Ciphers from the Muniments
By Lani Maestro
As I write I can't help but raise my head once in a while to the frame in front of me. The wooden window of our country house captures an incredible, temporary site of death. The sun casts its afternoon light on the vegetation outside, the maple trees are lit in yellow and orange effervescence, ripened leaves fluttering their fragile life in surrender. Any day now, a big whisper of wind will render these living things naked and the spirit of this place changed. Cold because concrete and death remains. The experience of language seems very similar. We try to fill the air with words to reach out to each other, but also to fix the flux of being. Sometimes, arguments ensue, conflicting emotions are enraged. War. We are merely trying to fill in a space to reach out make bridges. To make tangible. But words exist only because of their meaning. My introduction to Ann Newdigate felt like an encounter with a newly-found relative. It came with a spontaneous feeling of affinity and respectful distance. There was an acknowledgment of our immigrant backgrounds but what resonated most for me was a strong connection to her history with the underground political movement in South Africa. In the histories of the countries that we each came from, subversion was a seditious act that would cause the erasure of our identities, our lives, the deaths of those who were dear to us. She had a thoughtful quietness about her that was both mindful and alert and that I found reassuringly familiar. Perhaps I associated this presentness with the heightened sense of one's mortality that accompanies under-ground political activism.
For many years, Ann Newdigate has diligently taken on the path of this reflection through a contemplative creative process called weaving. This word has a poetic resonance because its process involves a sensual presence as most works do that engage in materials but also because of its mythic dimension. Newdigate has engaged herself in this weaving of images of personal and social histories dealing with concerns around power, place, identity and order .
The roots of the term order are from Latin ordiri, which means to lay the warp, begin to weave. Since the prevailing order is warped, dis-ordered, we unweave it as we begin to weave. Since it is a source of our unknown Dis-ease, we unweave it with increasing ease, uncovering its previously unknown courses.(2)
The images I have seen of Newdigate's work reverberate in my head as do the lapping ocean waves of the Normandy coast, which have figured in each of our works. It is not a generic ocean image but one that is completely haunted. The phenomenon of being haunted embodies the hovering of some unresolved entity - things or spirits that cannot move on because of some unfinished business. In Ciphers from the Muniments Room there are spirits reasserting their presence in the world, each with its own title - Arrival (1995) and Ciphers (1994). The separate pieces are dialogical and the artist takes us into her journey of reconciliation. I begin with one source, the Bayeux Tapestry as it addresses many aspects of Newdigate's wrok and look at Letter as it unravels into layers of subversive acts.
The separate pieces are dialogical and the artist takes us into her journey of reconciliation. I begin with one source, the Bayeux Tapestry as it addresses many aspects of Newdigate's work and look at Letter as it unravels into layers of subversive acts.
I was brought to Normandy by death. I walked down the paths where the earth held the blood, sweat and tears of soldiers slain by swords, bayonets, machine guns: brutal hands that were able to kill because somewhere in a man's heart was passion and fear/ Everywhere, the walls and trees and bushes had ears that kept the wailing and screams of cries for mercy intact. They are monuments to secrets and guardians of mortal corpses that cannot stand erect in time. My feet listened to this earth's speaking and I was guided to find other paths in these awakening voices of war. I walked beside the eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry, a very long hanging made with embroidered pictures and inscriptions representing the Norman conquest of England. The depiction of this war is not gruesome. As if by some process of mediation, it leaves only an unscarred image of the bloody event. Creative hands can only heal. It cannot commit the same act of murder, of violence. The process will not allow it. Is this true? Or is it because these creative hands were hands of women who were not capable of war?
The task of embroidery is one of pleasure because it cannot be done well without the gracefulness of hand movements that have the "feel" for the threads, the cloth. It is this process that gives way to sensuality of movement. In the Bayeux Tapestry, the war depicted is a graphic illustration of a story. Were the embroiderers witness to the war or were they "mere" listeners to the story of the war? One would assume that there existed a blueprint of the war to be depicted and the stitchers followed the outline, the lines of this blueprint on cloth. When we engage in this process, we surrender to the materiality of the things in front of us. It is this same materiality that brings us to a process of abstraction of content. The focus is on the sensuality of the threads, its colours and the refinement of the stitch which then gives the form. However, there is nothing refined about war, about thrusting a sword into the body's dense flesh.
