The Tower by visual artist Jesse Jones is an enthralling film installation with live performance. It is part of The Magdalene Series, curated by Maolíosa Boyle which commissioned five women artists Amanda Coogan, Alice Maher, Rachel Fallon, Jesse Jones and Grace Dyas to create work engaging with myth and the legacy of the multi-faceted figure of Mary Magdalene and the second part of Jones’s trilogy that commenced with Tremble, Tremble (2017), her work commissioned for the Irish Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale. With stunning performances from Olwen Fouéré, Naomi Moonveld-Nkosi and an enchanting choir of young women, coupled with choreography by Junk Ensemble, Rua Red artists in residence, The Tower invites us to consider the figure of the heretic and the mystic, while contemplating the mysteries of the feminine divine alongside these female visionaries.
Entering The Tower, I struggled to orient my body to the disconcertingly dark space. It was cold and silent, as if I stumbled upon a grotto or a cave of mysteries. The work takes its inspiration from Mary Magdalene’s humble life as a hermit after the death of Jesus Christ. After witnessing the resurrection, Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha, brother Lazarus and other Christians fleeing from persecution were set adrift in a rudderless boat. The refugees eventually landed on the shores of Southern France, where Mary Magdalene supposedly evangelized Provence. The sacred sanctuary of Sainte-Baume, also known as Mary Magdalene’s cave, is thought to be site where she lived out the rest of her days, devoting herself to the divine mysteries. When images appeared in The Tower, it was almost as if I was having visions. In the Middle Ages, women were prohibited from reading and interpreting Christian scriptures or spiritual doctrines and thus considered to have a different relationship to God. The women cloistered in The Tower were reminiscent of Beguines, 13th century communities of religious women, from all social classes, who lived together but did not answer to patriarchal, clerical oversight. Amongst them were mystics who communicated with the divine and transcended the limits of ordinary knowledge, achieving a state of spiritual ecstasy.
Jones, Fouéré and Moonveld-Nkosi selected passages from noted mystics Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete and Hildegard of Bingen. The radical writings of these women challenged accepted ecclesiastical authority and are woven in throughout The Tower. Mechthild’s claims of theological insight and criticisms of the church led to her books to be burned, while Porete was burned at the stake for heresy for her work The Simple Mirror of Souls (c.1290). Hildegard composed poetry and music, wrote medical texts, and practiced holistic healing. Her mystical visions proposed a concept of feminine divine wisdom. Unlike the other two mystics, Hildegard was not regarded as a heretic, though she sought to hold church authorities to account for spiritual abuses. In The Tower, an image of Hildegard receiving her divine visions briefly revealed itself before disappearing back into the darkness. There is an interplay interplay between light and dark throughout the installation. The absence of colour, the cool monochromatic tones and the crisp cinematography, together the large vertical screens and live performance elements focus one on other sensory perceptions. At one point, I experienced a jarring, spinning sensation that threw off my internal equilibrium, leading me to question the relationship of my body to the work.
Tiny dust particles rose into the air around a female figure carved in white Portland stone. They caught in the light as they circled before me, filling me with a curious sense of fascination. Hair spilling over her body, the figure’s hands pressed against her in a pose reminiscent of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (c.1620-5), a sensuous figure captured in devotional rapture. On screen, a body wrapped in tactile sheepskin emitted the pleasure of the rapture. As the camera’s gaze simultaneously roamed over stone and human flesh, it encouraged one to delight in this moment of euphoria, to feel it deep within the body. A powerful female figure kneels atop a tall white column as the young women lie at its base gazing skyward. A young woman climbed the ladder while whispering her visions. Dressed in tunics of tangled hair, the choir of young women raised their voices high in glorious song. Their bodies enfolded together like a mandala, circling together in time and space, a sight to be meditated upon.
Descending a simple ladder adorned with small metal charms, the cave’s attendant cleansed her hands and face in a brass bowl atop a low stone altar. The water was drawn from the holy wells of Brigid’s Well, Kildare and Cathair Crobh Dearg Well, Kerry and mixed frankincense and spikenard, perfumed oils used for purification and healing. Like a priestess in a sanctuary, the woman ritualistically performs certain duties that included moving a gossamer thin curtain bearing the image of interlinking hands, like a veil it concealed and revealed different aspects of the installation, contouring the space in a way that prompted one to think about the relationship of their physical body to the work. Later she marked the passage of time by carving a circle into the wall with a metal implement. She approached me as I wandered in the outer edges of the installation in the darkness, contemplating a small discovery and pressed a small token into my hand. Opening my palm, I strained to make out the shape of a small milagro, still embedded into clay. Cast metal religious folk charms, milagros were traditionally used for healing, protection or good luck. Placing it in my pocket, my hand instinctively returned to the charm, my thumb and fingers rubbing its surface as I pondered The Tower and its meaning. Contemplating these actions left me with an ache for that which felt lost, and perhaps a bit of longing for something awe-inspiring in my own life.
Drawing upon the writings of female mystics, whose ideas challenged both patriarchal authority and religious orthodoxy, The Tower is an intriguing, experiential work that that joins together mysticism, the divine and art from a feminist perspective. This work is a testament women’s creativity and innovation, both in the woman-led talents and skills of those who contributed to the realisation of this powerful work, and in the collective spirit of The Magdalene Series. In repositioning the figure of Mary Magdalene, which in Ireland is associated with shame, unjust treatment of women and the carceral institutions of the Magdalene Laundries, Jones reinvests her with a power to radically alter such cultural meanings, while her intersectional feminism seeks to displace the gatekeeping of knowledge-making practices.
Dr Kate Antosik-Parsons is a contemporary art historian and Research Fellow in Social Studies at Trinity College Dublin. She researches and writes about gender, sexuality and embodiment.
until 24 September
Rua Red, Tallaght