Emily Hesse: The Witches’ Institution (W.I.) at The Tetley expands on a recent trend amongst contemporary artists who are reimagining witchcraft not as malevolent or evil, but as a form of subversive creative practice. In this show, Hesse reclaims the shadowy figure of the witch as a potent symbol of women’s resistance to exploitative, patriarchal, capitalist systems, and urges us to reconsider our relationship with the land that supports and sustains us.
The exhibition title contains an obvious nod to the ‘Women’s Institute’, a decidedly unwitchy symbol of Western feminine-domestic respectability, and is an ambitious collaboration between interdisciplinary artist Hesse and writer and academic Andrea Phillips. Funded by the Jerwood Tetley Commission, which supports artists and curators based in the North to develop new work, W.I. expands on ideas Hesse has been exploring in her practice over the last ten years, and is her most comprehensive show to date.
Unfired clay is Hesse’s long-term artistic ‘collaborator’, through which she seeks to bring the audience into a more tactile, intimate connection with The Earth. ‘CLAEG’ is a large installation composed of alluvial clay from the Aire and Tees rivers, and blue fire clay from The Tetley site (319,000,000 years old). Cutting through the crumbly soil outcrops are desire lines of damp clay. Each path leads to a large, flat circle, offering up a space for a human body to rest. Hesse invites us to physically interact with the earthscape and, in so doing, to re-consider our relationship with The Earth as another being.
‘CLAEG’ has a dank, metallic smell, as though a rock has been turned over and out from underneath, dark things squiggle. The clay is cooler than I expect, and gives with each step, moulding into the underside of my bare feet. Hesse talks about clay having a memory that stores touch and presence. As I sit and sink into the damp clay, it feels like I’m resting on a giant body, but rather than being warm and alive it’s cold like a corpse. In the end, as Donna Haraway says, ‘We are all compost’, and The Earth, like us, is mortal too.
Emerging out of ‘CLAEG’ is the nine-metre-high ‘Alternative Sky’ (2022). Daubed directly onto the gallery wall in mud that glints gold in the sunlight, it is Hesse’s metaphysical map of the universe, reimagined through ‘the indigenous intelligences of witchcraft’. Bertram Frank, founder of the Ryedale Folk Museum and a major influence on Hesse’s research, argues that witchcraft is a surviving form of ancient indigenous religion in Britain, where reverence for the land was central. Sharon Blackie’s book If Women Rose Rooted (2016) discusses Celtic mythologies, women’s lost histories and contemporary eco-feminist practice; Blackie speaks of the special place for women in ancient societies as guardians of the land. In ‘Alternative Sky’, Hesse imagines a grounded rather than transcendent cosmos, produced through a deep and reverent connection to the 4.5-billion-year-old Earth.
Extending out from the participatory installation in the Atrium is a web of small, dimly lit galleries showcasing a densely curated array of experiments, performances, propositions and flights of fancy. There are found objects, drawings, photocollage and photographs; manifestos and artist’s texts; vitrines containing artefacts, notes, maps and postcards; sculptural objects; essay films, video and sound installations; and moving image by international artists. A beautiful publication, Matters of Being (2022), accompanies the show, which includes documentary photographs, field notes, stories and meditation exercises that explore Hesse’s process of deepening her relationship with the North Yorkshire landscapes she has researched.
In the illustrated video essay ‘Building a Witches’ Institution’ (2021-22), Andrea Phillips discusses witchcraft as women-centred resistance to oppression and exploitation. This connects to the work of Silvia Federici’s Witches, Witch-hunting and Women (2018), in which the author links the persecution of women in the seventeenth-century witch trial era (hunting, torture, forced confessions, trials and public execution) to the state and Protestant church sponsored crackdown on resistance to enclosure in Britain. Enclosure, where common land belonging to rural communities was co-opted by wealthy landowners, marked the beginning of the capitalist system in Britain. For Phillips, magic cannot be ‘enclosed’; belonging to everybody and nobody at the same time, it is a metaphysical ‘common land’ outside of the capitalist system of property, exploitation and profit.
In ‘The Witches’ Manifesto’ (2022), a collaborative text pinned on the wall, Hesse and Phillips elucidate witching as a culturally specific form of radical creative practice. They state that ‘magic does not simply exist in the world: it is a process of making, doing, acting, moulding’. Hesse explores these ideas visually, tapping into the magic of unconscious processes through the Surrealist practice of assemblage. Whimsical, sepia-toned photomontages are displayed alongside an arrangement of found objects. Drawings and black and white photographs are surrounded by abstract symbols, and cryptic text has been painted onto the walls and floor in mud. ‘The Old Wife’ (2019) is an uncanny sepia portrait of a standing stone, clothed in hand embroidered, lace-edged fabric. The contrast between the fragile ephemerality of the fabric and the ancient, durable ‘thingness’ of the standing stone produces a powerful alchemical image. Standing stones have long been anthropomorphised in local legend, with many named after groups of women believed to have practiced witchcraft, for instance ‘The Grey Ladies of Stanton Moor’ in Derbyshire and ‘Long Meg and Her Daughters’ in Penrith.
