Thursday, 25 April 2013

Three Grandfathers- Quiet Heroes of the Western Front

By Ruth Skilbeck

 Grandfather was an officer and a gentleman. He returned from World War 1, a young hero, who had been awarded the Military Cross, and many other medals, for his bravery at Ypres, Passchendaele, leading his battalion, the 38th Battalion, for weeks on end after the Commander had been killed and he, as the Adjutant took over. After the War, he was, in acknowledgment of his extraordinary service, offered a parliamentary position, as Clerk of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. He was offered a position in Canberra, in the Federal parliament, so my mother told us, but Grandmother did not want to leave Sydney. He took up the position in the NSW parliament and every day for all of his working life he travelled to and from the city to their big house on the edge of the gully, on Sydney’s leafy north shore.
     Grandfather was a trim dapper man,  five foot eleven, he had a square, calm, pale face, with intelligent eyes, and a quiet good humoured manner of speaking, he dressed immaculately in three piece suits, bespoke leather shoes that were always well polished, and he never went into the city without his hat, a trilby, and in the inclement season his cream coloured raincoat, and of course always his mahogany-coloured leather briefcase.
     With his highly capable modest ways and scrupulous attention to detail, his selfless devotion to duty, he was a highly respected public servant, who was highly thought of by all, as the booklet that was printed to commemorate his life, when he passed away, twenty years after his retirement shows. Over 15 members of parliament stood up and give speeches in his memory, which are recorded in the book that was given to my mother, and that I keep along with other documents of the family history.

But there was another man, who fought bravely in the war. There was another family. Of the man, who fought bravely and lost an eye, in the same battalion. He was the Sergeant in the same Battalion where Grandfather was the Adjutant. Uncle Jack and Grandfather were good friends. All the Anzacs who went through such hell as the trench warfare on the western front were mates for life, but as Sergeant and Adjutant they had a bond of holding the line together through the hells of Ypres and Passchendaele, that went much deeper than words could ever say.

Chateau Wood Ypres, 1917 Photo: Frank Hurley
 Grandfather and Uncle Jack fought here

     This was a family of three girls and a mother. Three girls, and the eldest was just a couple of years younger than my mother. Three sisters; the middle one, looked quite like my mother, with her black wavy hair, green eyes and high cheekbones. This family lived only a few streets away from Grandmother and Grandfather and my mother when she was growing up. They all went to the same private girl’s school, in spacious grounds not far from the Pacific Highway.

Every Christmas we went to Uncle Jack’s, mother told us, as we were growing up in England. And we had to spend a few hours at their house every Christmas day.  Her voice tended to falter and come to a halt there. What did you do we asked prompting her to continue, helping her to go on.
     Oh we all just sat around the living room. We gave each other presents, she said. There was Aunty K. and the three girls…

Pa, my father’s father also fought in WW1. He was a boy of 16 in Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, when the war broke out and he lied about his age, said he was 18 so he could go and fight for his country. After the war was over, instead of returning to England, he went back to Australia with his ANZAC mates, who he met in the trenches. At least that was never hidden; we knew his story, although his willingness to go off and fight at age 16 was a source of wonder and awe that was somewhat beyond our comprehension as children.  We knew about it, nothing was hidden.
     It was on the colonial Australian family side of my mother's family that the long silence fell.

Those quiet heroes, kept very quiet, and that was probably no doubt to do with the trauma they had suffered in those terrible years.
     There was much that they did not want to talk about or remember, and that included the truth of my mother’s origin, and her own mother who had been eradicated from the records and official history. Yes, there was much else that got swept up into the waves and walls of silence that fell and formed the uneasy muffled backdrop of our colonial families’ lives.

Nobody talked about those things then, and that we, grandchildren, were not allowed to know. It would be many years until I would ever know about the real significance and identity of the mystery man my mother talked about as “Uncle Jack”, and that other family.

Uncle Jack and Grandfather were good friends. All the Anzacs who went through such hell as the trench warfare on the western front were mates for life, but as Sergeant and Adjutant of the 38th Battalion they had a bond of holding the line together.

Ruth Skilbeck.     
From notes for a novel in progress.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Art for Peace in the "War Against Women"

 By Ruth Skilbeck

Visual images of women and girls can be used to subjugate, oppress, and exploit women (through advertising and commodification in consumer capitalism) yet images also document and report the violence; and images that women artists and activists make themselves have the symbolic power to counter and create new levels of acceptance and understanding and liberation of women from tyranny of oppression and violence by agents of death- around the world.

