Am I going to be R. B. in this exhibition? Shall I “come out” completely? Or will I be the more deeply veiled Quiet Medusa?
I was recently asked why “Quiet Medusa”? I am not quite sure where it came from. Somehow the juxtaposition of Quiet (not silent – but which has to do with a struggle with voice, with volume) with the big petrifying head of Medusa just felt right.
Medusa was one of three Gorgon sisters (the others were Stheno and Euryale). Medusa was beautiful but after she was raped in Athena’s temple, the outraged goddess punished her by transforming her hair into snakes and making her face so terrible that it turned beholders to stone. The rapist, Poseidon, went unpunished for defiling his niece’s sanctuary. Freud linked the petrifying effect Medusa’s head with a fear of castration based on the awful sight of the mother’s genitals. Hairy edged and lacking the vital appendage. Thus when the warrior virgin Athena takes Medusa’s dismembered head as an aegis she repels sexual interest by displaying “the terrifying genitals of the mother”.
Quiet Medusa conceals me - is it hiding or keeping separate? I have many images of trapped or abject women in my work. But in contrast there are also a proliferation self exposing Sheela-na-gigs and Baubos.
Sheela Na Gigs are stone carvings representing an old woman (a hag!) squatting and pulling apart her (often enormous) vulva. They are mostly found on old Norman churches. Why they are there – transgressing in holy places – is disputed, they may be apotropaic (warding off evil), or perhaps pre-Christian fertility goddesses.
Sheela Na Gig on Kilpeck Church in Herefordshire
Baubo comes into the story of Persephone and Demeter. While Demeter scours the earth for her abducted daughter she neglects her care of the land, crops fail, people starve. Then she meets the old woman Baubo who lifts up her dress and exposes her genitals. Demeter laughs. Healing begins.
Greek Baubo figurine
The first self exposing woman in my work appears in Creative Threshold – this was a double sided hanging for the doorway to my old attic studio. It took inspiration from the individualised entrances to the underground home of the lost boys in Peter Pan. Each boy had a tree trunk hollowed to accommodate only his dimensions, down which he slithered to safety. There is something satisfying about a personal portal – a symbolic sorting doorway, prohibiting anyone who isn’t me! This was my time of seclusion.
It is quite a crudely made object. I drew around my shape to make the inner doorway. The thing itself could be seen as a sexual orifice. It was an early attempt to represent (expose) what I truly liked. Through a collage of postcards, and doodles (painted and embroidered), I recorded past and current inspirations and identifications in art, architecture, fiction and fairy tale. The influences I felt fitted with my artist’s identity stood alongside others which were secret or embarrasing. There is a red headed Baubo on one side -lifting up her pink dress. The same character reappears as Rapunzel on the top left. And on the other side a Baubo image.
There is a Baubo on my Medusa box - conflated with a Baba Yaga. Another crone - fierce and unpredictable. Note her preferred mode of transport - the rather suggestive pestle and mortar.
I found this “drawing” quoting from Doris Lessing’s novel The Summer before the Dark. A middle aged woman, aware of increasing invisibility, has a reverie of exposing herself.
Jack-in-a-box Baubo – was a response to a loquacious drunk who sat beside me on the tube – his loud persistence drawing the amused, pitying gaze of everyone around. When I moved away he shouted after me that I was “mutton dressed as lamb” and I realised I had received my first age related insult. If I unpick this is a bit weird – did I really want to flash at him – shock him into silence? Really, this piece should be enormous and embroidered with a great big “fuck off”. It should have knives!
Here s a more explicitly ferocious Sheela Na Gig doll; designed to be handled, if you dare.
And then I found this, another old making – a vulva/doll/eye mask.
This picture is thinking about the doll - handmade object - as a thing to be exchanged; non verbal communication between people. I am not quite sure where Adam and Eve fit in, but they represent the first moment of human shame - having eaten from the tree of knowledge they become self conscious and try to conceal their nakedness.
I didn't make this, but I have a lovely pewter brooch depicting a vulva on horseback. I always feel strangely empowered when I wear it, and sometimes get compliments without people realising what it represents Here is the link if you want to buy one
A charm for tube journeys?!
