Renee Vaughan Sutherland, Waterhouse by Sophie Sleigh-Johnson
Water is at once three things; Liquid, Solid and Gas, and is unique in being less dense when solid, which allows ice to float. The modality of water exists in all life forms; the human body coexists with all things in this fashion, inter-objectively synchronised through the stardust from the beginning of the universe. We are Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen.
Liquid Oceans its own reflection, and to this shattering of waves, the veils flutter. Thames flows,shored by the rise and fall.
In ‘Waterhouse’, Renee Vaughan Sutherland has mandated the confluence of water and the multiple gazes of the females and the eye, both ancient and contemporary; this shimmering mutability is reflected in the liquid water of the Thames Estuary, which is an ongoing ghost and mediator in the work, both directly and metaphorically, inhering and through the bodies of women as an ongoing tremor. Within this geography, a folding of air, sea and horizon evinces volatility, where the estuary tides belies human dominance. The moon is linked to the tide by the gravitational pull of the earth’s water and were it to be nearer, the low-lying marshes would succumb to the rise in sea levels as part of the accretions of alluvium, water surge, and gradual deposit.
This marsh landscape is home to meteorological superstition, occult practices, Modern utopian groups, and post-war New Towns, which gave rise to the accustomed stereotype of the estuary Essex Girl. Further back, the estuary and its surrounding areas were the site of intense witchcraft persecution, especially during the English Civil War. But witch persecution existed before this period: Agnes Waterhouse, the eponymous protagonist of the exhibition, was sentenced to death in 1566 and, by the 1590s, a recurrent trial for witchcraft lay in the ‘swimming’ of the accused in water: sinking proved innocence, but floating was a manifestation of demonic influence, something outside of this world: is a witch less dense than ice? So, from unholy to holy water and back again; with the transformative power of words, water becomes sacred, rebuilt: a waterhouse of redemption. The sacrament of Baptism enacts the cleansing waters of salvation, and ‘swimming’ a witch would seem to invert this ritual.
Vaughan Sutherland suggests a thread tied across centuries (knots unfurl in patterns), where the form of the estuary reflects and lives within the nature of what is hidden and revealed, an ever changing body of women and water, where both are protean and transformative. Water has perennially been associated with the female; she is the cold and melancholic of the four classical humours of the renaissance microcosm and macrocosm sympathy, pattering the four humours of the body to the corresponding four elements of the cosmos, where blood flows through the body as the rivers flow through the earth.
Water and the dust run through us.
Each body is a tiny universe, and the witch’s acts become an inversion of a god-given corporeality. The female was also equivalent to the moon, and hence the ocean tides, the lunar and menstrual cycle minutely attuned. The river runs through the female veins, twins and unfurls in the bloodstream, gurgling and labile. Woman is traditionally saturnine, unknown; fear-inducing, the metamorphic chimera. Likewise, the sea is the anti-rational, the dark uncertainty that is increasingly at the heart of everything. But, as Kristeva says, woman should be thought of “not as dreamy but as defiantly of water in all its multifarious streams and vibrations”. So the female is innate to the lunar ebb and flow of the sea, both in and of the water that moves, breathes, and condemns. The trilling of a thousand neural processes, pulsings and wave forms. The rope, an object handled by the young girl in Evil Eye (2015) retains within it the power of time tied in knots, an unfolding of chance and the destructive power of fleeting, ungraspable moments: sailors were wont to acquire these tied ropes from ‘witches’, and instructed to untie them during storms. The wind both measured and unfolded in knots, seemingly a form of sympathetic magic, or correspondences of the universe, where things that have been touching continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.
In alchemy, the eye also becomes an inner microcosm of the universe, constituted itself of three condensations of fluid, a miniature signature to the three states of water. The black and white film Evil Eye (2015) references the belief held in the power of the witch’s malevolent glance. A link is suggested between the vilifying of women through witch trials and the attendant equivalent found in the Essex Girl stereotype and contemporary gaze of the media: another interchange of looking, naming and subjugating. Within the film, the material processes of the shore are inbuilt in the tentative actions of a group of four females, their halting enactments of occult ritual and traditionally feminine yet subversive activities interspersed with close up of their eyes, as they look subtly look at each other. Two females also slowly enact the process of swimming seen only in headshots, their drenched faces slowly interspersed with expansive shots of churning sea and the glimmer of metallic mud. And as an eye blinks, there is a cut to the tide, at once in and out; this cut from eye to ocean brings to mind the augenblick, or ‘blink of an eye’ that, though instantaneous, holds eternity in a moment of vision. This is a slippage that is mirrored in the two-screen projection: it is the tiny differences in-between the two that generate the hidden, the dust; the smallest bubble of surf and the rippling effect of water over oyster shells pulsate with life, as does the pupil of the young girl’s eye in the ocular close up: it dilates and quivers, a lightning instant between each state. All things inhere in this minuscule muscle contraction that acts as an index of simultaneity, as the microcosm-macrocosm edicts: infinity in a grain of sand.
Gas Mist stirring, disappearance.
The mist of the Essex marshes has been well documented for its miasmic and strange opacity that seems an aporetic space of interval, a signifier for this state between being and non-being, or indeed a space of khôra, following Kristeva, amongst others; it is a reflection, it holds, but does not retain. Thus, this strange air acts as a metaphor to a modern experience of time, a cipher.
As Marx states, all that is solid melts into air. This is his critique of capital, and in a broader sense industrial society, a modality that effects lived space and life expectancy and, with an acceleration of both the rate of change and consumption. The role of women ineluctably alters with the dawn of the modern period and beyond, instigating an inevitable clash of stereotype and roles, and an increasing fragmentation, which alters security and the bedrock of older ideas. According to Adorno, we have no real connection to our supposed natural symbiosis but strive to return. Here, witchcraft can be seen as a distorted image shaped itself by the ‘rational’ ideality of the witch hunts themselves.