Women contemporary artists around the world are working in the genre of self portraiture, and the politics of the personal, and the effect of the images they create can counteract the objectified representations of women, in what is still largely an “unconscious” subliminal symbolic ‘war against women’ played out through images and visual representation.  Illustrating this post is an image from Australian artist Diane Mantzaris, whose work is also discussed here, in the context of contemporary media iconography and social media and its impacts on changing attitudes to women, in local and global media activism.

Diane Mantzaris
‘Garden of Eve: the Ages of Inhumanity’ 2012
206cm (Height) x 120cm (Width)
C-Type Photograph

This week social media is filled with images and stories of women (and men) who are fighting against violation, and standing up for women’s and girls rights around the world; and stories of women who are being violated by oppressive systems calling to support the women. On this site, this week was published a popular article, in counter-balance against oppression, the story, on this blog, of a trend of women artists, and specifically Australian women contemporary artists who are bravely and proudly using their own bodies in self portraiture, effectively as a powerful means of trying to symbolically change the visual language which has oppressed women – often unconsciously and subliminally through the mainstream and advertising “consumer” media. This has received a tremendously positive response with thousands of page views, and comments of support from around the world on facebook- and some of the responses are documented here.

Social media news this week is full of appalling stories, and graphic images, of violence against women and girls around the world. The horrors women face are shown in graphic images, which are often linked to causes to support through internet petition. From Turkey death threats against Amina, a 19 year old woman who  posted an image of herself bare breasted with the words of protest written on her skin.

Stories and images of routine female genital mutilation from Africa, a 2000-year long cultural practice that is carrying over into England, a gruesome image of a removed cliterectomy, and story that change is coming by increasing the knowledge of women who perform the mutilations, and their awareness of the trauma and physical and mental harm this causes women and girls (so that rather than being supposedly good for them according to tradition it is in fact very bad for them)- so that they make the changes themselves, to drop the practice.

And in the Maldives, the horrific case of the 15 year old raped by her step-father, who gave birth to his child which was murdered by him, and then she was sentenced to 100 lashes in public- with photographs showing this atrocity. This is the most appalling case of blaming and further punishing the victim for their traumatic assault. This has led to calls around the world to boycott Maldives tourism industry, and this has begun in force, with almost 1 and a half millions signatures to an online petition to end public flogging and change the law in the Maldives to better protect victims of rape and sexual abuse.  
These are but three cases in the endless number of stories of ongoing violence in what is known as the war against women.
In all of these cases, and as it has been for thousands of years, in the war on women, it is the centre of the women’s fertility, reproductive systems, and inner world that is the target of attacks, violating women’s bodies, by invasion – just as separately ‘mother earth’ has been, and is still, violated by the invasions of rape by excessive and damaging industrialization and destruction of the environment for profit for a few.

This manifests as dissociation, separation of body and self, of women’s images as objective “representation” – which is also used as a form of attempted colonizing of women’s bodies, and selves – for profit, for instance by advertisers and porn industry. It can lead to traumatic dissociation by those who are subjected to it as a form of internal escape of the trauma. Contemporary medical researchers and psychologists (perhaps surprisingly) admit to very little understanding of ‘dissociation’ and dissociative disorders -of which the dissociative fugue a temporary form of amnesia of self identity is one- yet these are prevalent in contemporary media society that surrounds us: which in itself manifests as dissociative. Social media may help to counteract that by enabling people to express themselves, not as passive recipients, but as active contributors and agents of change.

Now it is time to reclaim what has been repressed: our sexuality, subjectivity our inner world, our fertility our reproductive systems, that are violated by the atrocities we know from the news reports in local global social media. And sadly for so many from personal experiences of traumatic attacks on the self. And at the same time to change and reverse the violations against ‘mother nature’, and show respect and love for what sustains us: our environment, and our mothers. We need to reverse the horrors and appreciate the integrity and strength of the bodies of women and girls- and men and boys, who are also violated in the rape of wars.

That is why the works of the women artists pioneering self-portraiture that counteracts the negativity directed against women through self-based visual symbolism are so important.

