Gaping mouth’d ...
On the Politics of the Body in the Work of Aideen Barry and Alice Maher
For she was convinced of the plurality of the self ...1
The title of this exhibition is taken from the opening chant spoken by the three witches in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth: ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air.’2 Inciting the audience to consider that the dramatic events which are about to unfold do not convey the
reality that lurks ominously beneath the surface, the words of the three witches point to the ineluctable truism that fog and filth are present in that which is most fair and, conversely, beauty can be found in what is considered most foul. It is fitting that the words spoken by the witches or weird sisters from Macbeth should set the literary and syntactical mise en scène for this exhibition of work by Aideen Barry and Alice Maher as, over time, the work of both these artists has contained the paradox the witches’ words speak. Barry’s work moves between a luscious, elegiac Gothic aesthetic and unsettling tragicomedy in her performative films by way of the prosthetic extensions and automated mechanical devices she deploys to disturb discrete divisions between the human and what is other to the human, this otherness becoming an uncanny perturbation installed within the self. Hybridity, mutation, metamorphosis and transformation are the keystones for Maher’s artistic oeuvre in which the body is always placed center stage. In Maher’s work the body is a repository for secret, arcane or unsymbolized knowledge and experience, but the body is also the conduit by which such knowledge and experience may yet be issued forth into some new, unanticipated form of symbolization. As the witches incantations evoke witching time as a temporal, topsy-turvy opportunity for ‘hurly-burly ... turmoil, tumult, insurrection and rebellion’, so the work of these two artists agitate canonic historical narratives and visual histories to provoke reflection on the multifarious ways in which women’s knowledge and experience has been omitted from the art history canon: their voices silenced, their laboring bodies obfuscated and refused, their experience expunged from the possibility of intergenerational knowledge exchange.3
As Silvia Federici reminds us, whilst the witch has long standing associations with the heretic, the ‘most important difference between heresy and witchcraft is that witchcraft was
considered a female crime’.4 By way of embodied, intuitive, mantic, somatic and sensorial spellbinding enchantments and incantations, the witch insists that experience and knowledge from the side of the feminine shall not be evacuated from our collective social imaginaries; she literally embodies the subversive spirit of rebellion. A call to arms, to reclaim and resituate lost, fractured or silenced knowledge resonates in Barry and Maher’s work. Like the curse of the heretic or the chant of the witch, it is as an aesthetic insurrection that echoes betwixt and between time as an extended howl or perhaps even a hex. The works on show in Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair emerge from the bodies of the artists to solicit a somatic encounter, inviting the viewer as a participant to
enter the matrix of corporeal co-vexation. Fomenting and gleaning vexations between the corporeal and cerebral, the material and immaterial, the human and inhuman, the human and its animal familiar, Barry and Maher’s work suggests that whilst the fair is always already in the foul and the foul is always already in the fair, in truth, the foul may be fairer for those whose senses are attuned to that which is most beautiful in what is perceived by others to be most grotesque.
Sometimes the earth may give a jerk, when all the creatures communicate; there may be a hint of cows the bleat of a January lamb the birth of another unwanted baby
the death of a girl and her child.5
In 1983 Article 40.3.3, otherwise known as the 8th Amendment, was inserted into the Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann).6 Effectively refusing access to abortion unless there was a direct threat to a woman’s life during pregnancy, the 8th Amendment cleaved a traumatic wound through the subjectivity of the citizens of Ireland, impacting profoundly upon women’s health, pregnant people’s reproductive choices and individual human rights. Following years of activism and political lobbying for constitutional change, a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment from the Irish Constitution was held on Friday 25th May. 2018.7 Whilst the result of the 2018 referendum was met with euphoria by those in favor of repealing the 8th Amendment out of the Constitution, those grassroots campaigners who had ceaselessly campaigned for a “Yes” vote over many years were exhausted and brutalized by the campaign. The work by these two artists that is on show in Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair was conceived, produced and executed in the traumatic shadow and the traumatizing aftermath of the Repeal movement. This was a time during which thousands upon thousands of pregnant people crossed the Irish sea alone to seek the abortion care their own country denied them, a time when so many girls and women died as a result of the violence the 8th Amendment had wrought on their bodies: the fragment from the poem above keeps one such young girl, Ann Lovett, alive in our collective memory. As the witch serves as a placeholder for the history of women’s subjugation, so Barry and Maher’s artworks materialize the her-say in heresy by manifesting a particularly feminine desire for constitutional reform with the body situated as an insistent, political site of revolt and resistance. Surfacing the effects and affects the 8th Amendment has visited upon the exhausted and brutalized body, in their work the female corpus is also ever
