I became inspired to write this piece by a rather disparate selection of influences: the Golden Years permanent exhibit at the Te Papa Tongarewa museum in Wellington, Giacometti’s Women of Venice sculptures, and a photocopy of an old poster from the early 1900s.
I had been aware of Giacometti’s striking sculptures of emaciated figures, but hadn’t seen them in the flesh until the beginning of this year at an exhibition in Christchurch. I was particularly enamoured with Women of Venice, an apparently loosely arranged group of stationary female figures all facing straight ahead in a mesmerising and somewhat disarming display of trance-like fixed focus. I imagined a similar group of performers stationed about the stage like petrified soldiers risen from a swamp, who then come to life at random and begin to channel voices from their pasts. This idea of channelling voices was also inspired by the Golden Years exhibit, where museum patrons are lead into an old junk shop that has closed down for the day, only to find items in the shop seemingly coming to life in a display of a potted history of New Zealand.
I then came across a copy of Henry Wright’s infamous poster from the early 1900s cautioning women to abandon exercising any political assertions whatsoever. The poster read:
Notice to EPICENEWOMEN Electioneering Women are requested not to call here
They are recommended to go home, to look after their children, cook their husbands’ dinners, empty the slops, and generally attend to the domestic affairs for which nature intended them.
By taking this advice they will gain the respect of all right-minded people – an end not to be attained by unsexing themselves and meddling in masculine concerns of which they are profoundly ignorant.
Henry Wright, 103 Mein Street, Wellington
I found the poster amusing in its ridiculousness, and played with the words so as to make nonsense of them, or to blatantly give them a feminist angle. Here is an example of one of the tweaked versions:
Notice to Sloppy Children Affairs of sloppy husbands are requested not to attend Wellington.
They are recommended to unsex their meddling masculine nature and generally concern themselves in their profoundly ignorant nature.
By taking this advice they will slop their children’s dinners by unsexing themselves – an end not to be attained by cooking their children or Henry Wright.
I also used John Cage’s method of ‘reading though’ the text using a mesostic with the words “EPICENEWOMEN”, as he did with James Joyce’s Finnegan’s “Wake” in his Roaratorio: an Irish Circus on Finnegan’s Wake (but using the name JAMESJOYCE).
Despite my amusement, I was struck by the use of the word “epicene” in the poster. It implied that women who involved themselves in politics must not really be women, renouncing their sexuality so as to cause infinite trouble with all the devilish potency of a coven of Lady Macbeths. Similar attitudes still exist today, particularly amongst women, and there is still an apparent suspicion of ‘tomboys’ as well as a tug of war between traditionalism and feminism within individuals. It is this ironic fact that interests me the most – that, despite the extraordinary amounts of courage and hard work from women of the past to be seen as equals with men, many women today unwittingly foster oppression by adhering to gender steriotypes.
In this piece I’ve played with aspects of bitchiness, misogyny, sadness, political fieriness, the natural unaffectedness of growing up rurally, the silliness yet appeal of TV commercials, the comfort of crackly old radio songs, and the determination and single-mindedness of women intent on having their voices heard. I’ve also been interested in the potential for double meanings by setting the texts in certain ways, an example being Helen Clarke’s statement about the struggles of her early parliamentary days being sung by the baritone voice. I consider this a rejection of the notion that all people must tidily fit into the category of male or female and therefore must at all times show undeniable evidence either way.