Making women's voices heard at Glasgow International
Glasgow Women's Library Director Adele Patrick, My Bookcase founder Cristina Garriga and artist Catrine Val discuss how their practices question the visibility of women across disciplines
‘When you close your eyes and try to picture a philosopher, what do you see?’ It’s a good question, and one that is central to German artist Catrine Val’s exhibition at Street Level Photoworks as part of Glasgow International 2016. It’s not long before it’s clear what Val is driving at: among the names that immediately spring to mind – Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Locke, Derrida – women are shamefully absent. It’s a strain to produce just one name: Simone de Beauvoir. And she didn’t consider herself to be a philosopher.
Val, who came to contemporary art after years of working in advertising, is first and foremost an artist. But she’s also a feminist and mother to three children, the latter being something that forces Val to ‘work like a beast: don’t ask me how much sleep I get at night! It’s ridiculous!’ For Political Letters, the artist has produced three new works to compliment 12 from her ongoing project that together shine a light on the contribution of female philosophers and thinkers.
Her large-scale prints that seduce viewers with their glossy otherworldly appeal betray tell-tale signs of her previous career. Each show a costumed protagonist set against a dramatic scene in the natural world that tells something of the philosopher portrayed. Among them is Scottish philosopher Lady Mary Shepherd (1777–1847) dressed in a frothy white wedding dress facing Loch Lomond with her back to the camera. Val explains that she bought the dress in a Glasgow charity shop in shortly after arriving in the city. Though theatrical, she strives to charge her work with a sense of authenticity: the dress looks Victorian and its backless corset bares delicate shoulders to the bracing Scottish landscape.
Mirroring Val’s concerns about giving a voice to women intellectuals is Speaking Volumes, a collaborative project by My Bookcase (led by founder Cristina Garriga) and Glasgow Women’s Library. The library has long championed the voices of women both past and present, but as the organisation’s long-serving creative development manager Adele Patrick explains, My Bookcase’s presence has invigorated the library’s role in the community by bringing people and artists together.
‘Every time Cristina visits the library we see things in a different way or from a new angle,’ states Patrick. ‘That’s why artists have always been essential to the development of this library. As a passionate bibliophile, she has ambitions to create something that brings people and books together in one space.’
‘We’ve had over 30 donations already,’ Garriga explains. ‘We invited artists participating in Glasgow International to recommend books by women that had an impact on their lives or practice. By making this catalogue available to the public we’re creating an alternative narrative about what’s important, independent of institutions or anything else.’
Like Val, Patrick feels women’s literary works have often been overshadowed by those produced by male counterparts. ‘What we’re interested in is the reading that has been important to individuals,’ says Patrick. ‘Which books by women have had an impact on the lives of Cristina, Catrine, me or other creatives. It’s important because I think we do unconsciously erase those titles from our collective memory.’
As an artist participating in Glasgow International, Val pledges to donate a book to the Speaking Volumes project. Her chosen text, of course, is by a female philosopher: Hannah Arendt. Val explains that Arendt’s thinking underpinned much of the work of world-renowned philosopher Martin Heidegger, but he never once acknowledged Arendt’s influence. True or not, it’s impossible to deny history has always favoured the male half in heterosexual affairs between artists or academics.
Simone de Beauvoir, though well known, doesn’t enjoy the same infamy as Jean-Paul Sartre, and while she may have eschewed the grandiose label ‘philosopher’, her impact in that field continues to be felt. ‘There can’t be a more influential thinker in terms of the impact on daily life,’ insists Patrick. ‘If we think about the seismic impact of feminism on all of us, she has been critical. It’s not a term you can claim easily, whether it’s artist, writer or philosopher. I think if we think about what philosophers do – forcing new perspectives, making strange the things that are otherwise normative – many creatives could claim to be doing that. It’s unusual for women to make bold claims about having this huge impact, but it is beginning to happen.’
In Val’s experience, women in philosophy have either shied away or prevented from making it to the top. ‘When I was in Taiwan for example, there wasn’t a single female studying for a professorship. Not one! There are female philosophers out there, but they are mostly invisible. I want to help give a voice to those women.’
Patrick has high hopes for the future and progression towards a more level playing field. ‘I would love it if someone were to ask that question “what would a philosopher or a Scottish philosopher look like?” and they could answer “a black woman”. That would be fantastic.’
My Bookcase: Speaking Volumes, Glasgow Women’s Library, Fri 8 Apr–Mon 25 Apr; Catrine Val: Political Letters, Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow, Fri 8 Apr–Sun 29 May.