Advertisement

Why I’m Voting ‘Yes’ to Repeal the 8th in Ireland’s Abortion Referendum

Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish abortion referendum

There is a feeling I have been describing recently with other women here. It’s in the pit of your stomach, a frozen stillness that comes just before the event. It’s like a collective vertigo: you’re afraid to look down or up, you have to hold your nerve, breathe, and remember that you all climbed up in the first place, and how hard it was to even get up there.  

In 2017, I created Tremble Tremble for the Irish pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale. The piece came from a feeling of deep political anger that had been gestating for many years. It began in 2012 when I was in South Korea, and heard the news that a young Indian dentist called Savita Halappanavar had died in an Irish hospital while miscarrying a child. When she asked for a termination, she was denied it. Hospital staff told her: ‘This is a Catholic country.’ She died of sepsis.

I remember the shock on the faces of my Korean colleagues when I visited the gallery that day. They had heard the story online and they asked me, how could this happen in Ireland? Where to start? A potted history of collective pain: centuries of colonialism, famine, generations of emigration, eviction, land wars, anti-colonial revolution, a new independent state, Catholic counter-revolution, and then in 1983, the Eighth amendment. That is why Savita Halappanavar died. We all have our particular aftermath of postcolonial trauma. This was ours.

Jesse Jones, Tremble Tremble, 2017, film, sculpture, moving curtain, sound and light scenography, installation view, Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist

Jesse Jones, Tremble Tremble, 2017, film, sculpture, moving curtain, sound and light scenography, installation view, Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist

Jesse Jones, Tremble Tremble, 2017, film, sculpture, moving curtain, sound and light scenography, installation view, Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist

The Irish Catholic counter-revolution was a dense suffocating atmosphere that came to reign in Ireland in the 1930s. They liked spectacle, they liked power, they liked institutions, especially institutions that took women and young children into their care. Forced labour camps for unmarried young women, their babies sold to America, the systematic sexual abuse of children, septic tanks for unmarked graves. For a group of mostly celibate men, they were fanatically obsessed with the control of every aspect of women’s bodies, from where they could be in public, how they should speak and dress, to the most gynaecological, intimate aspects of their lives. This new Irish state had a procreant imaginary, and women were the penitent repository.

This dystopic social experiment culminated in the amendment to the Irish constitution in 1983, which states:

‘The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.’

Jesse Jones. Courtesy: the artist

Jesse Jones. Courtesy: the artist

Jesse Jones. Courtesy: the artist

And so we have the reality today that the right to life for the mother is equal to that of the foetus in the Irish constitution. A man is a man is a man is a man, always. A woman is sometimes equal to a foetus. Though there had been other women, of course, the case of Savita Halappanavar was the spark. We marched in the streets with her image held in candle-lit vigils. We were frightened and sad, but mostly we were angry. Perhaps all revolutions in Ireland begin at gravesides. The famous funeral of Fenian leader Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa in 1915 was the scene opener to the rising the subsequent year. There crowds witnessed revolutionary and poet Pádraic Pearse cry ‘while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace’. We are bound to the dead in this political mythology.

Last year at the opening address for the Irish Pavilion at Venice, I spoke about Savita Halappanavar. But Tremble Tremble was not about Savita; it was not about one particular woman, but instead tried to make a sedimentary character that voiced stories through time.  What would it feel like if we had power? How could we even name it? The actor Olwen Fouéré embodied this persona in the form of a witch, the ancient counter-force to patriarchal power. She declared a counter-law to the 8th amendment, ‘the Law of In Utera Gigantae’ which stated that:

‘With regard to the moment when a human takes its place of dwelling in the maternal belly, it lives inside a giant.

This giant is the only true origin of law. She possesses the double kindness: to create or destroy the life she carries. Her tenant is only temporary, its claim of occupancy finite. Its very existence not mere life, as we the living know, but the greater possibility of being or not being.

It needs not the society of man to become manifest. It obeys the natural law of In Utera Gigantae – the world within the world made of flesh – not the state of land or sea or man or sky.’

Jesse Jones, Tremble Tremble, 2017, production shot. Courtesy: the artist

Jesse Jones, Tremble Tremble, 2017, production shot. Courtesy: the artist

Jesse Jones, Tremble Tremble, 2017, production shot. Courtesy: the artist

This imagined law of the female body lies beyond the law of the state or man. It is a territory of collective power, it is giant, it is autonomous. Tremble Tremble created a myth, and like all myths, proposed another kind of possibility of becoming – this becoming has reached its critical stage. Who we will be in a week from now is a question which is being asked a lot in Ireland. The spectres of Brexit and Trump loom large, and the eyes of the world are watching us.

So we walk the streets, wear our repeal badges, and create political intimacies with strangers. How are you voting? The referendum is not just about our bodies, it is our bodies: our marching, texting, flyer-waving, placard-carrying hands. What are our pleas of ‘Will you vote yes? Will you stand by us?’ met with? The turned faces of young men who can’t look you in the eye, the bright hopeful women who never wanted this Ireland, wanted another one, the growling ‘no’ from the face that comes too close. And then the older women, the look of relief. ‘Yes, it’s about time.’

Jesse Jones’s Tremble Tremble runs at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, from 8 June to 18 July 2018.

Main image: Jesse Jones. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Conor McCabe

Jesse Jones is a Dublin-based artist. She represented Ireland at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017.

Advertisement

Most Read

Criticism of the show at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest comes alongside a nationalist reshaping of the...
A retrospective at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst charts the artist’s career from the 1980s to the present, from ‘fem-trash...
At the National Theatre of Wales, a performance alive with wild, tactile descriptions compels comparison between the...
There are perils in deploying bigotry to score political points, but meanings also shift from West to East
‘It’s ridiculous. It’s Picasso’: social media platform to review nudity policy after blocking Montreal Museum of Fine...
Poland’s feminist ‘Bison Ladies’ storm the Japanese artist’s Warsaw exhibition in solidarity with longtime model Kaori’...
An art historian and leading Leonardo expert has cast doubt on the painting’s attribution
How will the Black Panther writer, known for his landmark critical assessments of race, take on the quintessential...
The dissident artist has posted a series of videos on Instagram documenting diggers demolishing his studio in the...
In further news: artists for Planned Parenthood; US court rules on Nazi-looted Cranachs; Munich’s Haus der Kunst...
A mother’s death, a father’s disinterest: Jean Frémon’s semi-factual biography of the artist captures a life beyond...
Jostling with its loud festival neighbours, the UK’s best attended annual visual art festival conducts a polyphonic...
It’s not clear who destroyed the project – part of the Liverpool Biennial – which names those who have died trying to...
Dating from 1949 to the early 1960s, the works which grace the stately home feel comfortable in the ostentatious pomp...
The disconnect between public museum programming and private hire couldn’t be starker – it’s time for the arts to...
In further news: Angela Gulbenkian sued over Kusama pumpkin; and Pussy Riot re-arrested immediately after release from...
With Art Week in town, a guide to the best exhibitions to see, from sonic surveillance to Ronnie van Hout’s showdown...
Moving between figuration and abstraction, the New York-based painter and teacher made work about in-between spaces and...
Trump’s State Department is more than 3 months late in announcing its national pavilion – testament to the chaos...
The continued dominance of UK-US writers makes a mockery of the Man Booker’s ‘global outlook’
The fashion photographer has been accused on Twitter of ripping off another artist – with both represented by the same...
Katharina Cibulka has stitched ‘As long as the art market is a boys’ club, I will be a feminist,’ across her alma mater...
The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018