What is the point in remembrance, then? Throughout history, it is always one of heroism. Patriarchy. Possession. Competition. Chivalry, Prowess. Men have to leave a trace. The history of patriarchy. Patriarchy underlies history. The Bayeux Tapestry was a chronicle, a remembrance of war fought by men. But what do we know of the women and children who were left behind? And the war that the soldiers brought home. We learn of the triumphs of war but we never learn about the legacy of any war - won or lost. Nationalisms are brought about by these kinds of possessive, competitive wars - protecting, securing one's land, one's country, one's possessions, one's identity. And boundaries are made, territories and categories are set.But, I find myself thinking, it is me, a twentieth century woman who is looking at this and wondering (judging) the medieval relationship to images. The mediation of voices. How does the passing on, the translation, occur? Am I looking once again for authenticity here? Who were these women (I assume) embroiderers. Were they wives of soldiers who survived the war - that they were able to feel and live the horrors that these men had witnessed? The nightmares that they share in bed. The rage and anger and sadness locked in their bodies only to manifest itself once more in domestic, violence or repressive silence. Legacies that we inherit.The act of writing, perhaps as a way of enunciating, has always been evident in Ann Newdigate's work. These scripto-visual works are fragments of narratives, quotations, revelations or disruptions of master narratives that have infiltrated our landscape. Landscape is present in her work as a mark, a geography whose topography is layered by the weaving of threads. Unlike the conventional canvas where we are confronted by pure white space, Ann's field is constructed with the grid.In Letter , a hanging made out of canvass carries imagery based on Pitman's shorthand, woven in a Medieval tapestry process, but imprinted through the use of digital imaging. A 22-foot long output of six square tapestries is contemporized through a hyper technology called "flex mural" which imprinted the scanned actual works onto canvas using car paint. In between the larger tapestries, details of the text appear in a smaller format like reiterating echoes. In the Pitman text Newdigate responds to historian A.L. Burt's colonialist accounts in The Romance of Canada , a textbook for primary school children. The rebuttal is private to a non-Pitman reader. I make assumptions about the usual response to condescending privileged text but I am left to imagine the possibilities of a graceful but acute response. Like enlarged polaroids the eloquent and tactile "scripted" tapestries are reminiscent of calligraphy from sacred texts except these ones evoke a rhythmic frenzy held in order by lines on a page. The digitalization blurs the definition of the black marks against different hues of red weaving and softens the image. Technology often does that, enlargement loses resolution and moves toward erasure, effacement.Symbols are realities created within the nature of things. The acquired language that Newdigate speaks about and speaks with becomes symbolic of the reality of phallocentric language. These graceful gestures are graphic traces of sounded words introduced to record without interruption of the fluidity of thought of the "dictator". Patriarchal social relations were inscribed in the concept of shorthand. Young women who learned this language of dictation internalized the subservience expected of this relationship. But for most of these women, the damaging result of any colonizing experience is the silencing of one's voice and the resulting fear of speaking. The crisis centers on trying to disentangle one's voice from that of others and find a language where she is represented.
As we have listened for centuries to the voices of mean and women and the theories of development that their experience informs, so we have to come more recently to notice not only the silence of women but the difficulty in hearing what they say when they speak. Yet in the different voice of women lies the truth of an ethic of care, the tie between relationship and responsibility, and the origins of aggression in the failure of connection. (3)
In enlightened practices, it is through symbols that one is awakened and transformed. Newdigate's expression becomes liberatory through a subversion of the language that limited many women and retrieves an identity that has been locked up in the male-centred languages. The alienated space of the periphery is reclaimed here as a space of otherness that allows for us to reflect on the space of the margins, a space altered by the undermining of the oppositional pairing of margin and center. In the unfolding of power inequalities, Newdigate puts the non-Pitman reader in an othered space as she reappropriates the rules to beat the master in his own game. The once oppressive space has been reclaimed as a site for enunciation, an act of cultural re-iteration conventionally relegated to the male.In Newdigate's studio, we sat and talked about her new work titled WOUND. This ambiguous word has become a title which may be read with either of two differing but connected senses; wound as the past tense of the verb "to wind", or gain, as wound, an injury, either verb or noun. If we take the title in its secondary sense, injury or disorder we may follow Mary Daly who says, "we continue to unweave the prevailing dis-order, weaving our way deeper into labyrinth." Newdigate embarked on WOUND, a collaborative project with people who came to the gallery to bring her objects of their own choosing. In a process of simultaneous transformation she draws the objects laid down in front of her to record them in her memory. The object, a surrogate for an intangible, lead the collaborator to begin his or her story. Memory is brought to bear and the narrative joins the rhythm of a winding which takes place with many-coloured threads gathered from Newdigate's studio. The object is collapsed, obscured, and hidden into abstraction as the story enters her listening ears which then find its way into her caring winding hands. Her winding is that of healing. Bandaging memories like dressing a wound. A bond is established, the objects are bound.In WOUND, the threads that weave Ann's tapestry, find their way out of a grid into ordinary objects imbued with the fullness of people's lives. History unfolds in front of her as she actively participates in the making. Translations happen in the process of sharing and exchange and the narratives unravel in different layers and forms of expressions.
In the beginning was not the word. In the beginning is the hearing. Spinsters spin deeper into the listening deep. We can spin only what we hear, because we hear, and as well as we hear. We can weave and unweave, knot and unknot, only because we hear, what we hear, and as well as we hear. Spinning is celebration/cerebration. (4)
The sensuous intelligence of the hands. Violence, death, war find its way into our lives and we create out of this, inspite of this. It is here that art becomes an affirmation of life. History tells us that oppression and injustice have always been there and we speak of the same history over and over again. Repetition is death, death as rebirth. Do we merely contemporize - find a new language to speak about the same kind of oppression? I listen to Queen Matilda and Ann Newdigate. The past is a reminder so I can move towards a future. The present.
1. Martin Heidegger, "Building, Dwelling and Thinking", Heidegger: Basic Writings. Harper and Row, New York 1977. P. 332.
2. Mary Daly in David Levine, The Listening Self, Routledge, London. New York 1989. P.166.
3. Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1982. P.51.
4. Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology, The MetaEthics of Radical Feminism in David Levine, ibid.
Lani Maestro immigrated to Canada from the Philippines in 1982. She lives in Montreal, Quebec. Her installation works have been exhibited in Canada and internationally.