Statu[t]es of Liberties: A look at Sharon Hennessey's WHAT I WANT
Papyri, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Torah scrolls, Chinese and Japanese painted scrolls; the legendary On the Road scroll typed by Jack Kerouac. Coils of analogue film appear, visually, to be extreme memes, emanating from antiquity and the entire natural world – from shells to spiral galaxies.
In her film Kitch's Last Meal (1973–5), artist Carolee Schneemann recounts, to her cat, a conversation between herself and an unnamed [male] "structuralist filmmaker" who refused to watch her films. The script of that film is written on an "interior scroll," which she drew out from her vagina in her celebrated live performance titled Interior Scroll (1975). She writes:
I thought of the vagina in many ways – physically, conceptually: as a sculptural form, an architectural referent, the source of sacred knowledge . . . as a translucent chamber of which the serpent was an outward model...a spiralled coil ringed with the shape of desire and generative mysteries, attributes of both female and male sexual powers.1
Two films, Anne Severson's Near the Big Chakra (1975) and Sharon Hennessey's What I Want (1971), were sources of inspiration for Interior Scroll. These films were both screened in 1975 in Australia at the International Women's Film Festival, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, and elsewhere (including New Zealand.) They are now held in the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op archives. The full 10 minutes of What I Want was unavailable for this article, so I have used only a 58-second Knoop Archive clip on YouTube. Though I remember the title phrase, I cannot remember seeing What I Want in 1975, nor do several other women I know who were there.
Everyone who saw Near the Big Chakra, however, does remember it, or, at least seeing it at the festival. I saw it in the midst of a packed house silently staring (like startled Presbyterians) at close ups of 38 vulvas – no soundtrack until, suddenly, a child's voice in the audience asks: "What are they doing?"; wave of nervous laughter. I recall seeing a few tampon strings – were these the triggers for Schneemann's idea of pulling a scroll from her body? What is interesting is that she chose to mask her pubic area with a black triangular curtain, allowing words the power – of theatre, of the vagina as myth.
In 2015, 40 years later, an essay in an online art journal celebrating the anniversary of the performance of Interior Scrolls, quotes from the Scheemann article, "The Obscene Body/Politic":
I didn't want to pull a scroll out of my vagina and read it in public, but the culture's terror of my making overt what it wished to suppress fueled the image; it was essential to demonstrate this lived action about ‘vulvic space' against the abstraction of the female body and its loss of meaning.2
The essay's author, Quinn Moreland, notes that "The performance evolved from a dream in which 'a small figure' extracted a text from her vagina that simply said ‘the knowledge."3
Hennessey's (clothed) body, in What I Want, is obscured by a huge white scroll, frustrating "the gaze" that seeks a sexualised female image. Descending through the movements of her hands the scroll forms loops at her feet – serpent-like, they vanish on and on into the dark force of the frame. She wears dark Elvis glasses, and is that a Bowie haircut? The viewer is forced to listen to a random, rapidly delivered, catalogue (or litany) of what she ("everywoman") wants.
I want to trust
I want to be a wizard
I want to be financially independent
I want not to regress
I want Jerry to quit the waxworks
It is remarkable that Hennessey, in designing her mise-en-scène, chose to make a scroll from a medium that crackles as it moves, as if cut from the very cinema screen on which her image is projected. By doubling the white screen, she re-figures modernist tropes going back as far as Malevich's revolutionary painting Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918). Another example is Natalie Goncharova's painting The Evangelists (c. 1924), in which a row of four individual figures hold white scrolls falling from their hands like columns and wear white opaque oval halos on their heads. The poet does look as though she is reading from the scroll, but Knoop Archive technology erases any written words that may have been there. It glows stark white in the shape of an upside down V. Sharp blue and grey shadows appear as it moves upwards and downwards in Hennessey's hands. El Lissitsky's abstract Proun paintings, e.g. Proun 99 (c. 1924), proun meaning "project for the affirmation of the new", in which abstract shapes move across the two-dimensional modernist ground, seem to me to hover here (even if it was not Hennessey's intention).4 Hennessey looks back to suffragette white; jump cut to Democrat women wearing white to a Trump speech today.
Visually, the film What I Want might look a little different to the Knoop clip, and the rhythmic chant of Hennessey's plaintive voice, continuing on and on for 10 minutes, would obviously produce a different effect. Nevertheless, writing this piece has, surprisingly, taken me down many wormholes.
I want to be like my grandmother who is 87 years old and takes care of herself
Every recited line conjures up a question, a ghost/text within. Did Hennessey write all the lines herself? Or did she garner them from over 100 women she might have interviewed? (My research did not uncover anything that could answer this question.)
I want to feel confident
I want McGovern to be president
After the 19th Amendment affirming women's right to vote was ratified in 1920, the suffragist leader Alice Paul introduced the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923 as the next step in bringing "equal justice under law" to all citizens. Although not pro-choice in 1971 (though he was later), George McGovern supported the ERA.5 Journalist Tom Hayden wrote, in 2012:
McGovern was the prophet who paid the price. He was a minister's son who knew the Devil, a World War II hero who remembered Hiroshima and Dresden, a populist reformer who mistrusted Wall Street, and a kindly gentleman who welcomed the chaos of the sixties into his life, then watched so many of his "kids" abandon him to become the New Men and Women of Power in posts that his movement had made possible. Keeping any bitterness to himself, he lived on to oppose the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and to call upon the Democratic Party to live up to its best traditions..._ At the height of the Vietnam crisis, I remember standing by McGovern as he explained to a Washington gathering, in that sincere Plains voice, "If you stir up the hornet's next, you better be ready to be stung by the bees."6
McGovern was the first senator to use the term "white racism" rather than "the negro problem." He drew attention to a break-in at Democratic National Committee Offices in the Watergate, and was ignored. He lost to Nixon in the 1972 presidential election. Bill Clinton was his campaign manager. Hillary was there, helping, wanting – to be president, one day...7
I want this baby off my lap
It was the ‘70s – the era that saw a gestalt shift in women's political perception of themselves, as systemically disadvantaged in relation to men. Eruptions of consciousness/hell raising continue:
Take your laws off our bodies!
In speaking answers to the question "So what DO you want?" Sharon Hennessey brings meaning to the word 'want' as both 'lack,' and 'desire'. Her film reaches towards women living a confident, dynamic, and creative life within a just polity; to pleasure, and a rightful place in history.
I want to transform matter with thought