Jesse Jones, The Tower, 2022, still from the 4K video component (black-and-white, sound, 40 minutes) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising sculpture and live performance.

Jesse Jones, The Tower, 2022, still from the 4K video component (black-and-white, sound, 40 minutes) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising sculpture and live performance.

Jesse Jones

Two tall screens in a large dark gallery displayed black-and-white footage of nine young women standing shoulder to shoulder. The setting is a nonspecific interior; light is low; no details ground the characters in identifiable time and space. Dressed in matching patterned smocks, the women might be freely assembled members of an obscure sisterly community or confined inhabitants of an institution. Either way, they have come together in this moment as a choir: performing, perhaps protesting, making themselves heard as one. The drifting camera pans across their side-by-side faces in close-up; gradually, it gathers pace, accelerating until this staged demonstration of youthful solidarity becomes a dizzying blur.

Such episodes from Jesse Jones’s film installation The Tower, 2022, typify her art’s ongoing quest for unconventional visions of feminist fortitude, while also evincing underlying tendencies toward obfuscation and fragmentation. (These tendencies were also on view in the closely related Tremble Tremble, 2017, her powerful witchcraft-themed work for the Irish pavilion at the Fifty-Seventh Venice Biennale that year.) Jones employs techniques designed to pull viewers in through seductive cinematic visuals, creating eerily atmospheric environments, just as she also values distancing effects, formal disruption, and conceptual difficulty. On-screen dramatic actions—centering, sometimes, on the delivery of discontinuous, politically resonant monologues adapted from esoteric historical sources—are augmented by sequentially spotlighted sculptural props, emanations of artificial mist, and intermittent live gestures (including, in several cases, the solemn opening and closing of grand semitransparent curtains that surround or snake through the exhibition space). Projected images flash and fade; lights flicker on and off; physical objects seem to appear and disappear. Such stage trickery risks kitschy overload, but at its best the overall ambience of works like The Tower and Tremble Tremble can credibly be described as dreamlike. What we encounter is both memorable and hard to precisely recall, puzzling but seemingly loaded with portent.

The tangled roots of these unsettling dreams are to be found, of course, in real life. Jones’s fictional characters and fantasy scenarios are composite constructs, synthesized from disparate feminist histories, ancient and modern. The long-haired sibylline figure—a solitary presence, played with stately authority by respected Irish actor Olwen Fouéré (previously an imposing witch in Tremble Tremble)—floating before the camera in several sections of The Tower embodies, for instance, Jones’s fascination with the radical thinking of premodern female visionaries and heretics. Key inspirations were identified in gallery notes: twelfth-century German abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a pioneering religious writer, composer, dramatist, and natural historian; thirteenth-century French mystic Marguerite Porete, who was burned at the stake for her commitment to the heretical principle of Free Spirit (a belief that communion with God could be achieved outside the church). In the context of this exhibition, however, one reference was especially important. Commissioned by Rua Red curator Maolíosa Boyle, The Tower was part of an ongoing series of gallery projects examining biblical and historical representations of Mary Magdalene—arguably the most important female disciple, or some would say companion, of Jesus Christ. Framed by the interests of Rua Red’s Magdalene Series, we might view Fouéré’s dignified, visceral performance as, in part, an expressive exploration of that legacy. In Ireland and elsewhere, authoritarian institutions have used and abused Mary Magdalene’s name as a byword for shame and penitence. From the late eighteenth century until as recently as the 1990s, Ireland’s “Magdalene laundries” were ruthlessly punitive workhouses for “fallen women” operated by religious orders in collusion with state agencies. The terrible facts of this history—tens of thousands of women and girls incarcerated for such transgressions as pregnancy outside marriage or perceived promiscuity—are not directly addressed in The Tower. But in its dream-vision combinations of light and dark, solitude and solidarity, it is a work shaped by the artist’s sensitivity to the unresolved effects of this extended historical nightmare.