excessive and resilient, yet bound to what Griselda Pollock has termed traumatic ‘after-affects’. Pollock argues that:
... the social and imaginative processes of gendering femininity are themselves traumatic within the longue durée of phallocentric culture. Paradoxically this disqualifies women’s experience from being considered
traumatic. Trauma is considered the exceptional event. But many feminists will argue that existence “in the feminine”, the world that women inhabit, is itself regularly traumatizing in general and certain excessive acts of violence and violation ... are embedded tropes if not founding mythos of phallocentric culture.8
In this explication, the traumatic gendering of femininity within a phallic, patriarchal culture is understood to engender further traumatizing after-affects which signal the ‘temporal displacement of trauma, perpetually present, yet absented from memory that bequeaths unbound affects for later events’.9 To elaborate on this theory, Pollock recounts her experience of encounter with a
statue entitled Apollo and Daphne which was carved by Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1622 and 1625 and details the myth of the nymph Daphne and the god Apollo who, overcome with the desire to possess the beautiful maiden, pursued her against her wishes. Depicting the resisting nymph as she pleads for release from her pursuer’s touch, the moment captured in the sculpture is of Daphne’s imminent rape, which is forestalled as her lower body transforms from soft, pressed flesh into cold, inanimate tree bark whilst a gaping, gasping “O” blossoms on the mouth of the terrified woman. Pollock is transfixed by the open mouth of Daphne in the process of arboreal metaphorphosis and asks ‘Is this dark hole the void of trauma? Whose? Cultures?’10
Fig. 1 Daphne and Apollo (detail), Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1622-5
I’ve been trying to show you over, and over Look at these, my child-bearing hips Look at these, my ruby red ruby lips
Look at these my work strong arms and You’ve got to see my bottle full of charm I lay it all at your feet You turn around and say back to back to me, “he said” Sheela-na-gig, Sheela-na-gig You exhibitionist Sheela-na-gig, Sheela-na-gig
I take the gaping and gasping mouth of Daphne as a symbolic codex by which to approach the work of Barry and Maher exhibited in this installation. Daphne’s prophetic “O” reverberates through the process of our culture; her cavernous gaping and gasping mouth ripples across and through our history and the aesthetic time of art history to signal the violences that have been heaped upon the female body across generations. But in Barry and Maher’s work we are reminded that the voice that issues from the female mouth is a mythopoetic signifier that heralds the capacity held within the body to find new forms of affective, aesthetic symbolization to resist the technologies of torture that have sought to restrain it. For the female voice silenced is yet everywhere present in the work of these two artists.
Maher refers to her Vox Materia bronze sculptures cast from wax and displayed as objects as “like a language”; a language that is “squeezed out”, ‘pressed out, spat out, shat out, pushed out, bled out’ and “created under pressure” in processes akin to the acts of defecation or even birthing.12 The sculptures and prints on display in this exhibition are material manifestations of the absent, missing, or lost female voice which suggest both ‘the materiality of the voice and the voice materialized, or rendered into material’ and act as a ‘material expression of the missing or absent voice that arose from the initial pictorial recording’ of the artists own body captured during various movements.13 This creation of a new language merging from the body of the artist and rendered into form is a material link to the initial inspiration for these works: a stone carving of a mermaid the artist encountered on a trip to Kilcooley Abbey in Co. Tipperary. With the advent of this loss of speech we are reminded that the tongues of women, which issue from their open mouths to elicit speech, ‘have been historically associated with ‘curses and spells, the central
activity of witches’.14 Which is why Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid has her tongue cut from her mouth. To grow legs and live on the land with her beloved, the Little Mermaid must first sacrifice her voice. But, as Adriana Cavarero, notes from the etymology of the Latin vox, ‘the first meaning of vocare is “to call” or “to invoke”. Before making itself speech, the voice is an invocation that is addressed to the other and that entrusts itself to an ear that receives it.’15 As Maher’s work has circled around themes of otherness, becoming, change, transformation, metamorphosis and shapeshifting, these fair-foul exhilarating shapes arrive from the capacities of the artist’s own body: it is the creation of a unique signature language, a materialized lexicon of utterances which
the artist wraps around our eyes, connects to our ears, in a new form of symbolization that makes manifest the previously unutterable. The gaping and gasping mouth of Daphne now speaks.
