Always pushing the definitions of art, artist Jesse Jones is close to being a charismatic figure for a large part of the younger generation of Irish artists. Working across a wide range of forms and media, often in collaboration with a diversity of groups and individuals, her practice reflects and re-presents historical moments of collective resistance and dissent. The artist will be representing Ireland at the 57th Venice Biennale with a political work inspired by the rising social movement in Ireland pushing for a change in the relationship between church and state.
Commissioned and curated by Tessa Giblin, the Irish pavilion will present Tremble, Tremble, a work whose title is inspired by a 1970s chant sung by the women of the Italian Wages for Housework movement – Tremble, tremble, the witches have returned! Considering the national pavilion as the site of an alternative Law, Jones will present a work she describes as a “bewitching” of the judicial system, calling for the return of the witch as “a feminist archetype and disrupter” with the ability to alter reality. With this new work, the artist explores the ways in which the law transmits memory between generations and over time. Tremble, Tremble will be accompanied by a book published in English and Italian, featuring writing by Silvia Federici, Tina Kinsella, Lisa Godson, and Tessa Giblin.
The Word of the Curator about the Irish Pavilion
As the curator Tessa Giblin explains, working with Jesse Jones on building the project towards Venice, means working with an artist “whose eclectic research seems to be somehow pouring into the Pavilion”. As she notes, Jesse’s work, created in collaboration with so many artists, historians, lawyers, and feminists over the last ten years, is now coalescing in Tremble Tremble in a much more abstract way than ever before. While many of artworks are made and refined in the security of a studio or editing suite, Tremble Tremble will be edited and mixed on site, in the room, as an expanded form of cinema. “Ireland has been hemorrhaging change in recent years, and this is a project that has always felt very much of its time – in Ireland, issues around the State’s legislation and control over the bodies of women really matter in every way – legal, cultural, medical, humanitarian”, states Giblin. Highlighting a breath-taking collaboration with the artist Olwen Fouéré, she concludes that Jesse Jones will present us “with a work that’s embedded in research and historical findings, but is also a very personal, fantastical creation”.
We had a chat with Jesse Jones in order to find out more about her work for 57th Venice Biennale. In an exclusive Widewalls interview, she talks about the concept of her piece, the new law her work proposes, the power of institutions of the nation state, the responsibility of art, and much more. Scroll down and enjoy!
Ireland at 57th Venice Biennale
Widewalls: You will be representing Ireland at 57th Venice Biennale with an artwork described as a “bewitching” of the judicial system. How will the national pavilion act as “an alternative site of the state”, as you describe it?
Jesse Jones: In the artwork I have made for the Irish Pavilion, I’ve thought about the idea that a National Pavilion is a sort of cultural arm of the state, therefore it could be the site to pose a fictional alternative to the law. Tremble Tremble proposes a superseding law that I have devised, called Utera Gigantae. The artwork proposes that an older law than the law of the state might reside in the body itself. This older law aims to turn the body into the site of political agency, rather than continuing the current legal reality of a woman’s body being controlled by the constitution in Ireland.
Widewalls: Titled “Tremble, Tremble”, your piece is inspired by the 1970s Italian wages for housework movement, but it also addresses some contemporary political issues Ireland is facing, such as the calls for the transformation of the relationship between the church and the state. Could you tell us more about how these issues intersect?
JJ: I feel that these issues definitely intersect in terms of a political consciousness and the continuous thinking of the Left: the Italian Left, in particular, where its feminist movement has made its mark on the kinds of political thinking that are influencing Ireland and elsewhere. One of the most significant points of departure for Tremble Tremble is the work of Silvia Federici, an amazing activist and writer whose work, such as Caliban and the Witch, is influencing a new generation of anti-capitalist feminists. Federici was involved with the Wages for Housework movement in the 1970s, and it was in reading her work on the structures of capital that I discovered how the home, the family and the role of women in society are all connected. These political systems of control allow us to understand why something like abortion (which was legalized in so many European countries decades before) is still illegal in Ireland today, through the complex relations between the church, state and capitalism, and our arrival at modernity through the process of being the colonized subject. In a way, the current feminist movement in Ireland has now reached this historical impasse between the state and possibilities of freedom and autonomy that might have dominated social movements in Europe after the 1960s. I would argue that, because of our very special relationship with colonialism, we are arriving at that possibility today. Therefore, it is vital to make historical comparisons and link to struggles that can inspire and inform our rising, contemporary feminist movement.
Ireland has a church-state relationship due to its emergence as an independent nation in the 20s and the 30s after it came out of a violent civil war following centuries of colonization, where the church was a stabilizing factor in public and political life. In fact, a counter-revolution successfully created a Catholic theocracy. Irish people lived under this for generations, and it was upheld by the loss of our young people who were choosing to move away for economic reasons. However, this all came to a head following the 1990s boom in the 00’s economic crash. A highly educated, worldly and independent generation that stayed in Ireland came out of this moment, and continue to see different possibilities. They are asking questions about the nature of the state, and they don’t feel the religious ties to power, and want a different society. It is a very exciting time.
The Nation State and the Female Body
Widewalls: Your work proposes the return of the witch as a feminist archetype and disrupter who has the potential to transform reality, but it also imagines a new law, that of In Utera Gigantae. What does this new law propose?
