For the past few months I’ve been thinking about a new painting series, “while they sleep.” As bodies, we, throughout history, have sustained an obsession with and desire for difference, whether it be in biblical fables or seen throughout art history. Between dead and alive, male and female, heroic and nefarious, our bodies are posed as oppositional, as that which is different from everything else. The “Power of Women topos” (“Weibermacht”) of the Medieval era tells us there is something comical and/or moralising in allowing a woman to bridge that difference, namely to actively pursue the role of a man. Judith decapitates Holofernes with a sword; Jael takes a hammer and chisel to Sisera’s head; Phyllis rides Aristotle; Delilah slashes Samson’s source of heroic strength; Lucretia seduces and humiliates Virgil; Tomyris requests and is granted the head of Cyrus. Reflecting on some of these religious myths of male and female relationships, while they sleep meditates on the moments women assume power, become the active and heroic bodies, while their male counterparts are weighed by a groggy state of unconsciousness. The dark becomes a liberating interval of reversal: he sleeps, she acts. Frederic Jameson assesses the visual effects of the unwitting male body, the brutish muscles immobile and passive, arguing that there is a “unique dialectical identification with success and failure, transcendence and extinction, life and death.” It is the mass of his heroic figure—the dead weight of his body and the great number of hands that must support it—that turn the male body into a scene of collectivity, of bodies interacting in a single moment. And it is his mass that emphasises her action. Juxtaposing the visual weight of form and the implicational weight of text, Judith, Jael, and Delilah retell the myths of their namesakes, bringing to the light the freedom cries of the dark.
Jael and Sisera
Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620, oil on canvas
Here is one of the poems for the project —
We came to cut off their heads and hold their organs on trial.
Deep thoughts crossed glances perverse voices.
We came in the blinding darkness
with our scissors and man-servants,
Gently fingering the blonde curls and black beards
of our beloved.
We slurped at their skin, all the while bobbing
to the music of the ceiling fan and the frogs up in the branches.
My stomach bubbles out I’m too soft to shake you,
Come smell the tam-tam of your thighs
piercing the satin as you dream of arrows, of retribution.
Come let me squeeze your neck, let me show you euphoria.
I am your desire, and here is my sword.