Barry’s films gesture inexorably towards the myriad ways in which feminine subjectivity is rendered both uncanny and monstrous, hysterical yet prodigious within a signifying economy that singularly valorizes the labor of men. Her time intensive performative films showcase the female subject as a seething, fantastical and phantasmatic Colossus, capable of inhuman feats of feminine domestic perfection. Snaking, Medusa-like prostheses emerge from the artists luxuriant, inky octopus tresses to hoover the house and trim the lawn. Quotidian, everyday domestic devices acquire miraculous animating powers. The artist herself appears, part-Stepford Wife, part-cyborg superhero, part-beleaguered housewife, part-femme fatale temptress, part-machine, herself always in the process of becoming with her mechanical familars which stage a talismanic, almost juju like
presence in her performances. In Enshrined (2016), the complex imbrication of the over- production of female labor meets its nemesis in conjugation with the particular kind of laboring practice that is maternal reproduction. The artist sits at a desk furiously tapping away at a laptop whilst teetering, ever increasing stacks of paper mount either side of her; the stacks of paper are like intrusive bookends holding unruly books together, they are also the pillars of capital which wreak untold havoc upon the female laboring body. Federici draws our attention to the implicit relationship between capital accumulation and alienation from one’s labour by highlighting the manner in which the structures of capitalism systematically reshape and reproduce the labouring subject to conform with its own proprietorial ends.
To this history of female labour, Federici adds the ways in which women have been
wrenched from control over their own reproduction, how they have been forced to procreate
against their will, and how they have ‘
experienced an alienation from their bodies, their “labor”, and even their children’ in a manner that is ‘deeper than that experienced by any other workers’.16
Enshrined evidences this tension between work undertaken for pay and the unpaid work of gestation, labour, birthing and childcare. As the artist sits frantically typing, her body produces a spontaneous pregnancy. With no time to gestate the pregnancy, it is produced as a fully formed egg which is then birthed through the artists open mouth which acts as a stand-in for the maternal birth canal, but which also connects us back to Daphne’s lips opened in the “O” of surprise and panic. The eggs that are hastily deposited onto the work desk fall carelessly to the floor where an untended child makes creative patterns from the gooey mixture of yolk and shell. If ever there was a potent and pathos laden metaphor for the creative work of the artist and mother, this is it. In this way, the egg becomes the symbolic placeholder for the impossible production of femininity, maternity and artistic creativity in late modern capitalist society for the egg or ovum holds to it, as the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington noted, ‘the macrocosm and the microcosm, the dividing line between the Big and the Small which makes it impossible to see the whole.’17
The voice foreclosed in the marble luminescence of Daphne’s open mouth that I trace through the works of Maher and Barry inevitably returns me to that circular threshold we approach and pass through in the event of our birthing, to the guttural cries that have ushered forth from the mouths of women through millennia in the act of childbirthing, to the first cry of
the infant as it is evacuated from the maternal womb and takes its first breath, as well as the corpse that takes its last. All these phases of gestation birthing, living and dying are evoked by the ancient figure of the Sheela-na-Gig.18 Just as the fair maiden Daphne’s gaping mouth captures the circle of life and death in a gasp that is emitted at the precise moment her breathing body turns to a breathless wooden stump, so Sheela the hag exposes her open gaping vulva as a reminder of the portals we passage through in our journey through life to death.
Fig. 2 Sheela-na-Gig, British Museum
Ireland is an ancient landscape, riddled with sites of ritualistic significance such as passage tombs and underground chambers. Often one enters these spaces by crossing a portal or a threshold which gapes like a starling “O”, to step into a darkened space carved by stone or dissolved from rock. In one such space, the feathering lines and marks on the limestone encasing the chamber are reminiscent of the fleshy tissue-like texture of a vulva or the interior holding space of the womb. Sometimes, deep in the belly of the earth, a swell of thunder claps, resonating through the chamber like a birthing pain or the mother’s voice heard, indistinct, as though from a far. At such times, the chants of those witches who were thought to ‘send raine, haile, tempests, thunder, lightening’, are never far away.19 Here, in the vulva of Sheela the hag, we are connected with the silenced voice of Daphne and to the three-as-one goddess of maiden/mother/crone whose voice erupts in an unapologetic roar that breaches the chronological linearity of historical time to enfold
all time into our time.
