Ecofeminist Art: on the concepf of heritage
A paradoxical definition: what is ecofeminist art?
“Women, natives and animals have no history” Rosi Braidotti
“Where, then, the voice of the unheard melody? And the voice of the unheard language?” St. Hildegard of Bingen
Naming what is and what is not ecofeminist art confronts various paradoxes. The first is that it risks advancing the idea that contemporary women artists as a gendered category carry a shared vision and sensibility toward nature, which is different from that of men. It perpetuates a kind of “gender essentialism” which is incompatible with the logic of ecofeminism itself.
The term eco-feminism, coined by Françoise d’EaubonneFrançoise d’Eaubonne, Le féminisme ou la mort (Paris: Pierre Horay, 1974). in 1974, describes the wide range of women’s efforts to protect the environment and unearth the historical roots of prejudices against themselves and nature. It calls for a cultural transformation in society and a renewed vision of both.Women artists are considered ecofeminist because their work directly relates to the environment and to the roles of women in society and because they raise awareness of specific ecofeminist issues, while implying that if all life is interconnected, then no group of people— whether they are women or men—can be closer to nature. However, it is no coincidence that contemporary art in the Anthropocene features a growing number of women artists. Nor is it an accident that many male artists are contributing to the wider ecofeminist discourse even if inadvertently.
If the term ecofeminism seems redundant in many ways—since feminism always carries an ecological import—then it can also be said that much of what we consider contemporary art is closely associated with, if not initiated, by the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Identity-based art, crafts-based art, body art, collaborative working methods, as well as the socio-political concerns of the representation, ideology, and iconology of violence— to name but a few—are all feminist introductions that have been assimilated by contemporary art at large.
Even more crucial to the current debate around an ecological revision is identifying the “dynamics—largely fear and resentment—behind the dominance of male over female is the key to comprehending every expression of patriarchal culture with its hierarchical, militaristic, mechanistic, industrial forms.”Charlene Spretnak, “Ecofeminism: Our Roots and Flowering,” Elmwood Newsletter 4 (1988): 1, quoted by Janis Birkeland in “Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice,” Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature, ed. Greta Gaard (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993). As Engels puts it, “the first class oppression [is] that of the female sex by the male sex”Friedrich Engels, “Transformation of the family,” in A Modern Introduction to the Family, eds. N. W. Bell and E. F. Vogel (New York: The Free Press, 1960), 52. and as Silvia Federici stresses, “capitalist development begins with a war on womenSilvia Federici, “Undeclared War: Violence Against Women,” Artforum 55, no. 10 (Summer 2017): 282.."
Much of what we consider to be the latest cultural developments have to do with gains in the feminist project for equality and a general review of the values associated with femininity and virility. Olivia Gazalé analyzes that to be a man is not only to be “not a woman” but, far more problematically, not to be “effeminate.” The viriarchal system does not only organize relationships between the sexes, and between species, but extends to ordering relations of domination between men themselves: to be a man is to dominate. Therefore, Gazalé writes, the historic reduction of women has not only oppressed women and allowed the exploitation of nature, but also alienated men from themselves, as men who are “other” or “sub-men.” According to Gazalé, “It is under the effect of its own internal logic, rather than merely under the pressures posed by the feminist movement, that it has entered a crepuscular phaseOlivia Gazalé, Le mythe de la virilité. Un piège pour les deux sexes (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2019).."
Putting aside the question of whether Gazalé’s prophecy applies on a global level, I would argue that thanks to a series of “entanglements” we are now witnessing a review of the values upon which patriarchy and capitalism are erected and, in the cultural domain, the dawn of a Feminine era. The assertion of “difference” explored by ecofeminist art, is therefore not merely biological, but based on the historical socialization and oppression of women or of values associated with femininity.
The second paradox when naming ecofeminist art is understanding it as a contemporary feminist invention when, in fact, cultural/spiritual ecofeminism is firmly rooted in and connected to the very first expression of what it means to be human—deep in the caves of the Upper Paleolithic—or even deeper still in human origin stories.
