Feminism and the female body are hot topics in Irish arts at the moment, as reflected by Jesse Jones and her entry for the Venice Biennale, writes Colette Sheridan

FILM and performance artist, Jesse Jones, will represent Ireland at the 57th Venice Biennale (May 13-November 26), the world’s largest and oldest international art exhibition.

Dublin-based Jones, who teaches fine art part-time at the Crawford College of Art and Design in Cork, is collaborating with actress, Olwen Fouéré and sound artist, Susan Stenger, for her artwork, entitled ‘Tremble, Tremble’.

The title of Jones’s new work is taken from the 1970s Italian wages for housework movement during which women chanted ‘Tremble, tremble, the witches have returned.’ Jones’s piece combines testimony, published statements and new lyrics.

Jones, whose piece is produced by the Project Arts Centre, says she was inspired by her desire to address “some of the ideas that are so relevant and contemporary in Ireland around feminism, the female body and body autonomy.” Her exhibit at Venice is a multi-media installation, comprising film, a large digital print and sculpture, with Fouéré speaking to camera.

Always interested in how “the law is a kind of language, a spell”, Jones says that once something is written in law or spoken in law, “we believe it to be the condition of reality. I was thinking about the relationship between witch craft and legislation. I worked with Mairead Enright, a really amazing legal academic. I created a kind of law to be uttered in the space. It’s a law that determines the maternal female is a giant. A human born to that giant is subject to the laws of the giant.”

TRANSITION AND FLUX

The possibility of female power, with the figure of the giant causing the earth to tremble is behind Jones’s installation. “I reckon the whole global world order is in huge transition and flux. It’s something we haven’t seen for 400 years when there was the transition from feudalism to capitalism. What is happening now means we’re all going to experience a completely different reality for the next 100 years at least. If part of that is the necessary rise of matriarchal female consciousness, it’s super important. We don’t want to be dispossessed again.”

In this time of change, ‘Tremble, Tremble’ imagines a different legal order, one in which the multitude is brought together in a symbolic, gigantic body, to proclaim a new law, that of In Utera Gigantae.

Jones is interested in how the law is transmitted in memory between generations. “In Ireland, marital rape was legal until the 1990s. Even if you weren’t born before the ’90s, you experience a kind of intergenerational feeling of what the law must have felt like. We feel deeply connected to the women who were institutionalised in the 1930s and 1940s in Ireland. Our bodies are the site of the transmission of memory. It’s not a direct experience but that kind of level of oppression, the subjugation of the law, hangs around in our bodies for a really long time.”

As well as the law, Jones’s research for her Venice installation drew on the archaeological dig in 1974 in Ethiopia where 46 bone fossils from a female skeleton were found, dating back 3.2 million years. Named Lucy Australopithecus, it was deemed that she was the first humanoid that walked on two legs.

“There’s a whole mythology around Lucy. She’s a kind of superstar, the Lady Gaga of humanoid archaeology. The Beatles’ song, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was played when her bones were found. It’s interesting that her body remains were rediscovered in the height of second wave feminism.”

Jones points out: “When you think about it, the dead are now rising to warn us about what’s coming. When the remains of the bodies of babies were found in Tuam, it was so intense. When the dead come back, you really have to pay attention about what they need to say to us.”

Olwen Fouere appears in a film as part of Jesse Jones’s work for the Biennale.
Olwen Fouere appears in a film as part of Jesse Jones’s work for the Biennale.

FEMINIST INSTITUTION

Describing herself as “an artist and a feminist human being,” Jones has a lot of “theoretical interests such as politics and social issues.” Before being inspired to create ‘Tremble, Tremble’, she had had a solo show at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin called No More Fun and Games.

“It was all about proposing a feminist institution.” Jones proposes the return of the witch “as a feminist archetype and disrupter who has the potential to transform reality.”

The artist’s new work has emerged from Ireland’s growing social movement calling for a transformation of the historic relationship between church and state.

At Venice, Jones’s work will extend across the pavilion as an expanded form of cinema.

“The Venice Biennale is the biggest platform for art in the world. About half a million people attend it,” says Jones.

On a local level, Jones is very disappointed that Cork has lost Sample Studios in the former FÁS building because of plans to demolish and develop the site.

“The city has lost such an important studio facility. I’m anxious about the production resources that are available for Cork-based artists. Sample Studios had a gallery and a space for 60 artists,” she observes.

“The Crawford’s fourth year degree students were based there. It was an incredibly important resource in Cork.”

Jones says that, because resources for artists in Cork are so sparse, Sample Studios created a lot of opportunities.

“We need to switch on the reset button and return to the situation we were in five years ago.”

But Jones fears that artists are going to have considerable struggles. “I’d be nervous about how artists are going to be able to stay and work in Cork.”

She observes that the city needs artist-run spaces and smaller scale galleries on top of the large institutional ones. Modest size spaces “allow artists and young curators to cut their teeth and take risks”.

  • The Venice Biennale runs from May 13 to November 26


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