JJ: The work proposes a giant woman’s body as a force beyond the state; this is a very clear metaphor for the collective power of the mass, or a multitudinous body. I believe that a feminist social movement can change the law and question the state itself. To do this, first, we must be disobedient to the law on mass, to not follow it, and make it strange to our bodies. This is what is happening in Ireland today, and represents the shift of the political imaginary in its stages of transformation into absurdity. When the state becomes absurd to the multitude, it can no longer survive as it relies on a credibility to harness our reality. This metaphorical female giant can destroy it.
Widewalls: Your work explores how historical instances of communal culture may hold resonance in our current social and political experiences. How do you see the role of institutions of the nation state in controlling and regulating the female body, but also in shaping our collective consciousness?
JJ: I feel like we need more disobedient bodies and disrupters, and a return of archetypal exiles. Across Europe, we are seeing some of the same forces of misogyny and capitalism that were rampant in the persecution of women in the 16th and 17th century. The witch has never really gone away, but women’s power has been suppressed. Our culture is genuinely fearful of types of representation of women as it destabilizes our culture that is built so fundamentally on sexism and hostility towards women. As an artist, I see the witch as a force of agency, that flies in the face of this. I claim the witch as a force of generative subjectivity as she is an archetype that can awaken our histories by destabilizing and pulling at the roots of capitalism in a very deep way.
The Responsibility of Art
Widewalls: Your practice crosses the media of film, performance and installation, and you often work through collaborative structures. You will now be working with the theater artist Olwen Fouéré and sound artist Susan Stenger to create an artwork that extends across the pavilion as an expanded form of cinema. Could you tell us more about this collaboration and the concept?
JJ: The collaboration began between myself and Olwen in 2016, I have long admired Olwen’s practice, so it was great to get to work with her and spend time developing the conversation, we started to meet and discuss firstly our own work and what were the intersections between both of our practices. We had a lot in common and we were trying to find that essential thread.
I had been doing a lot of research over the previous year with another artist Sarah Browne around the law and how women experience the law specifically for a project we made for Artangel. Through this I had started to shadow a group of legal academics called the North/Irish Feminist Judging project, this really shaped how I came to understand the law from a feminist perspective.
By the time I was working with Olwen I was interested in how we could go beyond what we know of the law and think about how we can imagine a new magical paradigm of the law through a sort of fiction. Olwen has such a depth of knowledge about performance and how we carry ideas in our bodies, our conversation began to develop into how this could come together as an experience of law rather than a representation so that’s when we ask Susan to come on board to think about sound to add to that experience.
It all really solidified then I went to a retreat in Pendle with Idle women and Silvia Federici. We spent 3 days together, a group of women from totally different practices and background, some artists, most activists and women working directly with women’s resources. Something just formed in my mind there about how the struggle against capitalism has been a struggle of the body. I had been really influenced by Federici and asked her then to contribute to the book for Tremble Tremble. So that was the genesis of the work, between conversations, daydreams and bonfires in the woods it somehow emerged.
Widewalls: Your work often articulates hidden currents of dissent running beneath the calm cultural surface. What is the responsibility of art today? How can it contribute to today’s social and political battles?
JJ: I feel artists are involved in the same political battles as subjects, we are not separate from the civic, there is this idea that artist is separate from the social and political world, they have an autonomy to speak from some imagined place of distance but I don’t think we have that post-modern isolation anymore. We are all in a very different place now politically in the world and not saying anything political is a political act in itself.
There has been a highly critical and vibrant discussion in Ireland particularly about the role of gender politics in art and this new resurgence of feminism is a great recalibration and disruption of an order or way of thinking about contemporary art that was becoming very stale. But something that we have definitely neglected and sometimes can’t even perceive in contemporary art is the question of Class.
The art world’s operational structure at every level is really reliant on free labour, unpaid workers and interns and its academic pathways are financial barriers to a more expansive socio-economic participation in art. This leads to a highly narrow percentage of the population who can become part of that world and the conversations politically are in the main coming from a narrow field of economic experience.
Considering that one of the most complex and urgent issues in our contemporary world revolves around our lived experience of late capitalism, how can art be tasked with really having the autonomy to question that when so many of its structures of articulation are embedded in a specific class structure? We need to be thinking particularly as feminists, who else is not at this table? Who is not in this conversation right now? Not to be tokenistic or recuperative but to wake up from this skewed perception of social reality, I think this is happening, there are more critical voices emerging but we need to think about these economic structures of engagement for art to be in any way politically relevant.
Widewalls: For the end, could you reveal some of your future plans and projects?
JJ: I am traveling to La Salle university in July to work on a project there for ICA Singapore, will be researching the life’s work of the founder of La Salle university father Joseph Mc Nally, an Irish priest who founded the school 50 years ago. I am quite interested in how Catholic missionary tradition has established some of the trails of cultural activity that mark out the geopolitics of the international globalised art world today, I want to track this a bit and see how this has shaped some of the underlying values that are inherent in the structures of thought, faith and ritual of the art world itself. After that I will be traveling back to Ireland and am excited to get back to the studio and start making again, Venice has opened up a lot of new possibilities for me materially as an artist and I am keen to push that new thinking about my work and get behind the camera again.