In an essay in Mousse magazineAlice Bucknell, “The New Mystics: High-Tech Magic for the Present,” Mousse, no. 69 (Fall 2019), Alice Bucknell defines a generation of artists who invest mystical parafiction with a critique on the violent superstructure of patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, and the resulting ecological crisis. Different to previous twentieth century utopian projects (think Buckminster Fuller), or illustrative “appropriation” of a “symbolic shaman” (think Joseph Beuys), these artists reclaim their heritage and transcend their history of abuse, ready to unleash infinite possibilities for a “new world” through psychedelic performances and immersive experiences. The use of pagan worship sites, ancient tongues, quasi-religious deities, and forgotten origin stories leave no space for nostalgia. Like the stories that inspired them, they are part of an oral tradition— and thanks to technology—their immersive, interactive installations are continuously readapted and allowed to grow and transform accordingly.
Rewriting the missing pages of history, accessing new representations
Oral tradition, as opposed to historical documents, is paramount here because culture, as in “the intelligence of past men,” is passed on not in ashes but as living fire.
In On the Concept of History, Walter Benjamin warned us: “History is written by the victors.” This is why feminists speak of “His-tory.” Indeed, “historical scholarship, up to the most recent past, has seen women as marginal to the making of civilization and as unessential to those pursuits defined as having historical significanceGerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 4. With her course “Great Women in American History,” which she taught in 1963, Gerda Lerner is recognized as the founder of the discipline of women’s history.." Ecofeminist art faces this challenge. Relying as it does on the missing pages of women’s history, it is not rooted in His-tory, but in Heritage, as the lasting ethos of the occulted and suppressed history of half of humanity.
In addition to that of women, the history of natives and animals was never recorded, but Leonard ShlainLeonard Shlain, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (New York: Viking Press, 1998). proposes that the written language, in its linearity from left to right—at least in the Western world—literally before and after, presents constraints that are antithetical to the very formulations and expression of some ideas and notions, like principles of simultaneity, multiplicity, and immanence, that are central to ecofeminist art. Shlain makes connections across a wide range of subjects including brain function, anthropology, history, and religion, and argues that literacy reinforced the brain’s linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, iconic feminine right one. Shlain points out that the first book to be written, the Old Testament, banned any visual representation of god, suppressing longstanding artistic traditions of devotion to the goddess, and believes that the increasing use of images and icons as means of communication, play fundamental roles in human consciousness, with inevitable repercussions on gender identity and relations.
The medium is the message. Ursula Le Guin also maintains that the way we tell stories has feminist implications for understanding history and for imagining the future. In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Le Guin proposes that storytelling has not always been about a hunt with a beginning, middle, and end, but can be a meandering sweep—a gathering.
Indeed, ecofeminist art plays an important role, not only because it tells what history cannot, but because identifying totems, symbolisms, and creeds adopted by male and female artists often working in oppressive regimes, reveals and reawakens a conception of Nature that pushes beyond the physical realm and extends into a broader super-natural dimension—a sacred living energy of the cosmos.
By resurrecting ancient belief systems which have been bleached out of history and adopting and activating speculative worlds, contemporary artists are questioning systems of knowledge—biology, ecology, geology, and anthropology— moving beyond the supremacy of the visual and the constraints of language, and immersing the viewer (or feeler?) into a “liminal space.”
This space is removed from the biases and prejudices in which human utterance is soaked and allows sensation to disrupt and expand human consciousness. In this sense, progress is understood not as the increase of knowledge, but as freeing it from its wrappings.
Feminist art’s emphasis on the body is therefore crucial. As Hildegard of Bingen wrote a thousand years ago, “we understand so little of what is around us, because we do not use what is within us.” Donna Haraway also appeals for the introduction of a feminist epistemology, providing the ground upon which contemporary artists are formulating a newly “inclusive aesthetic”Nicolas Bourriaud, Inclusions. Esthétique du capitalocène (Paris: PUF, 2021). aimed at disrupting the canon.
