The concept of toxic masculinity is not a difficult one to grasp. Just last week it was evinced throughout social media, as millions of women testified to the regular abuse they suffer at the hands of misogyny and the patriarchal structures that shape power relations in society. At the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn, French-born Brooklyn-based artist Anne Mourier was staging her own subtle stand in the form of a solo exhibition she titled Elevation.
A pail filled with a dark pool of water welcomes visitors to the installation. “Water is a symbol of life,” Mourier told me, standing beside the silver bucket, one of many she’s placed throughout the large room’s quiet, naturally lit quarters. In pagan traditions, particularly those practiced in Europe “they used to celebrate the goddesses of the springs,” Mourier continued, explaining how this tied to the belief that life is born in water, which is connected to the moon and feminine spirit.
Following the pail trail a bit further lead us to a stained white linen tapestry. Mourier’s inspiration for this piece came from the Shroud of Turin, an ancient sheet believed to have been Christ’s burial cloth. On the actual shroud, the image of a man’s body was visible via X-ray, hinted at by the folds that rusted onto the corner’s of the fabric over time. Taking the image of those folds, which Mourier thought “looked like the Yoni,” she replicated it onto her own version of the Shroud, re-contextualizing its original symbolic significance.
This historical turn got Mourier thinking: How had this change in the gender dynamics of society become entrenched? She realized it had something to do with purity, and as she puts it—”the domestic idea.”
The wooden figure of a woman carved into the top of a broomstick was next to greet us. In part the work is inspired by voodoo culture from Benin, Mourier explained. “They believe that the ancestors guide their life and when somebody dies the spirit of that person enters into trees.” In an act of symbolic reverence, the carved stick of a figure representative of those spirits is typically placed at the entrance to a forest.
In lieu of trees, Mourier’s totem stands before three large wooden altars bearing items of domesticity synonymous with her youth. These include among other objects, a bell-jar filled with shavings of soap from Marseilles, a sponge carefully covered in needles, and an ostrich feather duster. “My mother got married very young, had children, and tried to present the best face she could to the world,” said Mourier, recalling how her mother was “obsessed with keeping the house clean, and her children perfect.” But as Mourier got older, she struggled to reconcile this image of her mother as stern matron with the side of her that was “sensual and fun.”
Monuments (2015), a photographic diptych depicting the elongated forms of a tampon and candle reflects this paradox. For Mourier, the side-by-side images embody the struggle her mother and many other women have had to face in trying to be both “Magdalene and Mary, the real and the idealized.”
So how does “Elevation” propose a solution to this quandary?
Mourier believes it comes down to expressing powerful ideas in a feminine way. “The important thing is community,” she said, noting what such an ideal entails. “My art does not belong to me, it belongs to everybody that comes to look at it. I am influenced a lot by the people who comment on the work. I like to think of it as something fluid, that can evolve.”
By way of further explanation, Mourier brings up another ancient philosophy: Yin and Yang. Thinking of the two poles as masculine and feminine, said Mourier, it’s important to stress a need for the balance of both. The scales have been tipped for far too long to the great detriment of people and our planet, but Mourier remains optimistic that change is afoot.
“There’s power in the feminine,” she asserts. “That’s why we burned witches at the stake. Intuition is an important form of power. Also, what is success? Is it to have a show at MoMA, or simply to have the life you want to lead?”
“With my work I want to show people that if they are interested in rebuilding a feminine society,” added Mourier, “there is another way to do it.”
A New York-based South African writer, Robin Scher is also a graduate of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU.