Nancy Spero

Blue, 2009, is a definitive statement in the long series of installations that Nancy Spero has dedicated to the history of violence against women. In this austere work, three black female figures on all fours are stamped onto the bottom of a wall—pushed to the ground, subjugated—while a ferocious male head, painted on an aluminum cutout, hangs suspended from the ceiling. On the beams above, like an ancient inscription in capital letters and varying in tones from gold and silver to blue and black, runs a text that describes an elemental scene of merciless cruelty. The space in this show was occupied—I would even say controlled—only by the words that represent a violent male action, while the female figures were peripheral, almost to the point of disappearance. Here, the male holds the power of Logos and has the privilege to write History. The female is formless, without individual identity—submissive, vulnerable. The characters of this drama are reduced to the minimum, the eternal conflict between male and female brought back to its starkest roots, to its most brutal and absolute form.

Once again borrowing themes and images from her previous oeuvre (from Torture of Women, 1976, to Maypole. Take No Prisoner, 2007), in Blue Spero has staged the Mesopotamian myth of the god Marduk, protagonist of the poem Enuma Elish from the thirteenth or twelfth century BC. In the original myth—which Spero already referenced in Marduk, 1986—the god, after having barbarically killed the goddess Tiamat, progenitor of the divine race, cleaves open her body and forms the heavens out of one of the halves. Sublimating violence into a creative act, the myth redeems the feminine and transfigures it, idealizing it. In Spero’s new version, however, the artist interrupts the narration at the moment when the goddess is killed, omitting the regenerative finale. The text written on the beams of the gallery reads: MARDUK CAUGHT TIAMAT IN HIS NET, AND DROVE THE WINDS WHICH HE HAD WITH HIM INTO HER BODY, AND WHILST HER BELLY WAS THUS DISTENDED HE THRUST HIS SPEAR INTO HER, AND STABBED HER TO THE HEART, AND CUT THROUGH HER BOWELS, AND CRUSHED HER SKULL WITH HIS CLUB. There is no happy ending, no redemption. Man has been and is abusive; woman has been and remains dominated. Spero suggests that little has changed in the form and substance of violence inflicted upon women, from that mythical past to the present. But she also attests to the impossibility, both in collective experience and in contemporary social narration, of transferring and sublimating the conflict between the genders into the symbolic sphere.

Aware as ever of how deeply rooted violence and patriarchy remain, Spero added a new recognition: The sadness that comes through in the title, Blue, veils this brutal scene with the melancholy observation that the road to a reconciliation of opposites remains a long one. What Spero doggedly demonstrates in her work is that redemption can only emerge from women’s capacity to tell their own stories, to become the active subject and producer of History, to redeem an ancient void and to validate on a personal and collective level the female experience as union of body and word.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.