Freedom, like everything else, is relative. (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale)
I have just managed, as of the writing of this piece, to get my hands on a copy of Atwood’s book The Testaments. This is her expansion, if you will, of the world of The Handmaid’s Tale. I mention that as her The Penelopiad played a strong role in my initial response to Carolyn Wren’s retrospective Task At Hand. Now, I find Atwood’s more explicitly alarmist Tale – no, the wrong word, that’s too easily dismissed – her less playful, more sombre (funny, considering Penelope tells us her tale from Elysium Fields) prognostications, with a strong element of Cassandra (doomed to always seer correctly, but never to be believed), to be more relevant in engaging a specific installation within Wren’s larger retrospective.
One of the advantages of having an exhibition on display for longer periods– especially one as dense and wide as Carolyn Wren’s Task At Hand – is that you get to visit several times. This is similar to how, in past gallery jobs, I’ve been able to ‘live’ with the work, and not only gauge how my responses change or grow, but that if you visit with different individuals and groups, they often see things you may not have noticed. Alternately, we all stand in overlapping yet different spaces, and thus look out on ‘different’ places.
I’d written about Task At Hand previously in The Sound, and approached it with words from the artist and my own interactions: but recently I revisited the show, and in the conversations I had with artist / writer Anna Szaflarski, the way in which I ‘saw’ Wren’s War Map Dress Trilogy shifted irrevocably. It’s an interpretation worth sharing.
But first, the didactic text of War Map Dress Trilogy, as a place to begin, or depart from: The ingenuity of Christopher Clayton Hutton’s invention of silk maps for the British Royal Air Force during World War II enabled pilots to use lightweight and durable maps to help them reach safety in times of crisis, and inspired women to make dresses out of the silk maps as their men returned home. The maps I used in the dresses were made in Europe by the Canadian government and shipped to Canada for families to follow the movement of their loved ones fighting in the war. Alluding to multiple layers of symbolism of the landscape in relation to politics of feminism, War Map Dress Trilogy is more about history, location, distances, than it is about terrain.
Now, two things in my conversation with Szaflarski are relevant: and in fact, both now seem so obvious, I find myself amazed at my ‘blind spot.’
Firstly, being in Canada, and seeing these maps and images of war from that perspective makes them ‘history’ or ‘done.’ Living in Berlin (and having recently, in her book Very Normal People, explored how her Polish grandmother was somewhat confused by her granddaughter’s willingness to live in Berlin, as Germany would always and ever be a more frightening spectre to escape than a destination and place to find ‘home’), the maps on the dresses and mannequins are of real and contemporary places. History is not past, there, but present: and even the fronts and demarcations of war zones still plays out in EU power plays between France and Germany. This is not something that is ‘done’ but ongoing. We move through history like water, with it defining our environment, but sometimes, like the air we breathe and rely upon, we are unaware, even ignorant of it. A side note: this article showed up in my online media feed, and reiterates that point, in a different manner.
But more relevant, perhaps, to a wider conversation is how the War Map Dress Trilogy offers a literal metaphor for an ongoing attack, a campaign of war, on women’s bodies. Planes swoop and loop and the maps are guides, if you will, for them to attack the headless and handless ‘women’ who can’t act while being assaulted.
An aside, if you will, to illustrate the whole. Let’s go then, you and I, outside RHAC for a moment. Here in Niagara, we have a homeschooled religious zealot abusing his political office to spout that he wants to make the ability for women to have an abortion – to even have that choice in front of her – ‘unthinkable.’ Numerous members of the CPC are quite open about their desire – often based in their religious bias and indoctrination – to do the same, despite the clarity of the Supreme Court ruling regarding this, decades ago. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell likes to respond to those who claim – erroneously, often ignoring facts that indicate the opposite – that ‘we need a law’ about (they, in fact, mean ‘banning’, but these groups often speak in disinformation and misleading untruths) this, that yes, we do need a law. We require a law that makes any attempt to force your religious beliefs on others not only illegal but severely punished by clear punitive deterrents.
A regional point of relevance: here in Niagara, former RC Bishop Wingle became apoplectic when Dr. Morgentaler was awarded the Order of Canada: yet this same ‘moral’ leader has been exposed to have been a protector of serial child molester (former) Father Grecco, and Wingle resigned and ran, disappearing into Quebec, shrilly whining. His successor, Bishop Bergie, is currently in court, according to a Standard story, both being sued for their role in the scandal and that the police suspect Bergie is withholding more credibly accused molesters. So, yes, we need a law: mind your own business, literally, if you want to claim to be ‘pro-life.’
In America, of course, with the favouring of religious bigotry over the rights of others, they are so pro life they’ll kill you in some Southern states. It hasn’t been that long, even, since Savita Halappanavar’s death, it’s worth noting that the reality of that preventable ‘murder’ of a woman can be laid at the feet, among all the other blood, of the religious zealots of Gilead – oh, sorry, the Irish Catholic Church.
As we endure the 2019 Federal Election, like a rough beast slouching forwards (forgive me, Yeats), it’s good to remember that rights are not debatable. And if someone like Scheer wishes to say that a woman’s right to choose is not settled, I would remind him and his ilk that the issue of religious ‘freedom’ is not, either.
In this respect, Wren’s ‘war brides’, as I’ve found myself referring to them, are like Jana Sterbak’s Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorexic or Otto Dix’s Lustmurder. Women are reduced to some thing to be consumed, in methods essentially carnal and dehumanizing….
Wren’s ‘women’ are less statuesque, in this reading, then they’re defenseless target practice. They are less glorious symbols of massive and powerful femininity than they’ve been beheaded, had their hands amputated, and now are simply helpless as their bodies are ‘carved up’, reminiscent of butcher’s marks, with the planes swooping in, looping around, attacking attacking attacking. I read them now as warnings: as harbingers, not as amazons. I’ve gone from enjoying walking among them and between them, to being horrified at what they could predict. Allow me to return to The Handmaid’s Tale, and the ‘education centre’ for future handmaids: ‘It was the feet they’d do, for a first offence. They used steel cables, frayed at the ends. After that the hands. They didn’t care what they did to your feet and hands, even if it was permanent. Remember, said Aunt Lydia. For our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential.‘
One might argue that the images of WW II presented by Wren are about ‘fighting for freedom’: but ‘[t]here is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.’ Freedom, after all, we were told by Orwell, is ‘slavery.’ And of course, all ‘animals’ are free, but some are more ‘free’ than others….
Carolyn Wren’s Task At Hand runs until October 20th, at RHAC, so it will be on display while we suffer through a Federal Election, about ‘what kind of country we want’, and who has ‘freedom’, and who does not – or has it denied them.
Rodman Hall Art Centre is located at 109 St. Paul Crescent; visit this exhibition before it closes, as this is but one of several installations that explore Carolyn Wren’s very political, yet very seductive, aesthetic. All images are courtesy RHAC.
Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.