“I reckon we’re in a massive transitional historical period,” says artist Jesse Jones, speaking over Skype from Venice. She’s there preparing her work Tremble Tremble to open at the 57th International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale this year. Jones will represent Ireland at the Biennale and her work, with its roots in Marxism and feminism, connects strongly to the thrumming unease in this country at the moment, particularly with regard to female body autonomy. The piece will inhabit the Irish pavilion at Venice with a mixture of sculpture, film and a live ‘interruption’.
The title, Tremble Tremble, comes from a chant proclaimed by Italian feminists in the 70s, agitating for wages for housework and access to abortion: “Tremate, tremate, le streghe sono tornate! [Tremble! Tremble! The witches have returned].” Witches, and their place in feminist literature as women who were silenced and punished for their actions, are very present in Tremble Tremble – stories by women persecuted as witches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were adapted by Jones and woven into the script of the film.
Jones wants to use the site of the piece as an opportunity to ‘reimagine the law from a female perspective’. The film features Olwen Fouéré, clad in animal hide and navigating the ruins of a structure that echoes a courthouse. In Jones’ new system of law, called In Utera Gigantae, she invokes the female as a giantess, the gigantic scale of the female in relation to the foetus, as a possible ground for disrupting the status quo.
“I’ve been interested in gigantism as an allegory since I did that show in the Hugh Lane [No More Fun and Games, 2016] … thinking about how to reimagine the law from a female perspective, the idea of that estrangement of the female body as giant started coming back over and over again, in particular thinking about something like how the maternal body is a giant to the foetus, the birthing maternal body is of a scale that is unfathomable… so it’s kind of building a world or imagining a world where that kind of giant subjectivity has a relationship with power and with the law … I’ve created a fictional law called In Utera Gigantae and that fictional law means the female body is a giant and its territory supercedes all other state laws.”
In a similar fashion to No More Fun and Games at the Hugh Lane, in which a huge swathe of scrim (fabric) painted with a beckoning hand and mounted on a ceiling runner, ushered visitors through the exhibition, visitors to Tremble Tremble at Venice will be ‘embraced’ by a double-arm scrim arrangement – the ‘interruption’ element of the piece. Jones says she wants to create the feeling of being ‘embraced by a giantess’. The desire to create an experience like this, that brings the viewer back to the scale of baby-hood, connects to Jones’ general feeling that intergenerational memory and empathy are key to feminism.
“Something about feminism that’s really important to me is to not think of things in terms of first wave, second wave, third wave feminism – to go deeper and actually think about how a woman might have felt in sixteenth century France or in 1930s Ireland. To have that intergenerational empathy is a really important act of political solidarity and it’s very hard to do that in a tangible way, except through art or culture.”
A central influence on the creation of Tremble Tremble was Silvia Federici’s book Caliban and the Witch. In the book, Federici, an Italian-American academic who participated in the Wages for Housework movement in New York in the seventies, links feminism to class politics and the emergence of capitalism.
“Silvia talks about the transition from feudalism to capitalism as being a time of extreme violence against women in the form of the witch trials and she talks about how capitalism is totally connected to the dispossession of women historically … the people who protested about the enclosures of the commons were women and young men under the age of fifteen, because they had no access to private land. As soon as private property was invented, that was the beginning of patriarchal capitalism.”
A second key influence was a 3.2 million year old fossil, the remnants of ‘Lucy’, Australopithecus, a specimen of the now-extinct close relatives of modern humans. Lucy was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, at, as Jones describes it, “the height of second wave feminism … just before it collapsed.” The discovery of such an ancient creature, that feeds into our knowledge and understanding of our evolution as a species, taps into this idea of intergenerational empathy, or something Jones calls ‘geological’ feminism – “to think about feminism as a geology of layers and layers of experience and bringing that geology to a fossil as the very first material for that story … We’re made from the same material, we’ll be fossils some day … being a feminist is not just about the everyday struggle to exist under patriarchal capitalism, it’s also a thinking into a deeper sense of time.”
The embrace of a giantess; an ancient female human ancestor; wages for housework in the seventies; rage at the enclosure of the commons in the seventeenth century; the Repeal movement in Ireland today. Jones sees it all as feeding into a spectrum of female experience, an awareness of which we should try to bring in to our current struggle, especially given its urgency.
“We live on one of those faultlines of history where things are deeply going to change in our lifetime … For me, being a feminist and a Marxist right now is totally crucial because we’re not going to get out of this unscathed unless we really know how to ideologically fight. Capitalism will not go down without the most brutal fight against humanity that we’ve ever seen. I think being a feminist right now is a matter of survival.”
Words: Rachel Donnelly
Images: Conor McCabe