As part of the war against women, is the subliminal effect of the violations and repressions that many women and girls around the world, and in the western world internalize. This affects particularly perhaps middle class women in conformist and appearance-based media cultures, who are perpetually worried that there is something “wrong” with their physical appearance, and feel an excessive compulsion to diet or self harm their bodies. Such anxieties and self- doubt also boost the massive cosmetic industries- and as we know amongst biggest growth areas for cosmetic procedures are from western women to modify their own vaginas, as they are fearful and anxious about their own natural shape.  Breast operations, and breast enhancement is another boom area of cosmetic surgery which is fed by women’s anxieties - and also in some cases their own exploitation of their bodies to make money or attract potential suitors, wealthy husbands, which comes from internalization of the values of women’s bodies as commodities- which saturates visual media culture.

Countering this. The therapeutic effect of women making art from their bodies, to express their feelings, and to make political statements, is very powerful. This was pointed out by facebook comments by a counselor, Anni from Finland in discussion on the images by feminist artist Diane Mantzaris, in the article posted on the Daily Fugue this week.
Diane Mantzaris shared her own experiences of censorship and hate mail that has been sent to her that included threats, which she compared to the threats against Amina in Turkey.  Social counselor Anni  Paananen, from Finland, wrote of the enormous good that positive self based imagery of women’s bodies by them selves, does for women and girls. And she focused on this particular powerful goddess like portraits by Diane.

“I'm a child of the 70’s and would probably not know a lot about the issues of the women's movement back then if it wasn't for the fact that we still encounter the same ignorance - not just from men, but unfortunately also from each other. I've had more than one girl crying in my office because she's been called 'c***' (which in Swedish and Finnish is expressed with even more negative emphasis than in English) and for me to be able to turn that argument/reasoning totally around with something familiar also to their mothers - and through ART! - is of great value. I'm happy there are women like Diane today - REAL women - whose actions will have constructive and liberating consequences for more than just one or two generations.”

She continued:

“When I encountered the art of Diane Mantzaris I was thrilled. Of course she is provoking! - there she is, this goddess, and at first You aren't sure she's even real, if her Eve is a photo or a painting, but two things are clear: she's enjoying her own sexuality and You would never let your husband or spouse anywhere near her. Of course it's not in Your interest to dwell upon her sexuality, it scares You to the point where You feel the need to ignore it, but honestly... are You able to? THEN all of a sudden this notion: WHY do I feel threatened? Is it because I'm not like her? Why am I not like her? Would I want to be? And since I'm not? - is it WRONG to be like her? Is it wrong to enjoy my own sexuality as a woman, and to let other women enjoy theirs? And what is even worse: to display oneself on a scene that is not the porn industry! And if it's not wrong, then why is it so difficult? Then on the other hand, maybe to some individuals it really is uninteresting. Then my question would be: if You for some reason all of a sudden were totally prohibited to enjoy sex or even have sex, would You also then be uninterested in the sexuality of others?

I'm a councellor. The young girls I've talked to who cut themselves and starve themselves to punish themselves for being too little this or too much that are numerous. Some of their mothers do it too. We are still not proud to be women, and still far from enjoying our own sexuality and our own bodies. Women still meet ignorance from men, and what is worse - we meet ignorance from each other. I wish we could turn it around! - like Diane tries to do within the artscene: reclaim her own - and our! - given birthright

In the war against women, the struggle may be won through changing the “symbolic order” to adapt a term used by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, describing language and its effect in constructing the social world of culture that we live in and internalize. How to do this literally and symbolically is by women themselves changing the way women’s images are visually manifested in cultural form, through embodiment of self-expression, and through making interventions in the language of art, and the media. By women taking control, and standing up for themselves, and by the oppressed (women and men) supporting each other.

Resisting oppression of women and girls, and fighting repression of women’s bodies and selves, sexuality and subjectivity, and control of reproductive systems, are issues and a struggle that women around the world, and men who support humanity, can unite on and oppose the agents of death. That way we can make change and create a better world for us all to live in together. Thank you again and kudos to those brave women artists and activists around the world who are doing that now and leading the way forward to change.

Ruth Skilbeck  28.3.2013

Writing Girl-Machine: the inner journey is hard.

By Ruth Skilbeck

 I wrote this a few days ago, before the piece on Sex, Art and the Inner World, and am publishing it now here as part of the documentation of writing of the inner world, subjectivity and desire and the social, in Girl-Machine my novel in progress. After I wrote these notes (quoted below), I read the article on changing attitudes to women’s sexuality through history, which was very relevant to my thoughts recorded here, about my ancestors, and anxieties, also documented here were somewhat allayed. The experience of doing this writing, about the inner world and experiences of the self, in social contexts, has increased my awareness of how hard this can be emotionally. It increased my deep appreciation of the women artists working in all media, who create self-based art, that presents ‘naked’ reflections of themselves, honestly explores representations of sexuality, sexual selves, and female subjectivity, as personal experience and art reflection, as political and social, and their bravery in raising our level of consciousness on the social level through their doing so.

