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.
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.’
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.’
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