By Máiréad Delaney
We gathered at Rosekill to examine our relationship to nature, to the land. As women we are subjected to discourses around property and bodies, whether those bodies be our own flesh, soil bodies, bodies of water. In a sense, “reclaiming” a relationship to nature is part of a decolonizing process.
Yet nationalism is often an essential turn in a decolonizing process. In nationalist discourse, the colonizer’s damage to the land—to a paradise lost—is linked to the damaging and ravaging of bodies, particularly fecund, female bodies. The colonizer rapes the mother country. Nationalism, which is ethnocentric, xenophobic, tribal and homogenizing, is a post-colonial reaction. The ensuing narrative of returning to the land becomes problematic. We must examine the impulse to reclaim a relationship between women and nature in this context.
Restored “fertile grounds” become the exclusive property of newly “autonomous” men and their state, to serve their explicit purposes. No longer to be corrupted or tampered with, men now have the power to ensure their land remains pristine, their women pure. Controlling women’s bodies in place of the colonizer becomes national defense. The land and the very air, but also the bodies of women and what they produce—all reinforce new notions of the independent identity, must be guaranteed to male progeny as inviolable state property, and the harvest reaped from them is an essential component in the molding of a nation’s future. In this context, any use to which the state puts its reclaimed women will never be considered violation.
If we are to further the decolonizing process, resisting retaliatory and amalgamating nationalism, we must acknowledge that we are contested ground, and that no matter where we stand, how we traverse it, where we come to rest, we will find ourselves on contested ground.
To Michele Foucault, we are permeated by a network of convergent powers, and there is no sacred space over which it does not hold sway. Where the apparatus exists outside us, it is created and multiplied through the multifarious powers of institutions, rather than erected by their restrictive, material enforcements. These powers are religious, judicial, legislative, political, medical, familial, societal and psychological. The architecture is physical, consisting of a network of interconnected institutions, legislation, and procedure. But it is also abstract, internalized. Our actions, far from reinventing a story, are considered micro-practices of the same mechanisms. We are conditioned to re-produce their workings within ourselves, to recreate their cosmology in our most immediate and intimate surroundings. We are all complicit, neither forever victim nor flat perpetrator, and we must examine ourselves in our relations to narratives surrounding bodies and nature. We have a responsibility to author our own narratives. And to Foucault:
“there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case…inflaming certain points of the body, certain moments in life, certain types of behavior… producing cleavages in a society that shift about, fracturing unities and effecting re-groupings, furrowing across individuals themselves…remolding them, marking off irreducible regions in them. “
At Rosekill, during Essential Departures, we are perhaps in a position to buck binaries and explore the cracks that appear on this contested ground, and are revealed in the marks on our skin. We might problematize and examine dichotomies of subject and object, presence and absence, labor and action, intervention and assimilation, transcendence and objectification, nature and artifice.
Exploring these cracks may allow us to consider our own complicity in oppressive colonial and neoliberal discourses. In boundary spaces and on liminal grounds, in spaces of exile, in-between-ness and borders, identities may be negotiated, modified, and sometimes transformed. Performance claims liminality as its operating space, but it is up to us to act radically in this place.
We considered mythologies in our time at Rosekill. Often myths are read by the conqueror and by the “recovering native” to be a manifestation of backwardness, superstition and savagery. Myths supposedly emanating from uncouth people in need of tutelage or reform. Alternatively, they are romanticized. They portray the fierce, the fey, the ethereal and whimsical, even the gothic. It is essentializing and part of colonial discourse to reduce long histories of resistance through oral tradition as nostalgic pre-occupation and breathless emotion.
In Ireland, for example, there are myths of resistance surrounding the deeds done to women, their origins and consequences. Outside the parables and tropes of the Catholic Church, there are many instances in Celtic myth where a young woman is seduced by the Good People, by the Faerie, the Sidhe. There are stories of supernatural liaisons and trysts. A woman will give birth to a changeling child. Or a “good mother’s” human child will be stolen and replaced by a changeling, a faery child—always sickly, insatiable, even devious or demonic. This child is one to be rid of, often through violent means—by fire, for example. I see these stories as the reframing of very real violations of social taboo. They mask instances of rape and incest, they make magical the delivery of illegitimate children and justify infanticide, all outside the realm of the church’s punitive social apparatus. A supernatural cause suits and vindicates pain when its real cause is dangerous to name. Victimhood becomes slippery. Perpetrating or incriminating figures—men and the illegitimate children, respectively—actually become liminal. The events discursively, mystically bridge between two realms. Myths fill in the gaps, give surreal context while speaking to real events, real disruptions. The power of myth against colonizer lies in ambiguity, but not salvation.
In Ireland the land feels and is described as though it is sodden with myth, age, trauma, remembrance, even violence. It is crossed by old British property lines, standing stone walls. They raise visible scars of the occupied past. Mass graves settle into hollows behind convents where “fallen women” washed laundry without pay and without finite sentence, purifying their souls with symbolic labor and religious penance. These hauntings reside in the landscape, stemming from the damages of an oppressor or a punitive, reactionary nationalist state. Yet hauntings extend to living bodies as well. The untraceable scars left on the psyche, as well as the visible scars on bodies are present and cannot be relegated to historical time, vacuum place of defunct institution, nor a mythical alternate reality. I came from Ireland and the consideration of herniated land both a dissonant and analogous companion to the colonized body.
