Now women return from afar, from always: from "without," from the heath where witches are kept alive; from below, from beyond "culture"; from their childhood which men have been trying desperately to make them forget, condemning it to "eternal rest."1
— Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa
In January 2016, Julie Hill and Catherine Anyango Grünewald opened the Edwardian Cloakroom in Bristol for hysteria and sorcery. Ladies’ Room was the second in a series of collaborative exhibitions, Crying Out Loud, between the two artists considering fictional representations of femininity and the cultural and historical realities of women’s social and sexual autonomy. The ladies’ room, by its very notion, is a space occupied exclusively by women. Whilst this space may signify one of the two binaries excluding the infinite variations within the sex/gender spectrum, or connote the internalised disciplining gaze which continues to mark woman as the other of man and as the object of scopophilia par excellence — it is, after all, the space where women retreat to powder their noses — it also retains a subversive potential. Hill and Anyango’s take on the ladies’ room demonstrates how an exclusively women’s space may allow for social and political agency free from phallocentric authority and give rise to powerful instances of bonding, solidarity and camaraderie amongst women. In such a setting, stereotypically feminine tropes can be transformed into powerful tools for claiming agency. This potentiality is epitomised by two antiestablishment feminine figures who were also present in Ladies’ Room: the hysteric and the witch.
The exhibition featured two installations, Hill’s It was… and Anyango’s Silent Companion alongside Anyango’s painting series Sanctuaries. It was… derives from Hill’s research into the history of cinematic horror portraying women’s sensitivity to otherworldly resonances and alluding to the instability of the feminine psyche. Silent Companion addresses the history of women’s alternative medicine practices that have subverted anti-abortion laws in the Edwardian era, whereas Sanctuaries makes visible women’s devalued maintenance labour within the domestic sphere.
Hill’s combination of installation and performance filled the Edwardian Cloakroom with smoke, misty mirrors and cryptic messages borrowed from canonical horror films ranging from Suspiria to Poltergeist to Cat People. These messages, carved onto the mirrors and floating through space as gentle whispers, alert their recipients to looming dangers and hint at the anonymous messenger’s magical abilities. Reminiscent of spells, like verbal eruptions of the hysteric’s unconscious at work, the utterances reach beyond the rational and familiar world, calling for the unknown and unpredictable other to surface from within: ‘Reach back into our pasts, when you had an open mind’; ‘I saw the secret behind the door, the iris’, turn the blue one…’
It was… demonstrates how, in the phallocentric symbolic, the imagined bond between femininity and the supernatural marks women as deranged hysterics and powerful witches who, uncontrolled, pose a serious threat to the societal order driven by masculinity. It is men who operate as agents of God reaching for pious spirituality, and as masters of reason, civilisation and culture. In contrast, women’s disruptive power belongs to the menacing nocturnal realm bound to volatile forces of nature — the occult stemming from beneath the earth and connected to the devil. This is why women have for centuries been socially and sexually subdued; to stop them from unleashing their potentially deadly powers as dangerous practitioners of witchcraft.2
The fear of unruly femininity and female sexuality unleashed is outrageously evident in one of Hill’s key references, Dario Argento’s Suspiria from 1977. The film is set in a remote women’s dance academy in the depths of a wild forest in Freiburg. The academy is run by malevolent witches who practice black magic and murder innocent, young women who fit the societal standards of submissiveness, passivity and beauty deemed proper to the female sex in the masculine biblico-capitalist society. Jacqueline Reich argues that, directed during the peak of second wave feminism, Suspiria is a cinematic articulation of masculine anxiety in the face of women’s sexual emancipation.3 It also parallels sorcery and mere belief in magic with hysteria as a form of mental illness.4 Whilst Argento’s film ends triumphantly with the academy bursting into flames and balance being restored as the murdered witches’ corpses burn in their destroyed lair, It was… challenges this conventionally structured narrative. Hill allows the presence of the hysteric and the witch to linger without forceful restraint or a climactic moment of destruction.