I am now reading Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. Currer, Ellis and Acton: the most famous of pseudonyms. Jane Eyre and Villette have been so important to me. I always return to the intactness of those fictional selves, their loneliness, and the journeys they make…. It is interesting that the biography opens with reference to Brontë ’s desperate visit to a Catholic confessional during a lonely school vacation in Brussels, an experience repeated in her fiction by Lucy Snowe in Villette:
“the mere relief of communication in a ear which was human and sentient, yet consecrated, the mere pouring out of some portion of long accumulating, long pent-up pain into a vessel whence it could not again be diffused – had done me good. I was already solaced”
Harman points to this confession as prefiguring the novelised versions of Brontë ’s own life experiences in her fiction. Apparently Jane Eyre was the English first novel written in first person, subtitled “an autobiography”. Mystery about the author's identity and the truth/fiction of the text was part of the publisher's marketing.
Also on the go - and trying to savour -, I’m reading Lucia Berlin’s short stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women. They are wonderful. I think I like them more when I realise how autobiographical they are. There is one called A Point of View – on how using the third person gives the reader the sense that because the author is interested in the character, their life is worthy of attention. The raw personal plea of “I” is not enough without sponsorship.
Finally, this month I re-read The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, one of my favourite books of 2015. For me any “woman upstairs” is always Bertha Mason. Here the rage is locked inside the moderate demeanor of a respectable school teacher, and the madness is displaced onto the small dolls she makes representing female creatives; women famous as much (or more), for their mental instability as their artistic output. Women in their rooms. These are Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neal and Edie Sedgwick.
Artist/school teacher Nora becomes involved in the lives of a visiting family and through her intense relationships with child, mother and father a ravenous hope awakens that she might fill the various emptiness’s in her heart – as mother, lover and above all - artist. This is a wonderful book about feeling alive – the universe’s great resounding yes – after years of abjuring need to duty. It is also about hunger and finally about rage when hope dies. Nora speaks of being angry enough "to be my own self" and that “to be furious, murderously furious is to be alive”.
Many negative reviews of this book focus on the unlikeableness of the heroine – I never considered that qualification. Clearly it is still socially repulsive to be an angry woman. But anger soars beyond the personal. The death of her mother two years earlier scores Nora’s narrative with grief. She laments her mother’s own unfulfilled longing. You get the sense of generations of women whose hyperawareness of social subtexts and obedience to duty and moderation have taken all the energy and caused their essential selves to atrophy. There is reason to be furious.
Space is important in the book. Nora observes her own boredom when she sits in the “den” created by her friend’s daughter. The space so vivid to the child is lifeless to the adult who can only pretend play. It is Sirena (rising art world star) who creates a “transitional space” - “Wonderland” -, which enchants the adult Nora. While Sirena conceives her ambitious installation, Nora sets to work on a series of “dolls” representing Dickinson, Woolf, Neal and Sedgwick in their rooms – rooms of their own. Rooms which are also prisons? Each miniature room contains a winged golden amulet representing joy. Nora is taken to task by Skandar – the husband/lover – for not taking up more space, for not asking for what she wants, for repressing her hunger (ravenous wolf) and making joy a tiny hidden thing. Skandar asks "Why one time, just one time, is she not the biggest element, Why does Joy not take the whole room?"
Edie Sedgwick’s room is the only one not constrained by historical descriptions. It is all Nora's imagination; a room with no exit, plastered with images of Edie and windows through which she can be viewed by spectators. Nora reflects that “when as a woman you make yourself the work of art you are never alone”. It is masquerading as Edie that Nora enters Wonderland.
There is a moment in the book where Nora acknowledges that she wants above all things to be “got” - be truly seen, known, accepted. Whereas Sirena (more secure, more ambitious, more comfortable with an "artist" persona?) is able to leave herself behind and venture into unknown, irrational realms - make new rather than retrieve old.
I empathise with Nora’s sense of betrayal and fury on a personal level – I too would be devastated if a private moment was captured and shown publicly without my consent or knowledge. But at the same time the betraying image captures the moment of Nora’s liberation – finally taking what she wants, taking centre stage in Wonderland, freedom from all the projections, happy in the life in her body NOW, YES. Sirena's film could be seen as compassionate witnessing rather than shaming exposure. It could be an act of revenge or just the disinterested use of a powerful image by an ambitious artist. The art world in this book is horrible!
Who is safe from the Fun House house of mirrors of being a woman? At the summer open studios last year one of my visitors was a really pretty young woman, I think she was American, super poised and flanked by two attractive men. She looked at abject woman and then said to directly to me “I feel like that”. And then she walked away. The abject doll was a transient communication between us. The abject woman and trapped women is a whole other blog.