As we came to this land, to Rosekill, with our bodies, what surfaces? What can be thrust upon our psyches? What churns in our bodies as we stand in physical space, grappling with fissures in time, with distress and quietude? Content at odds with environment encroaches, sometimes forces itself upon the mind. If it makes itself felt, it shouts about absence. What humans have done to each other, what we do to ourselves, seeps into and out of space, into and out of comprehension. And this perhaps makes us feel at odds with our skin and the now psychically crawling surfaces around us.
This fracture of worlds overlaid in one state, this hernia of the psyche, holds the cognitive dissonance between external reality and felt experience; between normalizing discourse and embodied knowledge. And this ringing paralysis may be seen as a prison, if trauma and only trauma—what is held below language and out of discourse—seizes the mind. Yet resonant spaces, broken places, and cracks vibrate as such because they hold alternate versions of history. Their continuous existence perhaps speaks to the “inability of the institutional regime to defeat the individual imagination,” wrote James M. Smith. In them, if we act with due insight, perhaps we have the power to rebuff an intrusive state and intrusive and internalized misogynistic discourses.
Poppy Jackson made her performance of Hay Barn at Essential Departures in 2015. The piece was performed as Site (2015) for London’s SPILL Festival of Performance later that year.
Jackson straddled the peak of Rosekill’s red barn. Her legs ran with the rooflines, her torso rose atop the old structure, our communal meeting place. Jackson’s pose referenced a figure from Irish mythology. With the wide eyes of a child, the bald head of seeming androgyny, Sheela na Gig is a woman’s masturbating form. She holds open the lips of her vulva in play, welcome or warning, she is carved in stone. She still exists, left untouched over the entrances of Christian churches in Ireland. Her pagan menace is perhaps what saved her, or what served acceptably as baleful reminder to sinner and heathen—She squats as both guardian of and open hole to the underworld.
Was Jackson delivering the building or was she impaled on it? Was she on high to be worshipped or targeted? Seen from a distance, from the fields below, Jackson’s action was quiet. She might have loomed formidable on her aerie, and indeed she seemed to merge with the architecture of classic Americana, but one thought of her flesh on the metal roof, the skin of inner leg at first touching daunting heat and then perhaps transferring body warmth to cooling metal as the sun set. Vulnerable sentry turned to silhouette.
Launching bales of hay, I kept baling twine slung around my hips. A bundle of sleigh-bells hung between my legs, concealed by my dress. The bells were audible but visible only as pendulous mystery—swinging horse-phallus, half-delivered calf. ‘Good For’ was labor, struggle, and failure against but inescapably alongside grace, purity, and authenticity. I baulked and embodied my own foundering as rural woman made beautiful by endurance, whose must sweat fall cleanly, becoming the salt of the earth. My body was demanded as sleek animal, broodmare, to bend and sway, thrust and curve under the unremitting, inexorable test of work as the only measure of virtue. I strove under sun for one grim nod of ‘good enough. “For now.”
When we returned to Rosekill the following summer, Agrofemme stood akimbo in high sun, filling a rut in the ground with the stream of a hose. Two mud flap decals, curvaceous woman-forms, knees cocked, stuck to her flanks—her lower back, above her ass. The bodies of the stickers sparkled with the confederate flag. When the rut was brimming, Agrofemme rounded its edge, stood still. Then she let her body drop, dead-weight, headlong into the water, cracking her nose and eye socket on impact.
mudflaps was durational, it set in: her prone form, her naked, baking, goose-pimpled flesh, the flashing stickers, the abandoned hose, the bright grass, the draining water, the passing, saturated day. The forensic interest of passerby. Her body was site of violence done and left for dead, her body was the body of wounded white woman to be avenged, her body was cause, justification and face for the flag of racism.
I was naked at the border of a field. There were invisible arms rising above me, protecting, hovering, threatening to descend in rushing judgement, threatening to drop with an exhalation like last breath. They were the arms of hard men, broken men. Broken men covered in hardness, broken places iced over, suited to the starkness of tall ash trees. Indistinguishable from the iron sky, they flattened unthinkingly the mud lying too-warm, fallow. I marked with a cinderblock a furrow in the ground: push-pull. I lifted the block to my chest, looped its loops over my wrists, thrust my arms through to the biceps. I reached for the tree branch above my head, on tip-toes, the block in between. I jumped. The block followed me back down, hitting my crown as my feet hit the ground. Yet I jumped. I hurled the hay and my hair blew gold in the wind. We are compliant. We love our tyrants. What happens within a bruise? When impact is lifted, color expands, blooms.
Through performance we have the power to act in these in-between places, activating their kind of embodied understanding. Performance is immersive in sense and environment, and herein lies its power. Yet insight through this embodied knowledge does not require traumatization as penance for understanding. We must be discerning about this power. Felt knowledge in the body is explicitly sentient, aware: it recognizes. Perhaps gestures in live art perform Foucault’s resistance, “inflaming certain points of the body, certain moments in life, certain types of behavior.” They may accompany the critical eye in its often discouraging work of astute deconstruction regarding false narratives and complicity. Through resistance we salvage fragments of ourselves, creating new bodies. New narratives can arise from the rifts and breaches created by imposing a dominant discourse over resisting bodies, they emanate from the bodies themselves, from their felt experience.
We have a responsibility towards decolonization. In this space, we have the opportunity to become aware of our position and proximity to this process, and we have a choice– to keep that position or to change it.