In Conversation with Lydia Towsey from ‘The Venus Papers’

Ahead of her performance at Wise Words festival on Saturday 6th May, we caught up with Lydia Towsey from The Venus Papers in order to ask more about her work, the 21st-century pressures on women, and what we can do to affect change today.

What is ‘The Venus Papers‘, and where did the idea originally come from?

‘The Venus Papers’ is both a full-length poetry collection, published by Burning Eye Books – and hour long stage show, currently touring the UK supported by a live score, set design, choreography, direction and production.

Both book and show take Botticelli’s infamous 15th-century painting ‘Birth of Venus’ as their starting point, then relocate her to a UK beach in the 21st century to ask what she might make of it all, were she to arrive here, now…

Beginning to compose the work I was inspired by numerous sources and experiences…sequences and groups of poems, including Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘World’s Wife’; Ted Hughes’ ‘Crow’; John Agard ‘From the Devil’s Pulpit’ and Italio Calvino’s ‘Mr Palomar’. In ‘The Venus Papers’ I am using the same device – of placing an unfamiliar figure in a series of familiar situations – to look at things anew.

In my choice of subject and theme, I was initially drawing on my early training as a visual artist and continuing practice as a life model. I was also drawing on the past experience of anorexia, from my late teens through to my early 20s – with this naturally making me interested in such arising issues as mental health, body image, the media and cultural/societal pressures to conform.

Writing about Venus as ‘everywoman’ but also an ultimate traveller, I’ve been further motivated by my cultural background. Like many people in the UK I come from a family of immigrants, on my father’s side mostly Hungarian Jewish, though my great- great-grandfather was Mexican, his wife American – and there are people in my family from/of other places and cultures too. At the same time, I’m English and a descendent of the British Empire and therefore implicated in a story of colonialism and post-colonialism. Given all that, a lot of my writing is interested in this question of cultural and national identity, its historical resonance and unfolding contemporary narratives – including Brexit and the current European refugee crisis.

Your starting point in The Venus Papers is Botticelli’s 15th Century painting, ‘Birth of Venus’ which depicts Venus’ arrival on a shell at a Cypriot beach. What drew you towards this as a starting point?

Botticelli’s Venus was the first recorded example of a female nude, painted and exhibited life size and in many ways the medieval blueprint for every cover girl to come. In this way, the image has significance, has come to be iconic and is incredibly familiar – but anatomically speaking it’s profoundly flawed. In the real world, much like Barbie, it doesn’t stand – literally speaking she wouldn’t be able to…

As a former visual artist; life model and of course woman, I became fascinated by the loaded nature of the image and its past projection into future; as someone with past experience of an eating disorder – and as an artist and as the show has evolved, now new mother, I wanted to call it out, but in a compassionate way.

As both idealised imagination and painted figure – she immediately raises questions; what is truth and what is beauty – in terms of ethnicity, age and form. The image is also packed with symbolism – from the hand she uses to cover herself, to the mythological context – which I go into in the show.

At the same time as being a woman, she is also the ultimate traveller, arriving on her shell, naked and vulnerable, and particularly resonant in the context of the current global migration crisis. As a life size figure, she invites the viewer to identify with her – in a way that I think is compelling.

What do you think are some of the most significant pressures that women are particularly affected by in contemporary Britain and beyond?

For a start, there’s the pressure to conform to an impossible set of so-called ideals, and in ways that are increasingly globalised. From cradle to grave, girls and women are expected to act and look a certain way, personally and publicly. The standards are exacting and limiting, whether we’re talking about the cult of youth and beauty, the pressure to have children, or to be more passive and less visible in public life – and issues like breastfeeding in public, ‘slut-shaming’ and the kind of work women are steered towards doing – again with such topics being picked up in the show. Men of course experience different pressures – if a woman must be passive, a man must be active – a leader, provider and emotionally strong in ways that are crippling – so that such punishing and stereotypical expectations are good for no-one.

