FEMALE VIDEO ARTISTS AND THE WAR: CONTEMPORARY LEGACIES OF THE CONFLICTS AND THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN PRESERVING OUR COMMON MEMORY
Transcript of artist’s introduction to the video work Conflict (2014) by Victoria Lucas
Delivered 19/05/16, 5 – 7pm
CFZ Cultural Flow Zone TESA 1
Ca’Foscari University, Zattere al Pontelungo, Dorsoduro 1392 Venezia
Within my practice-led research I aim to manipulate and challenge established cultural frameworks, often using deserted landscapes as a metaphorical space within which representations of gender can be repositioned. I am interested in how women can be perceived differently when the spatial contexts that exist beyond civilisation are creatively reimagined. What are women when they are not other, and can digital technology be utilised to renegotiate women’s social and psychological positions through the act of place making – whether that place is geographically real, virtual or reimagined? Assigned gender roles are antecedently engrained, so that historical fact becomes fiction as new perspectives and truths are unearthed. Unpicking and deconstructing contemporary systems of thought that I consider to be the lingering shadows of historic male-dominated power structures is not an easy task, and I look to stories, archives and objects as a way to inform my work.
Commemoration is an action that calls to mind past events, so that the individuals involved in a historical narrative are remembered and immortalised in a nation’s collective conscience. For an artist, this action can act as a framework in which to question these narratives. Artists unpick myths and bring to light new perspectives that contribute to a collective understanding of a specific happening, which may then reshape how we view the present. For example, the inconceivable grief suffered by women during the First World War is echoed on our television screens as we watch current conflicts unfold. The image of the grieving woman has acquired a certain media currency in recent years, and these images maintain a notion that women are separate from the action of war and suffer at the hands of it.
Susan Sontag in her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) quotes Virginia Woolf when she states that ‘the killing machine has a gender, and it is male’(1). The female voice has been extracted from history in a way that excludes them from War related discourse. When we consider women and war we think of them as rape victims and widows. We rarely hear of women in positions that give them full agency over their own bodies and whose opinions on conflict are taken seriously. Women are seen as peaceful, innocent, victimised in the field of war – and often they are. However women are much more that the grieving images depicted on the screen and deserve to have their voices heard equally. I believe that this myth must be deconstructed if we are to escape the cyclical reoccurrences of war and violence. Film theorist Teresa de Lauretis describes the paradox of woman as ‘constantly spoken of’ while she herself remains ‘inaudible’, displayed as ‘spectacle and yet unrepresented’(2). My current research specifically focuses on these wholly inaccurate cultural representations of gender, and challenges the damaging impact they have upon notions of female identity.
My art video Conflict was commissioned as part of the National Memories – Local Stories creative participation project led by the National Portrait Gallery in 2014. It draws upon research initiated by objects and documents from WW1, found in both the Redbridge Museum archive and the National Portrait Gallery’s collection in London. Using fragments of fact as a point of departure, the work focuses on a number of narratives. The quagmire of mud that surrounded, impeded and engulfed these soldiers during the Battle of Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele is a central theme in the film, and features heavily in each scene. The mud becomes a commemorative substance – a transient and ever shifting memorial that embodies the flesh and bones of the men that were never recovered from the battlefields. Mud, or earth, is a tactile substance that conceals, embeds, absorbs, transforms. It is a key substance when we think of both the action of growth and decay.
The Centenary project began with a photograph that I found at the Redbridge Museum of two brothers – Dennis Alfred and Reginald Charles O’Donoghue. Both were lost in the battle of Passchendaele on the same day, and their image led me to the Tyne Cot Memorial, where they are remembered. The knowledge that their bodily remains are still buried beneath the Belgian landscape made me think of the action of digging, which you will see features in the film. There is a real poignancy in terms of the resolve and determination these women depict through this simple action. You only have to read about Edith Cavell, the Suffragettes, Dorothy Lawrence, the Woman’s Royal Air Force or the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps to see how much British women participated in WW1. Often, these stories are found in the footnotes of our history – but they are there. In fact, it was Silvia Pankhurst’s self portrait in the National Portrait Gallery collection that led me to consider the impact that the First World War had upon women’s rights politically, culturally and socially. For the duration of the War women were allowed to work and for a time they gained their freedom away from the domestic spheres in which they had long been limited. This followed 50 years of women’s suffrage, then led by Silvia’s mother Emmeline Pankhurst, who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903.
The First World War provided a unique opportunity for women to participate in working life and prove their mental and physical abilities away from the home, and the suffragettes wholly supported this war effort. Women were faced with bereavement and grief on an unprecedented scale as they experienced the loss of their fathers, sons, brothers and husbands. But they fought hard for their gender as well as their country, and as a result they won the vote shortly after the war ended. In my film, women’s suffrage is signified by 5 female characters, who march in unison across the barren landscape.
One Hundred years later in the UK, only 27% of parliament seats and 13.7% of police chief constable positions are held by women. In the media, women represent just 5% of the editors of national newspapers, and there are no female political editors amongst the national daily newspapers. 27.6% of television company directors are women (3). As a pacifist, I personally believe that war should never be the solution, however neither should the decision to go to war be the responsibility of one faction of society – notably white, middle-class men (as it has been for centuries in the UK). The same applies to those who document and relay information, such as historians and those in the media industry.
A portrait of Sir General Douglas Haig by John St. Helier Lander at the National Portrait Gallery led to the creation of a scene in my film in which the trivial act of squashing grapes becomes symbolic of the political decisions made during war, and the violent impact it has on those at the front. The innocence of the child in the film reflects the detachment that historical leaders have with the realities of their inhumane decisions. (and if we look to current conflicts, the same violent outcomes can be found. Other than climate change, the refugee crisis is, as a result of war, one of the biggest challenges of our time).
The digital age has shifted our perceived understanding of borders and communication, and blurred the distinctions between local and global. We now have an opportunity to restructure responses to the threat of war, in order to fully reflect equality and democracy in the 21st Century. Opening up a dialogue that includes opinions held by individuals across all genders, ethnicities and class distinctions would support a more democratic, less aggressive approach to resolving our nations’ differences.
I hope that you enjoy the film.
(1) Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others (London, England: Penguin Books, 2004), p.5.
(2) De Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987), p.10.
(3) FAUCET SOCIETY (2013). Stats and Facts on Women in Power. [Online]. Accessed June 2016, http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/2013/02/stats-and-facts-on-women-in-power/