Come now, luxuriant Graces, and beautiful-haired Muses.
I tell you
someone will remember us in the future.1
It is the future, somebody’s future, and you are here— Thalia, Euphrosyne and Aglaea — just as Sappho predicted. Grecian goddesses. Beloved trinity. Curling and entwined, pale and golden-maned. Still you dance — are your feet tired? Still you laugh—does your jaw ache?
At the heart of it are your bodies — amounting to that form, that abundance, your performance, your labour.
Around the edges, clinging to your flesh, your marble, is your essence — ungraspable, like the friction of forefinger against thumb — of a kind of femininity, one that I know, that I have seen and been taught and watched; but one that is not my making.
I recognised this in you, and once I did, I saw you here and there, where you are, and where you are not, in the television screens of my childhood — girls with trousers slung low, voices harmonising like melting ice — and in the care-taken dress of church women in the littered streets of the city early on Sunday; in flags and paper bags and songs, in thoughts and memories, those belonging to me and those belonging to someone else.
I retraced my steps — or your steps — in the inked indexes of books on myths and wars, and at most you are alluded to or passing through the stories of Zeus, Oceanus, or tending to Aphrodite, the lover whom you served. So I sense that Grecian poetess Sappho is doing something reparative with your image in her polemic verse. She is calling for women to take shape in our present, not on marble pedestal but in the flesh of life. It is not to the great goddesses that she speaks — hallmarks for entire unfaltering seasons, for heroic-scale victory, for the grave weight of fertility — but to you, the Graces, the Muses. The minor players of myth like those of life, defined by servitude, cast as ornament.
1 Sappho, Sapphic Fragments .1, translated by Julia Dubno , University of Houston, <https://www.uh.edu/~cldue/texts/sappho.html> [accessed 21 September 2019]
And what of that ornament? It is because of men that you have had a chance at all — men of marble and oil — Canova and Botticelli; men of pen — Pindar and Milton. It is because of them that you are reprised in museums and populate the hungry mouths of Google algorithms. Your image, your clear and flawless image, repeats and repeats, so that you become what essayist and poet Quinn Latimer calls ‘surface signifiers’.2
But it began with what belonged to me. It began with me — a girl — the only girl in a family of brothers, later of men. It began with me, white-blond and pink. It continued with me, awkward tall and cumbersome, bloating in and out of my clothes. It continued with me in momentary shrinkage and now some kind of forced stasis — of the body — through control. An obsession of another kind. It began and will end with me; me that has assumed you, and you, and her, and them before, so that the me I curse and praise is made, like you, from an amassing of things — plasticised, manmade. I have spent this life so far running towards and away from femininity and from my body, confused that one is built and the other grows and yet they amount to the same thing.
And so you Graces — your form, your femininity, your sex — saturated everything or I drew you into everything and sometimes it felt like coincidence, which actually means to ‘fall together’, but also a kind of instinctive amassing —
A woman tugged at her dress from below the crease of her armpit where it sat dependent on the proximity of flesh to fabric, a game of friction and risk. The dress was white; and it glowed in the prickling daylight, assuming also a layer of blueness from the sky and the canal like something was radiating from within the fibres of the fabric. The train of her dress was very opaque and close to the lip of the murky canal. The second woman held a phone, while she restrained the tulle train of her dress. A third woman stood at the head of a ramp, raised above the towpath. Her dress was also white, but warming towards cream from the brown of the dying tree overhead. She flicked her straightened hair and looked to the camera.
2 Quinn Latimer, ‘A Step Out of Time’, Like a Woman (Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2017), p.98.
Dusk drew over the City, and from the height of the hotel bar, golden lights punctured a drab descending blue. Jazz played somewhere. Around a circular table three young women, in variations of white, propped themselves on plummy chairs and stared into one screen or another — a camera’s, a phone’s.