Since feminist artists resurrected the figure of the goddess as an archetype for feminine consciousness and a model for re-sacralizing women’s bodies and the mystery of human sexuality, far from the simple idolization of women, the figure of the goddess became a symbol of life, connection, and responsibility. In large part thanks to the pagan Wicca movement, the goddess became a catalyst for an emerging earth-centered spirituality, and a metaphor for the Earth as a living organism. Ecofeminist theorist Carolyn Merchant powerfully demonstrates how the interchangeable view of women and nature will inform and allow the scientific revolution’s project for the subjugation and exploitation of both, providing the ground for contemporary capitalism. Merchant highlights the misogynist language adopted by Francis Bacon, one of the founders of modern science—“I am come in very truth leading you to nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave”—and the implication of René Descartes’s view of human bodiesCarolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1980)..
Susan Bordo describes the process of detachment from an organic world, as a “drama of parturition,” “an acute historical flight from the feminine, from the memory of union with the maternal world and a rejection of all values associated with it,”Susan Bordo, The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987).which is replaced by an obsession with distance and demarcation. “The machine to make the new man was also a machine to kill old women.”
In a multi-sensory installation entitled Tremble Tremble, Jesse Jones awakens the voice of Lucy, our three million-year-old Australopithecus ancestor, the voices of the sixteenth century witch trials, and the contemporary voices concerning the legal issue of abortion in Ireland. Jones draws from her research into the way the law transmits memory between generations and intimates an alternative original history for women under “The Law of In Utera Gigantae”—a symbolic, gigantic body that places the maternal body above the law and state entirely. In the installation, the giant declares: “Before the Book of the Law was written in earthly tongues, there existed another law, passed down through generations, daughter to daughter. Its letters were written in milk and spoken in whispers.”
The revelation of a “mother right” that was not confined to any particular people but marks a global cultural stage was widely accepted in the nineteenth century, but became systematically hidden until recently. Emanuele Coccia writes that the exclusion of women from participating in culture has had profound repercussions on our perceived position in the web of life. “This is what it means to be born: to be impure, to not be ourselves, to have within us something that comes from elsewhere... We carry within us our parents, our grandparents, their parents, prehuman apes, fish, bacteria, all the way down to the smallest atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, etc.”Emanuele Coccia, Metamorphoses, trans. Robin Mackay (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2021).
The Inquisition was not only instrumental to capitalism because it allowed the appropriation of women’s reproductive rights and landSilvia Federici, Caliban et la sorcière. Femmes, corps, et accumulation primitive (Paris: Entremonde/ Senonevero, 2004)., but because the witches’ view of nature was anti-hierarchical and their world infused with spirits. Every natural object, every animal, every tree contained a spirit whom the witch could summon at will, hence, the witch, a symbol of the violence of nature, was to be eradicated.
The old name for “witch” indicates a longstanding tradition of oracular ceremonies in communion with the earth. When addressing the global history of women’s spiritual leadership, Max Dashu, founder of the Suppressed Histories Archives, wrote that we lack adequate terms to describe the breadth of heritages and practices of “women priestesses” and that their varied range of titles open up a wider array of culturally-defined meanings and roles. Shaman, medicine woman, diviner, spirit-medium, oracle, sibyl, and wise woman, but also ethnic titles such as machi, sangoma, eem, babaylan, and mae de santo offer us only a glimpse of a vast global picture where women are spiritual leaders. Hence the mistake in reducing witches to their history of persecution.
