that there must be more to life than a woman’s assigned role to the home. With this same conviction, two decades later, Dodd created the avant-garde body of work, This Woman is Not a Car.

The series – consisting of a film and ceramic Holden sculptures dressed as babies, mothers and brides – had its origins in feminist concerns. The artist first became informed of gender theory and politics in 1964, when she read Betty Friedan’s landmark book, The feminine mystique. Dodd was newly a mother, wife and teacher and living in America, where her academic husband was working at Yale University in Hartford, Connecticut.

Liberated by Friedan’s acknowledgement of the constraints placed upon women in modern society, she returned to study (having previously attended Adelaide Teachers College and the South Australian School of Art), enrolling in a Bachelor of Arts at the University of California, Davis. Studying art with Robert Arneson, Dodd became part of the new Funk Ceramics movement, which rebelled against the formal conventions of the past using wit and humour.

When Dodd returned to Australia in 1968, the excitement of America quickly waned. Dodd found herself isolated and depressed, living in the outer Adelaide suburb of, ironically, Holden Hill (at that time, the end of the bus route). It was here, in her spare room, that Dodd first employed the potent symbol of the Holden car to explore notions of national identity, masculinity and femininity.

Inspired by the progressive ideas of Lucy Lippard, who visited Australia in 1975, and the experimental film, Meshes of the afternoon (1943) by Maya Deren, which Dodd saw for the first time in 1974, the artist decided to make a film and to animate it using her ceramic sculptures.

The film employed funk, dada and surrealist methods of expression to blend reality with fantasy. It follows the daily routine of a wife and mother (played by Pauline Sedgwick) as she drives her children between appointments in a Holden station wagon. The mundane ultimately becomes the absurd, as Dodd exposes ‘the nightmare world in the mother’s head’. In the now-iconic scene, the mother stops at a service station, where Dodd’s analogy of the car and the woman as an object of male desire is made explicit. The film reaches, what curator Susan Lambert describes as, ‘its logical, painful and absurd conclusion’, when the mother gives birth to a pink baby Holden.

An unfinished version of the film, along with the ceramic sculptures and photographs by Doug Nicholas capturing the filmmaking process, were first displayed at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Margaret Dodd’s Link Exhibition in 1977. Coinciding with this was the ground-breaking exhibition, The Women’s Show, also held in Adelaide, and featuring 400 works by Australian women artists – including sculpture by Dodd, who was one of the organisers of this national project.

The enduring significance of This Woman is Not a Car and Dodd’s pioneering vision were recently the subject of a major exhibition curated by Susan Charlton (2017) and a film commissioned by the Adelaide Film Festival, directed by artist Kate Blackmore and produced by Bridgit Ikin, titled The Woman and the Car (2018). Presented as part of the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australia Art, This Woman is Not a Car was also commemorated in the performance Howl – a celebration of works of art that challenged and changed art history – created and performed by APHIDS and Willoh S. Weiland, Lara Thoms and Lz Dunn.

Through the extraordinary generosity of the late Lorraine Hossack, this internationally celebrated, Adelaide-made series is now part of the Gallery’s permanent collection. The major new acquisition includes Dodd’s film, six ceramic sculptures, a costume and props, as well as thirty-nine works on paper, made in relation to the series by the artist’s colleagues, Doug Nicholas, Jan Mackay and Clay Glen.

A display at AGSA celebrating Margaret Dodd and This Woman is Not a Car is planned for 2020.

Elle is Assistant Curator of Australian Paintings and Sculpture. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 39.