The Venus and the Vultures -- A Feminist Gaze Upon Two Photographs by Cheryl Hassen
“A rock face can look like almost anything . . . It emphatically exists and yet its appearance (within a few very broad geological limitations) is arbitrary. It is only like it is, this time.”
John Berger, About Looking
Shale, I have learned, is a sedimentary rock formed from mud which is deposited in slow moving or quiet waters. It is a mix of clay minerals and other tiny fragments. It is fragile, readily splitting into thin pieces along laminations, like the skin of an onion flaking off at the merest of handling. Even the word, shale, sounds soft and delicate. One could imagine naming a child “Shale”. It is accommodating, gentle and, dare I say, feminine sounding. It is fitting, then, that the rounded, creviced rock face depicted in Cheryl Hassen’s “Rock Condos” displays a gathering of rounded stones and pebbles nestled within dark, eroded fissures. Upon seeing this photograph I immediately began to internally refer to it as “she”.
What my gaze sees, though, is a figure with bulbous breasts and an ample torso. This rock face is a Nova Scotian version of the paleolithic Venus of Willendorf, a 26,000 year old statue found by archaeologists on the banks of the Danube in Austria. This Venus, like her counterpart, is faceless but with a corpulent, undulating body that, though armless, is somehow gentle with pregnant accommodation. She is a fertility figure (though recently her status from goddess has been demoted by some researchers to that of mere Woman of Willendorf. But aren’t all women goddesses?)
This south shore goddess is rounded and pregnant as well, embracing wave-smoothed stones as if they were a village of children. The Willendorf figure, like her shale sister, is also made of a sedimentary rock. Oolite has many concentric layers of tiny spherical grains called ooids (ooid is derived from the ancient Greek word for “egg”). Both are found at a water’s edge, both synergistically made up of materials that contain other materials. Both appear maternal.
Psychologists examining the Venus of Willendorf believe that her so-called exaggerated proportions are due to a behavioural response called “peak shift”. Peak shift happens when preferred attributes are exaggerated and, thus, create an exaggerated response. This statue, less than five inches high, would have been made during the ice age, a time of scant resources. Her large breasts and hips plus the sculptural attention to her vulva would have been considered attractive and fertile. This faceless, armless figure may have represented hope in harsh circumstances.
Perhaps I experienced peak shift when examining Hassen’s dramatic photograph. My own body is bulbous and rounded. May I have recognized my own form? Or perhaps I see the female form in general which has weathered many storms and still experiences social erosion. Our bodies may be subject to harsh environments, but what is exposed is a fertile beauty and strength, a mature sophisticated hope made up of many materials that result in forms greater than the sum of their parts. And above all, enduring.
“A rock face is always there.”
John Berger, About Looking
Closely related to shale is slate. When shale is subject to immense pressure, it compresses and hardens into slate, a metamorphic rock. Slate – it sounds considerably harsher than its softer cousin. The word is more rigid, unyielding, foreboding. Imagine the hard-bodied hero of a romance novel named “Slate”, uber masculine and brimming with testosterone. Or one could picture a Norse warrior woman striking fear into the enemy with her unexpected ferocity. Upon viewing Hassen’s photograph, “Bird’s Eye View”, slate seems to me to be the appropriate term. Here is a rock face with jagged geometry, linear and pointy and cutting edgy. This rock has not been smoothed from exposure. It has shattered, which is geologically predictable considering that it has, like shale, natural cleavages prone to breakage.
Hassen’s name for the photograph is not a reference to the angle of the view, but to what is viewed from this angle. The top third of the image contains two red stains and it does not take long to recognize that they are eyes. Further attention reveals that these are the eyes of two large beaked birds. My immediate response is that they are stony vultures, one looming and hunched with a hook-nosed companion close behind. Their stare is omnipresently stoic, those red blotches large and judgmental. I feel like I am being sized up and I fear that acceptance into their gaze is difficult.
These hag-like creatures are like monstrous goddesses, harbingers of death.
Again, I have assumed a feminine identity to Hassen’s birds, aligning them with archaeological and mythical creatures from a plethora of cultures – the Celtic Morrigan, the Sumerian Inanna, the Hindu Kali – all associated with death and judgment but also rebirth. Raptors such as the vulture are a recurring symbol as representative of the death aspect of life. In Catal Huyuk, Turkey, archaeologists discovered a shrine fresco of seven flying vultures. They are swooping down on six headless humans. In a different spot, a vulture with human legs stands over a decapitated human. Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas speculated that their outstretched wings symbolized resurrection. She notes in her book, Language of the Goddess, that the Egyptian hieroglyphic for “mother” is a vulture and that in a Siberian tribe the word for vulture equals mother. Vulture feathers have been recorded as helpful during birth-giving by Pliny the Elder in 1st century CE.
So, what of these arresting south shore vulture goddesses? What is their purpose? Unlike their shale counterpart in “Rock Condos”, these sisters are not accommodating. They exist amidst a scene of abject destruction and violence, surrounded by shards of slate and staring angrily back. Will they swoop down and pick our bones clean in an efficient ritualistic excarnation, tearing at us like so much carrion? They do not stand revealed as much as they do exposed, glaring with their bloody eyes as if they are being interrupted in their work. Indeed, the shorter vulture appears to have her entire form stained from the wreckage.
If there is any evidence of epiphany or reincarnation here, it is in the fact that they are, like Berger says above, always there. They are a reminder of the life force and the death force, of nature beating upon itself and, in so doing, metamorphosing – as slate does from shale – into something else that will claim space on this earth. In one shape or another.
Hassen’s “Rock Condos” and “Bird’s Eye View” are images impressing upon us that there is a continuum, a renewal, however gentle or harsh it may be. As soft stones tumbled smooth we collect the substance of our lives, and when the bones of our existence are picked clean, they will endure as ancestral remnants in an ever-changing world. One is not before the other but rather they are resplendent in their power simultaneously, eroded and revealed at precisely the right moment they need to be seen.
Reference sources: bibliotecapleyades.net , Miriam Robbins Dexter “The Degeneration of Ancient Bird and Snake Goddesses”, englishstackexchange.com, geologyscience.com, geology.com, Marija Gimbutas -- Language of the Goddess, telesterion.com, Wikipedia.org