The Trouble with Statues
The trouble with statues is they are too big for cupboards. Once in situ – that’s it, unless through some vigorous act they are torn down, usually with the aid of ropes, chains and muscle.
I have been very moved by the Black Lives Matter protests but feel utterly inept in commenting so I will just write this with regard to statues, power, legacy and ‘kept’ history.
In a ‘last stand’ in Coventry back in 2009 I researched and created a work around a subject that was very challenging – that being on death row had something to do with performance: a last supper, a final signal from the stake, a kind of toppling, a lynching. This resulted in an inevitably uncomfortable gathering of knowledge about the technicalities of the ‘act of execution’. The idea came while walking through a cemetery in Barcelona in 2003. I was entranced by the marbled porcelain-white effigies and reminded of a giantess, ‘The Motherland Calls’ figure (one of the tallest statues in the world) I had seen while performing in Volgograd, Russia in the early 90s.
I am fascinated by statues and their platform-plinths, particularly the Godiva statues and effigies dotted around Coventry which served some of my performance research work during the 90s.
The Last Women was a gestation over six years, overtly historical, political, mythical and I suppose spiritual. Its accompanying exhibition The Hour of Death was uncomfortably troubling. If you are interested in the project you can see more information here
The premise for the project: 7 statues, 7 condemned women including ‘last women’ to be hanged, a potentially pregnant prisoner, a child murderer and a couple of famous prisoners to encourage the box office and the press: 7 gateways, 7 exhibits of the despicable act of death by execution, made more palatable through songs, dancing, interwoven storytelling and gallows humour. The script was liturgical – a litany, more akin to a religious text than a play-script. The driving exhibits: a skull in a cupboard and a death mask in a police museum. All this was driven by the ancient Mesopotamian myth: Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld.
The work came to fruition as Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled from it’s plinth by ropes and chains – a ritual hanging followed by a social media recorded public hanging we would never forget, in the same part of the world where the myth of Inanna was conceived in tablet form.
Inanna the queen/goddess of Middle Eastern notoriety travelled to the Great Below through seven gates in Godiva-like nakedness to comfort her sister Ereshkigal Queen of the Underworld who was grieving the loss of her husband. Much has been written about the psychotherapeutic relevance of the myth for example in Sylvia Brinton Perera’s ‘Descent of the Goddess – A Way of Initiation for Women’ but the poetic texts translated by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer are beautiful.
Statues, though physical, represent deep meaning in their affinity to rock formations. I am thinking mainly of stone statues here, carved from stone like the original ancient Mesopotamian relief forms held at the British Museum and the Louvre demonstrate. Stone statues are so solid and seemingly immovable. You can’t ignore them. Even if their meaning becomes troubling, they are always there. And they are usually paid for or supported with public money which makes the troubling aspect of them even more disconcerting.
My statues in The Last Women moved and spoke. They told their interwoven stories in disconnected fragments that often sounded like sacred text or the whispered inscriptions from their plinths, but they also spoke their minds:
“Cassie: And it’s a complete waste of public money.
Mary W: You’re dead and when you’re dead that’s it.
Dark Horse: Gehenna, Gethsemane, Golgotha, the place of the skull.
Lily White: They will put my skull in a suitcase in the cupboard and bring it out for all to see – like an old curiosity – in a shop – they’ll sell me like a souvenir. “Miniature skulls!” In a shop. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 pence a piece – little bits of me. I will be a national treasure collection plate. Then Edward will be proud of me. Then he will see I was worth something.
Where’s my body? I’ve got no body! I am a head in a cupboard with a label circa 1970. I am reduced to a skull in a cupboard and they will make an exhibition out of me. I am an exhibition.
Cassie: Mary Weaver! Housekeeper! Poisoner! Feeble-minded deviant, disposable human waste, when you say that you bought the arsenic for the vermin, did you intend to spread it all over the house – on the bedposts, in the pantry, on the mantelshelf? In the cup? And if so, might you also have sprinkled it into his gruel? So in fact when you spread the arsenic were you sane or insane?
Ruthie: Sane, your honour”
From The Last Women by Carran Waterfield and Triangle Theatre Company © 2008
I often imagined a commissioned statue to Mary Ball (Mary W. in the play) of Nuneaton as a complement to her ‘sister’ the novelist George Eliot. After all, she was the last woman to be hanged in Coventry and her death mask was kept at the Police Museum.
It’s a token. It’s a keepsake. It’s a commemoration. It’s a remembering.
We might think of statues as commemorations of bad behaviour or transgression? What is the relationship between this and protection of the statue of bad behaviour? Might Mary Ball’s statue have garnered as much protection as George Eliot’s statue in the same town and connected with the same city? What does it reveal when someone pulls down a statue of someone who did ‘supposed’ good on the backs of supposed ‘no goods’? What does it reveal when someone pulls down a statue because the institution of governance decided it shouldn’t be there? What makes one person think their opinion counts more than the next person? What makes one person more worthy of making the decisions for another person? Little people or let’s say minorities or underdogs may say ‘no’ and ‘enough’ but always, always they seem to have been shut up and put back in a cupboard. Does the recent attack on statues mark a change in that? Can the cupboard become a new kind of plinth – a more secret exposure?
Moreover, why do we put people and their stuff on plinths, encase them, display them, wrap up their papers in acid free paper and box them up for posterity anyway? But how is it the little people, the insignificant ones, the ones who don’t seem to count, but who may have supported the mainstream story, not get plinths or boxes of acid free paper? Maybe it is because they are too busy making a living. They don’t have time for the ‘posterity participatory demonstration’ bit of their working life?
Today on reflection I think The Last Women for me sits as a comment on the whole structure of the institution we call a museum, where the dead talk to us from beyond the grave and tell stories invented by those of power and in power and of ‘their time’ and who could afford to pay to get their story told as they might want it. My characters took their last hours to tell their story but as in a fragmented traumatic dream the stories fracture and disintegrate with the set stories written prescriptively in the courtroom script, the selective biographical text or the blatantly marketed broadsheet accompanying the public execution.
I am mindful of the stuff we keep in museums, where it comes from and why we keep it. I am mindful of what we write down in books and pamphlets as a documentation of that, the greed and grasping and the cataloguing of symbols of hatred conjured in the name of education and commemoration, lest we forget.
I am mindful of the absent histories that occasionally are granted project funds often tithed into capital projects in the name of overheads and permanent staffing. There are such things where zero-hours contracts may be conceived under the guise of a placement, or a project fee or a temporary post, and unpaid honours with letters may be bestowed on unsuspecting artists to serve the cause of the institution.
And I am mindful of freelancers who fall between the stools of self-imposed austerity in the name of art or just living life how you want to, whose plight has been more tangible during the pandemic. And of course I am mindful of the tokenistic and institutionally enforced National or International Day of Whatever where we dutifully beat the drums of exploitation which can drive the culture economy into an automated system of public art making that lets us eat cake as and when King and Country say so in order that we keep time and keep up with time and keep the ‘right’ time for posterity.
The Last Women’s creation came at a time when the museum it grew out of was going through its own raison d’être, its buildings and stories gutted and reinvented through a huge capital development. The Last Women should have been performed at the museum but the capital project got in the way so we took the museum idea to the local repertory theatre that had just recovered from its own gutting and reinvention through another capital investment with projects attached. The story of and behind my little play sat quietly on these fringes asking some fairly hefty questions and interrogating the purpose of keeping things for posterity. Who collects? Who gets to choose what is collected and kept? Who gets to collect the project crumbs based on capital ventures and conquests?