In contrast, Marguerite Humeau’s online sound piece Weeds pays homage to the history of all women healers whose contribution to science was omitted through history, inventing names for those whose identity remains sealed; CosmosEmma Kunz Cosmos, A Visionary in Dialogue with Contemporary Art, Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau, Switzerland (February–May 2021)., an exhibition by the artist and healer Emma Kunz, invites contemporary women artists to expand on her practice and conception of art incorporating medicine and nature, as well as the supernatural, magical, animistic, and visionary; the exhibition Rituel.le.sRituel.le.s, Institut d’art contemporain, Villeurbanne/ Rhône-Alpes (October 2020–March 2021). examined feminist ritual and the power of transformation of the self and the world as the basis of collective emancipation, presenting, among others, Ana Mendieta’s now iconic Siluetas series, where the artist uses her own body in an attempt to permanently merge with nature, and Suzanne Husky’s video Earth Cycle Trance. This work offers the viewer a spellbinding meditative experience on the cycles of living things, performed by the Wicca spiritual leader and witch, Starhawk.
Reviving the mythology of the feminine
Korean-Canadian artist Zadie Xa also resurrects Korean shamanism as a uniquely feminist and anti-colonial culture. “The shaman is a grandmother, and she’s me. I think about these things generationally: how does this knowledge of self pass on to your descendants and continue into the futureZadie Xa, “Art is a Shapeshifter: Zadie Xa in conversation with Sarah Shin,” Remai Modern, December 17, 2020. ?" Korean mythology and storytelling are central to her immersive multimedia experiences and so is the oceanic depth as a state of tension, a stream of ever-mutating, emergent patterns. In a sub-aquatic environment, Xa revives the Korean spirit Magohalmi and channels her energy with the tale of J2/Granny, a real-life orca known to have guided her pod with her survival skills until her death in 2016 when she would have been, according to scientists, between 80 and 120 years old. In Moon Poetics 4, Courageous Earth Critters and Dangerous Day Dreamers (2020), Xa invites the audience to become the protagonist in the shamanic tale of Princess Bari who travelled to the underworld in search of life-saving water to cure her dying parents. Guided by five beings—Conch, Orca, Seagull, Cabbage, and Fox—the fantastical journey through multiple dimensions is underscored by the damage caused by humankind’s impact on the sea, air, and land and the interconnectedness of every form of life on Earth.
As Nicolas Bourriaud writes, “recent evolutions of mentalities, in particular with regard to the history of colonized peoples or the advances of feminism, allow us to rewrite the history of artNicolas Bourriaud, Inclusions. Esthétique du capitalocène (Paris: PUF, 2021). ."
Yet, positioning women alongside or after minorities is sometimes confusing. Far from being a minority, women represent nearly half of the world’s population and the majority of colonized cultures can be regarded as an example of egalitarian societies, where women’s contribution is valued just as much as man’s. Within aboriginal traditional knowledge—usually described as holistic, involving body, mind, feelings, and spirit—women hold equal power to men, play central roles in almost all creation legends, and are deeply involved in the transmission of traditional teachings. A degradation of the role of women was also a consequence of the Spanish Conquest. When Western theorists have reported on traditional societies, cultural and sexist biases have interfered, and most accounts attribute these traditional art activities to women only by implicit assumption. Yet, “The Western notion of ‘primitivism’ should not be confused with the artistic expression of fully developed cultures of the pre-technological worldJean Feinberg, Lenore Goldberg, Julie Gross, Bella Lieberman, and Elizabeth Sacre, “Political Fabrications: Women’s Textiles in Five Cultures,” Heresies 1, no. 4, (Winter 1977–78): 28., and behind the simplistic definitions of Navajo weavings for instance, hides what Donna Haraway calls a “cosmological performanceDonna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).."
In Navajo culture, prayers to Hózhó traditionally accompany weaving. Translated as beauty or harmony, to be “in Hózhó” is to be at one with and part of the world around you. Donna Haraway goes on to say that “weaving patterns propose and embody world making and world-sustaining relations.” The inherent “sensibility” of the cosmos stories such as The Changing Woman, The Holy Twins, The Spider Woman (who is said to have created weaving), and Holy People, is the pattern for right living. “Weaving is neither secular nor religious; it is sensible. It performs and manifests the meaningful lived connections for sustaining kinship, behavior, relational action—for hózhó— for humans and nonhumans. Situated worlding is ongoing.”Ibid.