Such affective encounters with ritualistic sites of profound significance are lightening rods
which return me to the work of Barry and Maher on show for the occasion of Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair: an exhibition which provides symbologenic conductors for the ‘history of the body’ which is ‘the history of human beings’.20 Federici argues that there is no cultural or disciplinary practice in the history of human civilization that has ‘not first been applied to the body’.21 Yet, it is by way of an appeal to the body as a ‘ground of resistance’ containing the ‘power to act, to transform itself
and the world’ that the body can be re-theorised as ‘a natural limit’ to such exploitation.22 Through their strategic deployment of affective imagery, forms, materials and lines, Barry and Maher create healing routes to stich the soma back into the psyche so as to give voice to those histories of the female body that have been silenced, unuttered. Cavarero observes, that recuperating the subversive power of the voice in emergence from the body is necessary to radically rethink the connection between speech and politics. This necessity, she argues, does not feminize politics. Rather, in tracing speech back to its ‘vocalic roots’ we extricate it from the ‘perverse binary economy that separates’ the voice that emerges from the body and that is rent from speech and from semantics, so as to recuperate the voice as an ‘obligatory strategic gesture’.23 From the witches chant, to the gaping and gasping mouth of Daphne, to the enigmatic whorls and fissures that appear in Maher’s prints and sculptural objects, to the alarming cavernous mouths of Barry’s
Medusaesque hoover extensions and the incessant eggs that appear from her mechanical opening and closing mouth, the artistic voice in emergence from the body is everywhere in these works by Maher and Barry. These artworks produce a re-corporealized form of speech that works towards a politics of the somatic and they may provide us with the very tools we need to stage our resistance to the various forms of biopower which continue to seek control over our laboring bodies to this very day. We must, therefore, watch and listen.
Our bodies have reasons that we need to learn, rediscover, reinvent. We need to listen to the language and rhythms of the natural world as the path to the health and healing of the earth. Since the power to be affected and to affect, to be moved and move, a capacity which is indestructible, exhausted only with death, is constitutive of the body, there is an immanent politics residing in it: the capacity to transform itself, others, and change the world.24
1 Mariner Warner, ‘Introduction’ in Leonora Carrington, Down Below. New York: New York Review of Books, 2017, p. xxvii.
2 William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, Scene 1.
3 A. R. Braunmuller, ‘Introduction’, Macbeth, William Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 102.
4 Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia, 2004, p. 179.
5 Leland Bardwell, ‘The Flight’, The White Beach: New and Selected Poems 1960-1998. Cliffs of Moher: Salmon Publishing, 1998.
6 Generally referred to as the 8th amendment, Article 40.3.3 reads as follows: ‘The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right’.
8 Griselda Pollock, After-affects/After-Images: Trauma and Aesthetic Transformation in the Virtual Feminist Museum. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013, p. 1.
9 ibid, p. xxxx.
10 ibid, p. 49.
11 P. J. Harvey, ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’ (lyrics), Dry. Too Pure, 1992.
12 Tina Kinsella, ‘Corporeal Matters’, VAI News Sheet 3, 2018, p. 21.
14 Warner, Signs and Wonders: Essays on Literature and Culture. London: Vintage, 2003, p. 61
15 Adriana Cavarero, For More Than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005, p.169.
16 Federici, 2004, p. 91
17 Leonora Carrington, Down Below. New York: New York Review of Books, 2017, p. 19.
18 Sheela-na-Gigs are carving of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva. Whilst these figurative carvings are found across northern Europe, Ireland has the greatest concentration of them. The original meaning these enigmatic figures convey is lost in the mists of time, but various hypotheses have suggested the Sheela is a fertility figure, the remnants of a pagan goddess, a warning against lust or a figure of feminine empowerment.
19 A. R. Braunmuller, 1997, p. 102.
20 Silvia Federici, ‘In Praise of the Dancing Body’, Visuel Arkivering 11. Published in relation to Motherniziing ANA: Who Cares for the Future? Astrid Noaks Atelier and The Mothernists II: Who Cares for the 21st Century? Danske Kunstakademi, 2017, p. 25.
23 Cavarero, 2004, p. 207.
24 Federici, 2017, p. 29.