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Letter to Venus: ‘The Hungry Self’ and the ‘Seated Nude’

09/01/2011

Hello –

Lydia here! Summer’s been really hectic – performing ‘The Venus Papers’ in Derby, then different work at a few other nights and festivals – so it’s been a while since I’ve posted any letters to Venus. Here’s something now – about a painting, and the papers, and a book…

I’ve recently been reading ‘The Hungry Self’ – a book by the critic and psychoanalyst, Kim Chernin – about women, eating and identity. I’ve found the work really engaging and responding to it have been reflecting on some of my own experiences aswell as thinking about some new things I’d like to write. I’ve also been thinking about ‘The Venus Papers’ and the work of some of the show’s contributing artists – particularly the work of Scott Bridgwood, the visual artist on the show.

'Letter to Bernini', Scott Bridgwood

Published in 1986 ‘The Hungry Self’ presents – ‘a unique point in history’; the point at which Western women, after centuries of gender inequality begin to emerge more fully, into the workplace and broader social and cultural life.

As Chernin writes it is the middle of the 1980‘s and just 80 years since women had been granted the right to vote, there is a female Primeminister in the UK – though perhaps significantly, one remembered for her ruthless and ‘un-maternal’ qualities. Women are attending university, experiencing unprecidented sexual freedoms, and power dressing/cross dressing their way into the boardroom.

The woman’s movement is experiencing a new wave and with each passing year, an emerging generation of women are moving further out into unknown territory. They are attempting to go where no woman has gone before. But if positive, this move, says Chernin, is not taking place without side effects…

Chernin describes a time that is difficult. In the absence of a ‘forerunning’ generation, each woman must do the unthinkable. If she is to move towards the empowerment and fulfilment of potential that seems suddenly possible, she must surpass – abandon and reject even – the choices of her mother.

For Chernin, the fear, guilt and impossibility of doing such a thing is enormous and has a direct relationship to a whole host of self sabotaging behaviours that she, as both a woman and an analyst, has observed emerging. She describes women retreating from society, just as they begin to advance and she points to the emergence of eating disorders – on an epidemic scale – as some of her evidence.

Thinking about ‘The Venus Papers’, and the relationship I’ve drawn in it between Venus and her mother, Gaia, aswell as her journey into a 21st century world, there are definitely some parallels. I won’t go into these here as doing so would spoil the show for anyone’s who’s not seen it; however, turning to Scott’s work instead, I can see so much of what I’ve been thinking as I’ve been reading Chernin’s book – and so much of what I’m trying to say in ‘The Venus Papers’.

Below is ‘Seated Nude’ one of Scott’s latest pieces, and the piece I’ve been particularly thinking about.

'Seated Nude', Scott Bridgwood.

In this, is a woman who is fully grown – naked and looking away from the viewer to something out of the frame and unseeable.

She is sitting on what looks like an Ikea chair, in the process of becoming and unbecoming, parts of her intact and parts of her obliterated.

As I voyeuristically look at her, it’s hard to gain a purchase. By 21st century standards of pin up beauty she could be described as unfeminine, even masculine, powerfully muscled and with a body that is almost meaty.

When to be a masculine woman is to be repellent – just look at reactions to Lady Gaga when she recently dragged up for the VMA awards – the painting seems to invite rejection. Instead however, all it does I think, is seem to question.

Is this a healthy woman, rejecting size zero and contemporary, unhealthy standards of beauty? Is she sitting, comfortably in her own skin, looking towards something better? Or is she, like the women described in Chenin’s work, plagued by neuroses, particular to a generation that starts with Karen Carpenter and shifts into Posh Spice?

Is this figure attempting to fill – with food and by any other means – a ‘hunger-knot‘, that, as Chenin has it, is made up of anger, resentment and fear for the mother. Has her body been made by regression and frustration as she tears into food – but also mother, when mother is our first food and so the two symbolically interchangeable. Or is she settling into her mother’s body, but moving it in entirely different ways? Is she troubled by what she surveys, but grounded in her stability?

I realise this is slipping into the more than slightly Freudian (!) – so I won’t even mention the pool of amniotic fluid/blood/shadow that the figure is resting over… all I’ll say is that this is one of the most inspiring works by Scott I’ve seen. It makes me look at all of his work differently. I’m suddenly seeing the women, he predominantly paints, as lone figures attempting to emerge, being and not being – and becoming and unbecoming, with all the connotations that these last two words imply.

The piece featured in this post is not in the show, but if I come at all close to expressing it in what we’re performing, I’ll be very happy.

VP Next Performance: The Venus Papers Abridged. Decibel. September 15th, 4.30pm, Capitol Theatre, Manchester.

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