The resurrection of women’s traditional practices by the feminist art movement in the 1970s today goes beyond recognizing women’s participation in culture and society at large but proposes to resurrect belief systems we have otherwise very few words to describe. Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks of over 350 indigenous languages in the Americas that are on the verge of disappearing, including her native Potawatomi. While English is a noun-based language (where thirty percent of words are verbs), in Potawatomi seventy percent of words can be conjugated to be both animate and inanimate. For example, to be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday are all possible verbs, revealing a “grammar of animacy.” “The arrogance of English is that the only way to be animate, to be worthy of respect and moral concern, is to be a humanRobin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013).." Kimmerer advances, “That’s where I really see storytelling and art playing that role, to help move consciousness in a way that these legal structures of rights of nature makes perfect senseJames Yeh interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer, “People can’t understand the world as a gift unless someone shows them how,” Guardian (May 23, 2020).."
An inclusive and holistic view of the world
Presently, the legal system rests upon anthropocentric beliefs, as Isabelle Stengers points out: “the invention of the power to confer on things the power of conferring on the experimenter the power to speak in their nameIsabelle Stengers, The Invention of Modern Science (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 89.. Donna Huanca questions systems of knowledge, drawing upon the indigenous imaginary and the animist belief that all forms of existence have within them a vital affecting force. In futuristic-prehistoric scenarios, bodies fluctuate freely into a slow-paced choreography made of private rituals and meditations that are then shared in the group. Paintings, sculptures, and performers are all permeated with cosmic pigments, unifying the animate with the inanimate, the human with the mineral, the organic with the synthetic. When asked whether the vibrant blue in her work references Yves Klein’s blue, Huanca declined to place her work within art historical narratives. Her role is instead to experiment with visions of what a feminized future would look like, what it would value. “For me,” she says, “that looks like care, trust, community, the natural world, and the interconnectedness and dependence of bodies with the natural worldLindsay Preston Zappas, “Interview with Donna Huanca,” Carla, no. 17 (October 15, 2019).." It is easy to overlook how many women artists have also proposed a similarly inclusive, non-anthropocentric vision of the world. In The Language of the GoddessMarija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991)., Marija Gimbutas maintains that the goddess of nature is the lasting ethos of what can be regarded as the civilization of the goddess. Not a religion per se but a “Sensible Way” that is especially alive within the agricultural beliefs of those rural places that have been shielded from history’s great events. The archaic aspects that concern agriculture and the periodic need to renew the generative processes of nature, live on in the present, “passed on by the grandmothers and mothers of the European family.” Much of the symbolism of the early agriculturists is inherited from hunters, such as images of fish, snakes, birds, horns, eggs, and geometrical signs that are seldom abstract in any genuine sense but refer to natural elements. Several types of symbols are tightly interwoven and stem from a holistic perception of the world where humans are not isolated from their surroundings and it is normal to find power in stones, birds, and all the natural elements.
Suzanne Husky recently appeared on a podcast series with Hervé Coves, a Franciscan and agricultural engineer, in the attempt to explain the connection between symbols, myths, the cycles of the Earth, and spirituality. On her website she quotes David Abram, “Only when the written text began to speak did the voices of the forest and the river begin to fade.”
Mathilde Rosier creates suspended environments that allow viewers to lose their perception of time and space, offering an entry into other possible dimensions of being and existence. In a performance recorded before the opening of Impersonal Empire at Galleria Raffaella Cortese, two dancers repeatedly removed the letters and signs on the floor, and waltzed across the rooms, surrounded by paintings where underwater creatures—half women, half shells, fish, and other marine beings—emerge from the subconscious as fully formed images. “The viewers bear witness of a birth, the budding of a new language and thus that of a new reality, yet one that is too young to be codifiedMathilde Rosier, Impersonal Empire, The Buds” (press release), Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan (2018).."