The projection of the film Waterhouse (2015) centres around a winch that caps a well of water, an erstwhile ‘water house’. The celluloid loops underneath this capped space of water, passing by as a strange form of sympathetic magic, before travelling up to the winch at the top of the room, a rendition of the inversion of underneath, and above. Shoes, fake hair, oysters and pierced stones act as sigla to an un-writeable and invisible codification of the female, as she matures and shatters into infinite particles; the scrying mirror, echoed in the dressing table mirror of Evil Eye, is the shatterer of essence, revealing and re-veiling appearance. Both mirror and water have been used for the ancient purpose of scrying, a vatic and divinatory way of seeing. This is a reflection, a shimmering of reality and possibly another modality of the eye itself. Gnostic thought mandates water as the transition, the threshold to the unknown, just as the mirror reflects darkness, as in the art of catoptromancy, or mirror divination. The ocean is in itself a fractured surface, as Plath intones; ‘The Sea/ shattering its grey one’. The Elizabethan alchemist and astrologer John Dee used a scrying mirror of black obsidian to call his spirits, and to transcribe the angel language of ‘Enochian’ in an ever-complex smoke screen of translations and symbols. Obsidian is a volcanic glass, another process of transformation and vibration, culminating in a dark glass that both reveals and hides, lost in abstractness.
Elements of the Renaissance alchemical process dwell in a contemporary sense in the double film projection of Treatment (2015), where colour film scratches and splutters over the wall, in contrast to the monochrome Evil Eye. These strange colours that fade over landscape and objects are both processed with urine and nails, and traditional spell ingredients such as lemons and pins alongside the culturally-determined ‘female’ materials of nail varnish and fake tan, which stereotype mandates as the preserves of the Essex Girl. All the objects that appear and in turn treat the celluloid itself are ways of being and existing in this geography, that both originate in and effect the body and the landscape, a shatterproof confluence of symptom and cure. At one point the film shows a carousel-like object of plastic fingers from a nail salon, which eerily echo both Halloween witches fingers and hint at the use of nails and body matter in the potion mixes. The traditional spell ingredients mirror the ingredients of a ‘witch bottle’, a familiar recourse of Cunning Murrell of Hadleigh, Essex, one of the last lauded ‘cunning men’ still practicing in the nineteenth century. Murrell enacted this ancient tradition of sealing a glass bottle with anti bewitchment matter, including emmenia, hair, urine, nails and thorns (inside/outside) whilst the container awaited combustion in the furnace. A strange combination of fire, heat and chance; material processes throbbing and trilling as part of an irrevocable oscillation back and forth of objects, cells and blood, pulsing and synchronous; microcosm/macrocosm.
Two separate piles of mud and oyster shells correspond to each of the two projections of Treatment – insisting on the impossibility of binary thought, it is again what is left between; the celluloid’s shadow of the twin projections move and coalesces, echoing the ceaseless tidal swell.
Solid Faded. And if it shatters…
And so from water to house; the body as matter, a house, a dwelling place which, built, is changing form and rhythm; self-healing and fluctuating. The body is the house of the mind, and the social foundations of patriarchy culturally construct the ‘woman’s’ body. The body is surely something both signified and a signifier; a text: and in words, where does sacrament end and spell begin?
Traditionally, the repetition of spells and incantation were efficacious against harm or as remedies. The repetition of words spoken at particular times or with specific props bestowed upon utterance a magical frame. Helene Cixous writes that when spoken, words ‘become flesh and blood … it’s the air they breathe’. So in this living, breathing, being, words inhere in women. In the performance film installation ‘I’m In Essex Girl’, (2015) (the second translation of a degrading music video) words are spoken by the speakers’ faces that are inverted and layered over the concealed upper-body of the artist, who hangs suspended with her legs revealed over a pool of dark water (water, again is a conduit, a reflection, a form), an almost parodist version of the swimming ordeal, with the audience providing yet another gaze. The performance enact a shattering, an endurance of the female body withstanding these uttered Essex Girl jokes that jar in repetition, elevating the power of incantation and repetition. Vaughan Sutherland’s body seems unreal, a deeply elegiac proposition of the female form, and a maelstrom of both defeat and resolute defiance in the face of immobility.
And if this performance piece could be physic for the exhaustion of oppression, a hollowed stone acts as this site of absence. Pebbles with sea-worn holes feature in both Evil Eye and Waterhouse, stones that were used as magical talismans against evil charms, enacting the circularity of the eternal return. It is again a cipher to time and material process, the constant movement of the sea polishing to create the inversion of an eye in its circular absence. The rock is a physical evocation of the simultaneity of time and a reminder of the vacillating modalities and uses of objects. The hole in the centre proudly brandishes this unknowable space of khôra, resolutely both solid and immaterial.
It is left to build and write and speak a space as female, not pre-coded but vital and mutable. Not to immobilise in borrowed conceptions of the female, but make liquid; a state the whole world was avowed to be by the ancient Greek philosopher Thales. There is a synchrony in the persons of a land at all times exiting simultaneously, and these women dwell in past and future, concurrent with water and material transformations. They pass through space, live, shed and breathe. As Cixous says, ‘Woman's stream of phantasmagoric is incredible’.
‘Waterhouse’ shows water as a modality, a reflection, a portal, a conveyor, and a adjudicator. Vision is veiled and re-veiled in stone, mirror and liquid, shattered through the veiling of essence and misrepresentation; a glimmer at the corner of the Eye.
We are Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen. Into infinite particles.