In effect it’s a way of literally and symbolically “occupying” the bodies of women that have been represented as ‘objects of desire’ by male artists throughout art history, as projections of male artists’ perceptions and devoid of female subjectivity.  Women artists are reclaiming female bodies, as their own subjects, and part of this is reflection and interrogation of the issues to do with “the gaze” – such as this article.

Diane Mantzaris,
Refugee: Slaves of State, 2012,
206cm (Height) x 120cm (Width)
C-Type Photograph

The power and value of this is that it counters the dissociation of contemporary society, and modernity which is literally and symbolically manifest in the mass media, and our largely unconscious ingestion of images, of representations of women as sexualized objects in advertising, mass media, and porn, that are dissociated from the people who are represented and the people who make the images- to make profit in capitalist consumer media society. The effects and affects of this dissociation is manifest and articulated by countless individuals around the world in symptoms of internalized anxiety and phobias about their own bodies, selves, and relations with others, creating barriers to real communication and meaningful relationships, in the cultures of neo-liberalism and consumer capitalism which create casualization in the workplace and in personal intimate relations between people. These are connected, through the unconscious feelings we have about ourselves, and our own self confidence and values about what is meaningful in life, appearance – and certain kinds of objectified “approved” appearance- has far too much “value” attached in the media cultures that are sponsored and fed and manipulated by advertising and vested profit interests in the products and ideologies re-presented and reproduced in media cultures.

Through women artists reclaiming the right to self-representation, and doing this they reposition the personal as political, and representations of desire as social, and their art counters the commodification and objectification of women that oppresses and subjugates women (and men) around the world. The processes of engaging with these artists and their works, and the wider social issues of the importance of women documenting and recording their own experiences, as personal reflection and art, for the purposes of raising awareness of consciousness of humanity and countering the agents of oppression of women, has also strengthened my faith in what I am doing in my writing, and its legitimacy, and driven away the temporary anxieties of creating this new work.  

Together we can create change, through mutual support and building community strength.

So I am continuing to write Girl-Machine, and it is almost finished.   I am publishing these notes from the moment of doubt to show that it is ok to have moments of doubt, it is part of the process of creating, and all artists have to face and find ways of dealing with this. My way here, is to make public as part of the process of writing, the notes and anxieties that are usually left out of public view, and excluded, so that the art work arrives as finished product, a fait accompli dissociated from the labour, sweat, pain and human toil of the process that created it and gave it birth.

I believe that part of the social and personal value of art is the connection it enables both audience and artists to the source of our humanity, what makes us human, our deepest selves, and our feelings, through communication- on a real level. So as part of this, I am sharing some of the inner journey of the process of making a work of self-based art from written language, concepts, memories, desire, and reflection on how women, and young women experience and live in society.

This is in contrast to the myth of the independent woman as “cold, inaccessible, and free” which was the way in which artist Tamara de Lempicka was described by her daughter, Kizette, in her self portrait (Autoportait in the Green Bugatti, 1925)  in the “machine age”, of the 1920s, driving her car: "The self-portrait of Tamara de Lempicka is a real image of the independent woman who asserts herself. Her hands are gloved, she is helmeted, and inaccessible; a cold and disturbing beauty [through which] pierces a formidable being—this woman is free! “This is also a myth I seek to explore, and puncture, in Girl-Machine, in London in the media consumer culture of 1980s when: “The ultimate kick is to remain completely impervious, to feel nothing, as the other person falls utterly in love with your; as remote, uncaring and invulnerable as a machine.” (Girl-Machine).

Saturday 16 March 2013 

Writing the inner journey is hard

It’s hard to remain or keep trying to remain conscious, and to be aware of how one feels, and try to have some understanding of where this is coming from.

It’s hard, and I am having a lot of difficulty over the past two or three days with barriers that have come up in my writing, of my inner censor, and I admit it is fear, that is causing some apprehension of the reception of my work if I publish writing on sexuality, and consciousness and subjectivity. This happened before when the Breakfast with Monica story was published. I was so apprehensive of the reception it did not make me feel good that it was published but instead extremely anxious (even though it had a nom de plume. That was when my marriage was ending). And even though I was writing about sexuality from a woman’s perspective that grounded the sexual act in human reflection.
Even though this was my aim and intention in writing this book (Girl –Machine) now I am doing it, and writing it, I am being overcome by the same anxiety and fear.

