‘She was underwater now… Just like her grandmother, just like her grandmother’s grandmother. She could lie on her back and sink.’1
She could lie on her back and sink explores artistic responses to the figure of the witch in the context of both indigenous Aotearoa and European lineages. Through film, photography, installation and performance, the exhibition is framed through an intersectional feminist lens where wise women* and customary knowledge holders are revered because of the way they engage with nature. Water is the unifying force between the artists, from the submergence of women’s knowledge in European pre-Christian practices to a vessel of swirling seawater, a hallucinogenic island and an underwater dancer.
The exhibition’s title is a quote from a short story by novelist Pip Adam, commissioned by Ann Shelton for her new body of work, i am an old phenomenon (2022-ongoing), and refers to the historical practice of “swimming a witch” where hundreds of thousands of women were forcibly tried for witchcraft through drowning. This history informs Shelton’s new series and its visual realisation in the exhibition. Shelton’s works awaken past and present knowledge systems pertaining to the medicinal, spiritual, and magical applications of plants, animals and fungi.
Turner-prize winning artist Tai Shani presents a feminist mythology of psychedelics in The Neon Hieroglyph (2021), which is inspired by her research into the history of ergot – a fungus from which the drug LSD is derived. In a newly commissioned installation and performance by Louie Zalk-Neale and their collaborators Tāwhanga Nopera, Neke Moa and Adam Ben-Dror, taura (ropes) are arranged to circulate flows of mauri through a self-contained seascape of rock, fibre, plastic and water. The exhibition concludes with Jayne Parker’s portrayal of a ballerina moving gracefully underwater in the short, choreographed dance spectacle The Whirlpool (1997).
She could lie on her back and sink imagines a watery haven where our witchy selves can exist in harmony and new tendrils of knowledge are born.
*“woman” and “women” throughout this text is intended to be inclusive of trans and gender diverse people.
Adam P. The Three Fates. i am an old phenomenon at Denny Gallery New York; 2022. ↩