The Midnight Heart

Speech for the reception of The Little Cage of Ellis Bell

This is a transcription of the speech given at the reception of The Little Cage of Ellis Bell.

The past is another country. They do things differently there.

These words from L. P. Hartley’ The Gobetween are probably a cliché now, and the idea that the past is a faraway country is certainly challenged by Victoria Brookland’s art. No! In Brookland’s images the world of nineteenth century women writers seems very close indeed. Brookland’s pictures hit you in the gut. Each image has a kind of enchantment and magic about it, and this enchantment is very much bound to what it says about women.

Each portrait features a dress, which stands as a ghostly vision, because the dresses are almost never inhabited by people. Brookland signals immediately that her series is not a commentary on real women, but on ideas of what women should be, and often Brookland demands an escape from the stays and strings that bind. In Hawk, in the center of a corset is a keyhole with one minutely written word: “Fly”.

It goes without saying that the modern era has progressed since the nineteenth century, but Victorian ideas especially towards women and their sexuality still dominate aspects of Western culture. The Western world tends to regard the past with a gaze that foregrounds modern civilization and condemns the barbarism of the past, yet so many attitudes to women’s bodies expressed today are reminiscent of Victorian ideas. Women’s bodies are still viewed as objects. Women’s bodies are supposedly easily victimized. Women’s bodies are even at times viewed as duplicitous and untrustworthy. Women’s bodies are too often defined by how they meet patriarchal expectations. Our present moment has not progressed so much that we can gaze on these images without pause, because women’s bodies are still caged by pressures, expectations, conformities. Looking at the artifice of the hairpiece, the crinolines, and corsets on display, can we really say that the modern day is so different with our botox, padded bras, and spanx? Just as bad as these obvious ways that women modify their bodies, however, there are the more insidious prescriptions invested in a view of women as passive, generous, giving, irrational, permeable, compromised.

But Brookland’s paintings are not all doom and gloom, because what the dresses contain has the potential to be so subversive and powerful. Looking around the room, we see a hawk in the dress, a horse in the dress, an eye, a cathedral, a city in the dress, a ship in full sail, a building on fire. If the potential of women, their autonomy, and their desire, were finally released, the whole place might burn to the ground.

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The patriarchal legacy of the nineteenth century is not an innocent subject however, even for women, especially white women, because there is always the uncomfortable presence of imperialism and colonialism. I used Brookland’s image The Peregrine is Stronger in my collection Conquest because it spoke to me about power and domination. The dress has a city built upon it, and the spires and domes recall Western religious and political power, its wealth founded upon the exploitation of developing countries that were seen as barbaric. An eye looks out from a peephole, as if trapped within, but on the right the peregrine falcon wings its way out. The word peregrine originates in peregrinus, Latin for foreign, from per ager, meaning through the field. Brookland seems to say, yes, imperialism offers a kind of power, but the peregrine is stronger in its foreignness, its flight through the field, and away from the European, imperialist nation state.

Brookland is right to draw attention to the problematic aspects of the nineteenth century. Items like this brown silk dress borrowed from our Costume and Textiles Collection have a history bound up with imperialism. One cannot consider the history of silk without recalling imperialist trade and the Silk Road across Asia. The money to buy the brown dress may have directly or indirectly been a gain from the slave trade. There is complicity in such items that provokes uncomfortable thoughts. Yet we might ask ourselves, how progressive is modern society when it comes to eradicating institutional racism, or xenophobia?

So many thoughts are triggered by a dress, a ghostly remnant of an unknown life. This semester my poetry workshop visited our Costume and Textiles Collection, and my students wrote poems inspired by items they saw in the archive. We will proceed now by hearing some of these poems.

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