When does a woman become a crone? Tasmanian artist Sally Rees, whose Crone is the first major exhibition to open at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) since the Covid-19 closure, puts the threshold at age 50, a milestone she has recently attained.
Rees was one of three artists awarded a $100,000 grant by Suspended Moment: The Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship. Fittingly for an exhibition honouring Cavaliere – who died in 2012 leaving behind many works that referenced the self – Crone is deeply personal, an exploration of ageing that makes use of the artist’s own face and body as well as her friends, relatives and colleagues.
Despite comments Rees has made about her frustration with the invisibility of older women and their vulnerability to homelessness and poverty, hers are not forthrightly angry works that exhort mature females to embrace their inner crankiness. Rather, the handpainted video animations of Crone are delicate, unsettling and mysterious.
In the major piece, “Flock”, the faces of women from Rees’s family and social networks are shown, disembodied and elegantly bleached, on a multitude of screens. The models who are over 50 are wearing prosthetic hooked noses – a readily recognisable sign of the crone – while those still approaching the supposed age of cronehood appear barefaced.
At staggered intervals and in random sequences, the women make bird calls that Rees has illustrated with bright pulses of colour in the white space just beyond their mouths. One of the delights of the exhibition is this synaesthetic representation of sound. The trilling of the smaller birds, for example, is shown in paler colours and via shapes such as hollow circles, while the blaring sounds of larger birds are translated into darker shades and fuller, less defined forms.
The animations expand and contract in concert with the volume of the sound but, despite the high-tech apparatus that drives this exhibition, there is a comfortingly handmade, low-tech aesthetic to the watercolour representations of birdsong.
The women in the video animations produce the calls of a kookaburra, an owl and the eastern spinebill honeyeater. There are also several crows, each with a different regional accent, plus bird calls drawn purely from the imagination.
Beyond the inclusion of the beaky plastic nose, which brings a pleasingly discordant element of humour to the works, the nature of the connection between crone and bird is not made explicit.
Birds in myth and folklore can carry messages between the human and the spirit world or appear as representations of the human spirit after death; they can be tricksters and shamans. Both the monstrous harpies and the seductive sirens were part bird. Rees may have conceived her crones as birds because of the folkloric capacity of winged creatures to act as oracles; possibly the ageing women in her life are her mirrors, previews of what is to come.
In “Flock”, the calls of the bird-women erupt unpredictably from different parts of the gallery, underscored by a continuous and haunting soundscape that fills the entire space. Since the animations appear on screens that are mounted at a range of heights and angles, it’s impossible to keep an eye on all of them at once and the random order of the calls means that a viewer would need to spend considerable time in the gallery to hear each one.
The viewer must wait for each individual woman to call out. Likewise, the women themselves appear to be waiting. They blink or occasionally shift position and sometimes seem to be withholding their calls. In the eerie, suspenseful interaction between viewer and viewed, the power lies with the viewed, for these are not birds that sing on command.
The bird calls might represent the networks that women draw upon for inspiration, wisdom and affirmation. But while the portraits speak easily to women’s interconnectedness and mutual supportiveness, it’s difficult to know whether to take Rees’s crones at face value – as crones – or to read them simply as women shoehorned by social expectations into a loaded role for which many of them seem not yet ready.
The notion that a woman passes through three seasons of life that correspond to the three faces of a tripartite goddess – maiden, mother and crone – has been embraced in neo-pagan circles since it was widely popularised in the mid-20th century by poet and collector of myths Robert Graves, author of I, Claudius.
There’s a current of thought, perhaps influenced by increases in human longevity, that 50 is too young for a woman to be considered a crone. Much discussed in the New-Age circles of cyberspace is the concept that a woman’s life might more accurately be represented by a fourfold goddess – maiden, mother, matriarch and crone – where the matriarch is the woman in full possession of her faculties and powers.
The crone of folklore may be wise and benevolent, or deceptive, appearing as a crone in order to pose a test of character. There is often – as is the case with the Slavic witch-crone Baba Yaga – a downright dangerous component to her ambiguity. The women in Rees’s “Flock” exude a sense of mystery: there is fragility within their complexity. But while they transmit a powerful sense of self-possession, it’s hard to find in them a fearsome, cantankerous or transgressive edge.
The shadowy side of the crone’s ambiguous nature is most clearly articulated in one of two large animated portraits, composed in darker tones, that appear in the middle of the whiteness of “Flock”. In a defiant self-portrait, Rees wears a black outfit that holds echoes both of a mountaineer and – with its nipple-baring cutouts – a battle-ready shield maiden.
The artist holds at her middle a shapeshifting ball of animated blue scribbles. It could be a womb, present and absent at once, that has previously worked its magic but now is decommissioned, or it could be a symbol of the trouble a crone is capable of cooking up.
On the reverse of the self-portrait, however, is an image that complicates the powerful image of Rees-as-crone by showing the artist in a touchingly tender pose with her mother. Is Rees here depicting herself as the apprentice to her mother’s cronehood? Or are the two women, who hold each other’s hands and each other’s gaze, engaged in a delicate equilibrium that is on the verge of tipping?
As crones go, Rees’s bird-women are relatively gentle and enchanting. It would be intriguing to see what would happen if she loosed them to fly.
Crone is showing at MONA, Hobart until November 1. Selected works will tour Carriageworks and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in February 2022 as part of Suspended Moment: The Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 3, 2021 as "Gentle witches".
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