And this is despite the good conversations on Facebook that have been triggered by my article on women artists censorship and the comments of how much we need to have women artists and mother artists making art about these very things that I am tackling in my book- female sexuality, bodies, consciousness, subjectivity and how women cope in the world we live in, I am doing all that and have had such positive response that shows this is so needed – because not many are doing this especially in Australia where art is censored silently (and self-censored).

This should make me feel like I am doing well that I am able to write about it in my book in progress. But instead I have been paralysed by inner doubts- even to the degree of today hours of agonizing over what would my ancestors (from the 18th century!) have thought about my writing about sexuality? And seriously worrying about what their ghosts and ancestor-spirits would think and are thinking now about my writing the novel Girl Machine? (As there is now some small reference I made to them in the Dublin section). And instead thinking that I should write a “proper” book, novel - historical interweaving about them and my search to find my lost ancestry which I have now, and not bother with the little novel first person novels I have been “working on” for so long in my “inner writing” and my novels that never get published, as I have not even tried to publish them.

This whole rumination fear stopped me in my tracks yesterday, which was the day that I had planned to finish the novel and send it to the publisher. 
It is now after 5 in the morning and I have been awake all night.
The thing that made me feel a little better was reading an article that my friend Karen linked to on her blog that I saw in blog feed about kundalini bad sex experience written by a woman who writes about and lives the SM B and D lifestyle. Not that my book is about this- but what she was writing about the experiences of inner consciousness in the body was very interesting and human and made me feel more human.
This shows me, must show me that this is the value of my writing that I have been trying to do, too.
It is the difficult hard things that trouble us, that are those that we or I must tackle as by doing so what I write may have value and meaning for others, that may help them to feel more human too. Writing about sexuality with human awareness and reflection, has this power, and it is so much needed as sexuality women’s sexuality has been hijacked for the centuries of modern life, and not just women’s in objectifying men are also losing out on their chance to experience deeper meaning within them selves, and …..
on it goes.

When I research my ancestors what I see is that they loved each other, they had fulfilling happy lives as they loved each other and were loyal to each other.
And I think that in my life the modern lives in modernity we have lost that.
They had better lives then.

I know I am being negative, I am negative I can only write this and I am trying to do what? Not trying to work through it I am just off loading some negativity. Because it’s another dark night of the soul and I am alone in the cottage in the middle of the night with a head that is ringing with pressure and pain.

3/23/13 5:39 AM

A few late nights later, I am very excited to find in my internet research images of both Andrew Hastings Doyle and Sophia Isabella Doyle (nee Norris)  - my x 7 great grandfather and grandmother (political exiles, Andrew was exiled to Australia for life for his part in the Irish Uprisings around 1798, Sophia Isabella who was of Hugenot descent and, according to one story I have read related to Irish aristocracy, went with him and with their 3 young children, as a free settler and fee paying passenger). There is a photograph of Andrew that must be one of the earliest taken in Australia in the early 19th century, and a portrait he painted of Sophia Isabella, he was an artist and printmaker, by profession.
I will publish these images in the Daily Fugue soon, writing on their story, in the further ongoing unfolding of my story of finding my motherline.

Andromeda (also known as The Slave) by Tamara de Lempicka.
Andromeda was a popular subject of 19th century painting, represented by male artists. In the classical Greek myth Andromeda was chained to a rock on the coastline as a sacrifice to a sea monster sent by Poseidon to avenge her mother’s hubris in declaring her daughter to be more beautiful than the sea nymphs.
Tamara de Lempicka was a refugee, exile from the Russian revolution, and in her later works she also painted refugees of the German Holocaust.

*Refugee: Slaves of State by Diane Mantzaris
The work has visual references to the Andromeda myth and its representations- by Tamara de Lempicka in her Andromeda (also known as The Slave) - and is a feminist, politically aware counterpoint to the 19th century male artists' representations of the myth of Andromeda, a popular subject of 19th painting represented by male artists.

Diane Mantzaris has an émigré background.

de Lempicak-Foxhall, Baroness Kizette (1987), Phillips Charles, ed., Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka, New York: Abbeville Press, p. 77