Hesse’s two-channel film ‘Kissing The Bees’ (2020) draws upon these folk mythologies. One screen follows a beekeeper tending to his hives, ‘the last remaining site of the “round dance”, the coming together of individuals to form an organised unit’. The second depicts another form of care for The Earth as Hesse re-enacts an ancient ritual on the North Yorkshire Moors, accompanied by a soundtrack that is ‘part incantation, part story’, based on the work of Bertram Frank. Atop a remote moorland, a female figure in a diaphanous white gown dresses a group of standing stones, gently fastening their garments with long white sashes. As the film progresses, the distinctions between the stones and the figures they represent begin to collapse, from human to non-human and back again. Three stony figures, cloaked in black, their capes whipping furiously in the wind.
The exhibition touches on the tensions between Hesse and Phillips’s utopian eco-feminist desires and the histories of violence and loss embedded in the topography of the North Yorkshire Moors. These dark themes, combined with Hesse’s muddy monochromatic colour palette and the densely packed curation across the wood-panelled maze of gallery spaces at The Tetley make the exhibition feel introspective and at points claustrophobic. Moors are lonely places, frequently associated with disappearance, malevolence and murder, and one such narrative of oppression and resistance is explored in Hesse’s sculptural sound installation ‘Keld Hare’ (2022). At the centre of the room stands a circular stone bee-bath, lit theatrically with overhead spots that cast geometric lines across the floor. At the bottom of the bowl, bathed in milky water lies a tight fist of uncooked dough. ‘Keld Hare’ tells the story of the shapeshifter Abigail Craster, condemned as a witch for using magical powers to rescue local women from sexual assault perpetrated by the men in their community. Narrated by Hesse, a ghostly feminine presence haunts the edges of the frame. The constant gurgling of the spring in ‘Keld Hare’ echoes the insistent buzzing of the hives in ‘Kissing The Bees’. These elemental forms of white noise conjure anxiety yet are also spellbinding, luring the viewer into a meditative trance.
The curated works move us away from Northern England, across the pond to America, and add a much-needed burst of colour to the proceedings. Ana Mendieta’s film ‘Gunpowder Works (Amana, Iowa)’ (1980), is installed on a large monitor alongside the objects in Hesse’s ‘Witch’s Living Room’, giving it a bodily presence. Onscreen is a scrubby mountain landscape etched with the outline of the artist’s body, a sarcophagus traced in white gunpowder. The image is at once material and ethereal, it judders and vibrates, an effect of the physical motion of the celluloid whirring through the hand-held camera. The gunpowder fiercely erupts in orange flame, then from the white-hot edges blue smoke billows, finally engulfing the frame. Expressing her experiences of displacement and homesickness, Mendieta often references Santerían purification rites in her work. Originating and flourishing in Mendieta’s homeland of Cuba, this syncretic religion with roots in Yoruba beliefs and Catholicism, celebrates deep human connections with The Earth.
The second curated work is ‘Medium Earth’ (2013) by the Otolith Group, installed as a gigantic single screen work in the most generous space outside of the Atrium. This forty-minute essay film maps ‘the seismic psyche of the state of California’, drawing the viewer into a contemplative cinematic experience of all-enveloping, deep and ancient Earth-time. It is often hard to make out the scale of the images onscreen. Ants scurry about and traffic rushes down a highway, flanked by towering cliffs. Frenzied, anxious activity is set against the still and immense desert mountains. In ‘Medium Earth’ the planet is alive, I can feel it breathing. I become aware of a deep hum undulating through the floors like an alternating current. Then a deep jolt, a beeping, a whirring and the interminable hammering of a pneumatic drill. I realise it’s the building works outside, the rattle and hum of Protestant work ethic.
Moving out of the screening space, I wander amongst Hesse’s ‘objects of incantation’, a collection of artefacts made from wax, fat, wood, leather, stone and clay. I am immediately drawn to Hesse’s uncanny ‘visioning balls’, earthly versions of the crystal ball. Made from unfired clay, the artist has lovingly polished each ball for hundreds of hours so that their surfaces are perfectly smooth. They are etched with personal and magical symbols that represent hopes for the future: hearts, lighthouses, a tarot hand, birds, fishes, crosses, suns, moons, sand timers, balloons, kites and rainbows. Materials such as quartz, stones, twine and moss have also been inserted into the spheres to produce uncanny, tactile objects. Visioning is about imagining possible futures, and like ‘Alternative Sky’, these spheres prompt us to look to The Earth for wisdom and guidance, rather than attempting to transcend it. I imagine picking up one of these precious miniature planets, placing it into the palm of my hand and caressing it, protecting it. The Earth holds me; I hold The Earth. We are all compost.
Emily Hesse: The Witches’ Institution (W.I.) is at The Tetley until 18 Sep 2022. It is part of The Tetley Jerwood Commissions programme, supported by Jerwood Arts’ Development Programme Fund.
Joanna Byrne is an artist-filmmaker, writer and creative educator based in Leeds.
This review is supported by The Tetley.