Taiwanese artist Charwei Tsai inscribes Buddhist scriptures that distil the wisdom of impermanence on organic materials, such as an octopus, plants, and tofu. Central to her practice is the relationship between humans and nature, death and rebirth, and the symbiotic relationship between sustainability, tradition, and ritual, often explored in collaboration with indigenous communities of her home country.
Romana Londi folds time to its extremities and, inspired by ancient rituals of the sun, such as Newgrange in Ireland, the artist reflects on the state of alienation inherent in Jet-Lag, as the physiological hangover of the Great Acceleration, and the newly globalized, digital world. Romana Londi pushes the boundaries of painting and creates reactionary, sensual, utterly sentient beings that respond to their immediate surroundings, through chameleonic shifts in color activated by UV light, the “invisible” primary condition for the possibility of life on Earth. Her works are perpetual renegotiations that resist any description. As Pierre Huyghe says of his early works, it is less “a question of ‘process,” which is too linear, but of a “vibrating temporality.” Again, “situated worlding is ongoingHaraway, Staying with the Trouble.."
Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Times, Living in the Age of Uncertainty defines a generation whom, just like the first nomadic humans, is living in the permanence of transitoriness. Bauman distinguishes between the alienation of modern man, who was a pilgrim looking for his new home, and the postmodern man, a tourist who is aware that his life will never amount to anything solid.
Perhaps art in the Anthropocene is a series of slippery steps toward a home, yet a home that, like the bottom of the ocean, becomes a state of tension. The body becomes the portal through which one can immerse oneself into a sea of possibilities. The body itself contains symptoms and traces of these possibilities that, like tiny fish, escape language and the purely visual in favor of a consciousness that can only be revealed to us within the dark experience of the body.
As Rosi Braidotti writes, matter matters. “The body needs to be understood as a self-organising body, yet the limits of one’s skin – porous, highly intelligent, which processes information as we go– these are the limits of our perception– complex, multiple but not infinite.” Braidotti’s emphasis on matter, and the continuity between matter and mind and between human bodies and the world in which they live, opposes speculative realism’s tendency to omit “the politics of locations of the subject of who speaks.”
The last paradox in naming ecofeminist art, is whether this generation of highly eco-conscious artists’ adoption of technology and synthetic materials is contradictory, or if it cannot be avoided without losing touch with where we stand today: whether renouncing techno-advancements can be equivalent to extinguishing the flame of culture, passing it on as ashes.
Nevertheless, it is not only through art history that we can understand art practices in the Anthropocene at large, but also through the feminist and ecofeminist theories that inadvertently and inevitably inform our day and age. So, maybe it is true that this is the dawn of the feminine era, but ecofeminist art and the exploration of women’s heritage reveal that it is not the first time the sun rose upon it. One’s skin – porous, highly intelligent, which processes information as we go – these are the limits of our perception – complex, multiple but not infiniteRosi Braidotti, Frieze interviews, 12 August 2014.. Braidotti’s emphasis on matter, and the continuity between matter and mind, and between human bodies and the world in which they live opposes speculative realism’s tendency to omit ‘the politics of locations of the subject of who speaks’.
The last paradox in naming what is eco-feminist art, is whether this generation of highly eco-conscious artists’ adoption of technology, and synthetic materials is contradictory, or if it can’t be avoided without losing touch with where we stand today: whether renouncing techno-advancements can be equivalent to extinguishing the flame of culture, passing it on as ashes.
Nevertheless, it is not only through art history that we can understand art practices in the anthropocene at large, but also through the feminist and eco-feminist theories that inadvertently and inevitably inform our day and age. So, maybe it is true that this is the dawn of the feminine era, but eco-feminist art, and exploring women’s heritage, reveal that it is not the first time the sun rose to it.