Large sheets of paper hung from a washing line above the parquet floor of the gallery and on them were bodies scratched in black charcoal. I took these to be women’s bodies because of the elongated protrusions of flesh that gravitated downwards from the chest. And they were strung up on a line like this, on their hands and knees, head to arse like cattle. In the image on the right she appeared to be projectile vomiting in a downward spew as if it — the vomit — were another limb, but it may have just been her arms; and belly-rolls folded against the inversion of her arched back. In the central image her breasts took on darker, larger, udder form and there was something else like an out-of-joint arm. In the third image she was made of thicker charcoal lines that implied shadows, dirt, bruises, pubic hair.
There were others — women I mean — out of view.
And so I started to think or sense that from your perpet- ual pedestal you were beckoning me closer, closer, and that you might allow me to find my way in and through and out of your image, or versions of your image.
I was tentative at first, because for so long you murky three of many were a precious obsession, but isolation dishonours your core — your triplicity. Let the Titans and Olympians fight between themselves — those powers of old and young, sky and land — I do not want this for you, for us. In your plurality, we can swell our womanhood, make it conspicuous and real. Of a sweet hundred pound apricot harvest in the opening pages of The Faraway Nearby, the writer Rebecca Solnit writes, ‘I had expected them to look like abundance itself and they looked instead like anxiety.’3 That ripe fruit—and your femininity—pale and golden and curved is heavy and cloying but, has the promise, as in Solnit’s jam, to turn to bounty.
3 Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (London: Penguin Books, 2013), p. 14. Pearson eText.
So this is what I will do.
I know we are more than three, but I will speak to us through you as a new kind of three; a three that is bigger than itself, that is many, because even a murky three is better than two — that duality — and certainly better than one — that enclosure. So, I shall say you three and know that I speak to us all. I want to talk of women then and now and perhaps to come, who are resisting this unreal feminine stasis implied in your image and its reformation time again in marble and stone and oil, permanent and resolute in the milieus of historical periods, bloodless as they are. I do not suggest femininity is charged with offence, rather urge us to prize it from his hands. What, Tai Shani asks, can be ‘salvaged from the history of femininity, to think about ways out’.4
I will mirror your triplicity in the shape and structure of this thing — in three parts and songs of three—and in moments of togetherness. But it will steam up at times, this mirror, and you may lose site of your reflection. And one thing will lead to another, as it did for Aby M. Warburg and his Mnemosyne Atlas — a fragmented map of cultural and historical linkages, neatly named after the Greek Goddess of memory. And as it did for artist Nancy Spero with Sky Goddess Egyptian Acrobat, in which women bound and leapt across long scrolls of paper in verticality, together, regardless of their time or place. Anne Dobie says of Spero’s work ‘something weaves these women together, the distinctiveness of each figure suggests a plurality of unique backgrounds and viewpoints.’5 Stories, images and movements will wrap around one another — link arms. And like maypole ribbons, maiden’s braid, there will be knotted junctures that resist binding logic. I will honour this plurality in character — a woman’s choice to such plurality, a woman’s muster — like Cora Sandel does with her heroine Alberta in the Alberta Trilogy:
Small stanzas would come fluttering, small webs of words with rhythm to them, and join up with other small webs that had come fluttering before, when she was alone and quiet and everything was beautiful. Or they might not join up with anything — they might just conceal themselves in her mind... Did they come from within, or from the wide, mysterious landscape outside? 6
- 4 Turner Prize 2019 Nominee | Tai Shani | Turner Contemporary, online video recording, YouTube, 4 October 2019, <https://youtu.be/QdEzQc9b5Uc > [accessed 30 October 2019].
- 5 Elizabeth Ann Dobie, ‘Interweaving Feminist Frameworks’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 48, No. 4, Feminism and Traditional Aesthetics (1990), pp. 381-394, p.383.
- 6 Cora Sandel, Alberta and Jacob (London, The Women’s Press Ltd, 1980), p.74.
