There’s a Laura Knight painting (‘Self Portrait’) showing the artist with her back to the viewer painting a nude model, Ella Louise Naper, whose body is shown standing in front of Knight and on the canvas-in-the-canvas being painted. I’d remembered this image incorrectly – in my mind the refracted group of female bodies was achieved using mirrors and because of that I thought of it whilst watching Foreign Body by Imogen Butler-Cole.
The fact the painting doesn’t include any mirrors doesn’t actually make that much difference, because it still conveys what I remembered it as doing. Knight’s self-portrait, painted in 1913, is a beautiful rendering of what we’d now call the ‘female gaze’, created 62 years before Laura Mulvey introduced the concept of the ‘male gaze’ to the public in her essay on Hollywood films. But Knight’s painting is about more than a way of looking; it’s also about defiance, and the claiming of space and identity. Knight, whose short bio on the National Portrait Gallery website refers to her as ‘Artist; wife of Harold Knight. Sitter in 33 portraits, Artist of 2 portraits’ is defiantly stating her identity as an artist, and one who, contrary to assumptions of the time, could paint traditional, serious subjects like the nude.
Knight’s painting alters how the unclothed female model is seen, by placing her in a different dynamic and partnership to the male artist-female model set up. In fact, the positioning of Knight, Naper and the image being created suggests a comfortably familiar group of women, with Knight’s back acting a buffer against the most direct voyeuristic view of Naper’s body. It feels like there’s a conversation happening between the three women positioned in a circle.
Foreign Body, directed by Fran Moulds and designed by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, explores similar ideas of (re)claiming agency and solidarity, but in a situation where what is being claimed is not just the right to create, but the right to just be – the right to exist without violation and violence. Butler-Cole performs the rhythmic, athletic choreography in the centre of eight freestanding mirrors. The work is about life after sexual violence, and the inward-facing mirrors feel like a powerful metaphor for gaining and enacting ownership of your own body.
Because along with the extreme acts of violence that are perpetrated, are the myriad small, everyday acts of violence implicit in making the female body the property of those who pass judgment on and control how it moves, acts, feels, and looks. The way you look at someone can be a minor act of violence by how it reduces and objectifies. By positioning the mirrors all around her, Butler-Cole essentially blocks the external gaze all together. The only eyes looking at her body are her own, with the mirrors forming a force-field around her.
The mirrors also have another purpose. They become, at times, stand-ins for the women whose stories are heard via a recording as Butler-Cole dances. The circle, then, becomes representative of support, friendship and networks. And the light that bounces off each reflective surface reminds how these stories are indivisible from the bigger narrative of sexual violence within a society. The backdrop to these recorded voices and the performance – as the programme notes make clear – is the #MeToo campaign, and all the other spoken or unspoken stories. There’s also, on the day I attend the performance at Vault Festival, an after-show panel discussion which, on that particular day, discusses sexual violence against men as well as women – widening the metaphorical circle even more.
Finally, there is the association of mirrors with femininity, with beautifying and tending to your appearance [if the NPG ever want to extend their collection of two Laura Knight works, she also painted a number of portraits of women seated at dressing table mirrors]. What makes Foreign Body such a profoundly moving and sophisticated piece of theatre is its combination of strength and vulnerability – the emphasis on forgiveness, healing and reflection, not more coldness and loss of human connections. As the performance draws on, Butler-Cole’s movements become sharper, more aggressive, but the space she moves in – lit with electric lights mimicking candlelight – could be a bedroom or dressing room. It’s a private, feminine, soft space and her body as it moves through it captures exactly a quote that appears without much explanation in the programme:
‘Warriorship is so tender, without skin, without tissue, naked and raw. It is soft and gentle. You have renounced putting on a new suit of armor. You have renounced growing a thick, hard skin. You are willing to expose naked flesh, bone and marrow to the world.’ Chongyam Trungpa.
Foreign Body was performed as part of Vault Festival 2018. Click here for more details about the work and future touring dates.