What changes do you think need to be made in how society responds to women?

For society to change and become more equal, I think we need to start early, with the next generation – at the same time as seeing real change in political policy and direction.

My daughter is 19 months old. At the nursery she attends, activities she’s been undertaking include pushing baby dolls in prams and using the toy kitchen. In the next room up I’ve seen 3-year-old girls being encouraged to apply make-up to mannequin heads. Such things are not unique to her nursery, which is good in other ways – but shows how early such gendered messages are established, and how subsequent goals and behaviour is influenced. There are so many other examples I could cite, across children television, literature, clothing, and in many other areas – where an early gap between girls and boys is established – and the cycle seems to endlessly perpetuate.

Meanwhile, in political terms, current policies are working to actively undermine women. For example, the austerity cuts made over the last two parliamentary terms have had the effect of undoing previously made progress in very real ways.

There have been cuts to SureStart Centres; cuts to women’s refuges and major cuts in the Public Sector – which have disproportionately affected women, who are much more likely to work in publicly funded health and education.

In terms of the gender pay gap, the UK is placed 20th in the world, down from 18th five years ago, well below its top 10 position in 2010 – and behind 14 European countries, the United States, Rwanda and Nicaragua. We also score poorly in terms of pay, promotions and women in parliament, government and on company boards.

For real change to occur, lots of things need to happen. We – and crucially government – need to value, both culturally and financially – work more commonly and traditionally undertaken by women. There needs to be more of a conscious effort to encourage men to take up roles in caring professions. It should be made easier (again via a range of policies) for women to return to work after a career break (often taken because of having children) if that’s what they want to do.
To quote a phrase – ‘you need to see it to be it’ – but those in positions of power, creating policy and setting agendas – need to see it first.

What do you think that women can do to best affect change?

Vote, act, speak, organise and collaborate. We have a general election coming and the chance to ask for something different.

To quote another poet, Vanessa Kisuule – in a work I both admire and concur with – we need to ‘Take up Space’ because everything is personal and everything is political – from breastfeeding in public (if you’re a mother and you want to) – to speaking with confidence and assuming that we can and will be able to do something, rather than the opposite.

You speak about challenging the idea of the ‘passive nude’ and the way that we look at ourselves. Could you elaborate on this?

‘The passive nude’ describes the way in which the female nude has been depicted – almost exclusively – throughout the history of western art. As John Berger says, when it comes to the depiction of male and female bodies in art, ‘men act and women appear’ – usually for the viewer’s voyeuristic pleasure.

Female nudes are typically passive – sleeping, reclining, turned away, demurely looking down, ‘at their toilet’ – brushing their hair or washing; nurturing – or else attempting to cover themselves up in a way that only serves to highlight, for the purposes of titillation.

In contrast, male nudes are generally depicted in active ways. Looking directly out at the viewer; fighting; protecting a women – or dying. Their body language is open, their sexual parts proudly displayed – but not in objectified isolation; or else they are depicted in more complex, emotionally varied ways. They are never sexual objects, they are always individuals.

Walking around the National Portrait Gallery, almost everything is an example. Compare Michelangelo’s David – with Botticelli’s Venus…or any of the men and women depicted in Durer’s engravings…or by Rubens, Manet, Matisse – the list goes on and has its contemporary versions in both modern art and advertising.

‘The passive nude’ is constructed – socially and by the ‘male gaze’…because the female body has been traditionally depicted by men – and these depictions then have an impact not just on how men view women, but on how women view themselves and each other – hence the phrase ‘the internalised gaze’.

As a life model, I attempt to challenge this. I assume active poses. My body is accurately depicted, not air-brushed to fit in with unrealistic and unobtainable standards. I collaborate, I have agency – and I hope ‘speak’ as clearly as the artist painting me. In ‘The Venus Papers’ I am reimagining Venus – and attempting, via my own and other women’s experiences – to return to her a voice.

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