In the tentative and the unresolved, false starts and open endings, we have space to breathe. Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock propose that in ‘rejecting the conventional gratifications of the successful, complete, finished art object and voyeuristic spec- tacle, feminism explores the pleasures of resistance, of deconstruction, of discovery, of defining, of frag- menting, of redefining, all of which is often still tentative and provisional.’7
I hope I’m loud when I’m dead, announces Beatrice Gibson in bubble writing in a video work of the same name, as she dances with her young daughter in a smokey disco room. Later she speaks to her child in a voiceover while onscreen they — miming cool and androgynous — playfight and slide across the floor ‘so you can un-write whoever it is that you’re supposed to be’.8 I like this idea of un-writing the man-made self, of a forward and back. And I think of the French femi- nist and writer Hélène Cixous’s woman who ‘un-thinks the unifying, regulating his-tory that homogenises and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield’.9
So once we have broken it apart — unravelled, un- written — let us build. Let us be extra. let us be too much. Let us be abundance as resistance like steamed milk forgotten on the stove and frothing up. I will overstrain the word to surface other women and beckon you — your triplicity — again and again to join us, be-cause what was it Stein said? There’s no such thing as repetition, just insistence.10
- 7 Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, ‘Fifteen Years of Feminist Action: From Practical Strategies to Strategic Practices’, Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-1985, (London/New York, Pandora Press, 1987), p.54.
- 8 Beatrice Gibson, I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead, online video recording, Lux, 2018, <https://lux.org.uk/work/i-hope-im-loud-when-im-dead> [accessed 10 October 2019]
- 9 H l ne Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1976), 875-893 (p.882).
- 10 At a lecture in 1934, Gertrude Stein said ‘The inevitable seeming repetition in human expression is not repetition, but insistence.’, recorded in ’Miss Stein states There Is No Such Thing as Repetition’, Ann Arbor News, December 15, 1934; <https://aadl.org/aa_news_19341215_p1-miss_stein_states> [accessed 29.1.20].
Of collective stories and voice, and of pearls, the science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin says:
Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive. [...] The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them is false, and it is all one story. 11
So this thing will be a chorus of voices — and a polemic — for Sappho, Hélène Cixous, Monica Sjöö—and an ode to those who have resisted one archetype or another in body, paint and cloth, voice and words. And I will assume other voices — the restless mystic — modern day and ancient — whose texts are ‘often repetitive, contradictory, circular; they breathe and they beat’.12 Stories will be written in coagulated blood, images spawned from saccharine plastic before meeting in the transient foamy whites of Aphrodite’s waves and dissolving. But your togetherness will endure, will counter the lonely individual. No, it will absorb us.
Because once we sang then there were three. My own sisterless-ness led me to them — my teenage three — and perhaps to you. We sung it across tables and later over cheap beer and brimming ashtray, sated by our closeness. The power, the strength of a prism, the wholeness of a circle when our hands were joined, feeding us as we grew.
- 11 ’Ursula K.Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, (London, Orion Publishing, 2017), p.1.
- 12 Elvia Wilk, ‘The Word Made Fresh: Mystical Encounter and the New Weird Divine’, in e- ux (2018)
<https://www.e- ux.com/journal/92/205298/the-word-made-fresh-mystical-encounter-and-the-new-weird-divine/> [accessed 4 September 2019].
This is of and for Judy Chicago, Tai Shani, Lucy Lippard, Jia Tolentino, Claire Barrow, Megan Rooney, Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams; Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas; Rose English, Jaqueline Lansley and Sally Potter; Julian of Norwich, Annie Dillard; Diamond Stingily, Amy Sillman, Cora Sandal, Quinn Latimer, Moyra Davey, Emily LaBarge, Annette Kuhn, Petra Collins, Simone Rocha, Dilara Finiglou, Molly Goddard, Lewkai Higham, Lavinia Fontana, Clara Peeters, Catherine of Bologna, Hannah Arendt, Sappho, Celine Condorelli, Nicky Stainton, Nell Croose, Kate Rooney, Anabeth Stirling; Thalia, Aglaea and Euphrosyne.