So often women artists’ attractiveness is part of the deal. I remember feeling alienated from Eva Hesse by Lucy Lippard’s endless reiteration of her beauty. The poor Brontë sisters were condemned for their lack of beauty by acquaintances. Charlotte and Anne felt it keenly.
I realised, reading the Brontë biography that I need to feature a Skimmington Ride in my Doll Dossier. This is a folk custom (familiar from The Mayor of Casterbridge) where social disapproval is expressed by shaming the offender; making a compromising effigy of them and parading it through the streets. When Branwell Brontë pissed off the Haworth parishioners, they made a dummy of him (holding a herring and potato to represent his Irishness), and burned it. Michael Henchard and Lucetta’s effigies were merely paraded – a public shaming which so overwhelms her that it leads to her death.
Shame! According to my dictionary shame is a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcomings, impropriety or disgrace.
Shame expands in concentric circles, from internal recognition to colourful flush. The displayed evidence of self consciousness perpetuates another wave and it can feel like there is no escape from blush and sweat. Downcast eyes, averted gaze – self abnegation.
I am looking back at an essay I wrote on shame in psychoanalysis and art. Frankly the links I made to artists: Yayoi Kusama, Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse are tenuous but the theory is interesting to review. It has been 13 years since I wrote the essay so the vivacity of the original texts has faded and I may be muddling ideas that I understood more fully at the time.
This is some of what I wrote. In psychoanalysis shame seems to be a narcissistic failure to live up to one’s ideal of oneself. It involves terror of being found out. Small children are blissfully without shame. Freud recalled the intoxicating effect of undressing on children. Exhibitionism and shame are polar opposites. Shame inhibits exhibitionism. The perversion of exhibitionism bypasses shame. Exhibitionism and scopophilia are the ways in which children first start to relate sexually to an object. I will show you mine if you show me yours. Having a dream of being publicly naked in dreams is a wish fulfilment of the desire to exhibit oneself – evading censorship by distortion. Exhibitionism in dreams the, is paradise regained – before shame. Shame can occur in remembering an act or experience which wasn’t necessarily experienced as shameful at the time. Freud observed that female hysterics often recalled exposing themselves to others.
I wrote that Jacqueline Rose writes about the confessional women poets (Plath and Sexton) – how telling is also concealing. I would like to think more about that – another time. Visual art is perfect for that - a thing laid out to behold
Visual art can also show and hide simultaneously. In my essay I write about Louise Bourgeois. I have always loved those Femme Maison images – silly ostrich woman doesn’t realise that although she has hidden her head in the house, her lower body and genitals are on full view. She can't see herself being seen. Interesting that although Bourgeois’ life traumas are shared openly through her work, she often switches pronoun, moving from first to third person “Louise” or “she”.
Louise Bourgeois - Femme Maison
In A Room of One's Own Virginia Woolf highlights passages in Jane Eyre where she says that
"it is clear that anger was tampering with the integrity of Charlotte Bronte the novelist. She left her story in which her entire devotion was due to attend to a personal grievance".
Claire Harman points to other strange digressions and tirades in Bronte's fiction where personal issues rip into the plot.
I think that is what I respond to - the tear, the crack. the raw presence of anger or undigested grief - a remainder. But also the oscillation between selves - imagined selves and real selves. And in making sculptural object perhaps also the "self" of the material who won't let the maker be?
There is a lovely quote from a poem by Charles Olson in praise of the undigested
"Whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
And the dirt
just to make clear
where they came from"
I am not sure how to conclude this. I am quite shocked at how many images I have made of these exhibitionist women. I don't have dreams of revealing my own body in that way. Are the art objects surrogate dreams? What are they saying? Showing. To me? They are humorous and fierce. They are protective: apotropaic: I will repulse you before you repulse me. They tell me I want to be seen and I don't want to be seen. I fear failure and yet like Nora I want to be "got", but it feels there is no middle ground between invisibility and shameful excess – showing too much.
Silence or shame?
I think I have to risk shame because silence is death.
There was an interesting article by Deborah Orr on the unmasking of Elena Ferrante - the most famous authorial mystery identity of recent times. Orr points to the tendency of women to make for the sake of making (even if nobody sees) rather than for public success, often having male partners who promote.
I have made quietly unseen for years. Making is a way of processing information. it is a way of recording emotion - often feelings that I couldn't acknowledge at the time.
Maybe the exhibitionists - are saying now is your time, maybe it is not art, maybe it is no good, but take the space, have your exhibition.