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Q & A: Toronto Now artist Allyson Mitchell on ‘A girl’s journey to the well of forbidden knowledge’

September 30th, 2010

For the fourth installment of the AGO’s Toronto Now series, Toronto-based artist Allyson Mitchell is transforming the Young Gallery into a lesbian feminist library with her installation A girl’s journey to the well of forbidden knowledge. She sat down with us to talk about the ideas and inspiration behind the new work, and why this exhibition marks a new beginning for her.


Photo of Allyson Mitchell by Christina Zeidler, August 2010.

AGO: How did the images and ideas in A girl’s journey to the well of forbidden knowledge come together?

Allyson Mitchell: There is no short answer to this question because the work comes out of a lifetime of studying and practicing feminism and making art. It’s part of that journey. The short version is that last year I spent six months in New York on residency with The Canada Council for the Arts, and while I was there, I wanted to leave behind some of the ways that I had been making art and explore some new territory. I ended up spending a good amount of time at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, which is a really incredible space. It lives in an old brownstone. The archive houses the ephemera of a history of lesbian organizing and living.

So the installation grew out of your time there?

Yes, I wanted to create a space that would reference being there. In the living room parlour of the archive there are shelves and shelves that hold the texts from our history. I began this project by drawings the books. The spines of the books seemed so familiar, beautiful and profound. I decided to take the experience of being in the archives and attempt to move that experience into other locations, wallpapering the walls of the gallery with the drawings, but also taking them into the streets. For example, the postering campaign for the exhibition includes duplicates of the drawings. They have been plastered around Toronto. For me, this is a way of archiving an archive, multiplying it and taking out of that singular, semi- private space.

Why was it important to bring these stories into the public realm?

It is a way of archiving a disappearing history, as feminist publishers and bookstores continue to shut down in the name of economic despair, technological advances or active suppression. Drawing the names over and over again of publishers that supported lesbian feminist writing is a way of documenting that history. In the past decades, women’s writing was integral to connecting people, theorizing, teaching, learning and actually creating community.

In addition to the wallpapered drawings, the installation also includes some major sculptural elements, including the two figures in the centre of the room. How do they tie in?

The sculptural element is a way of realizing the materiality of women’s bodies in relation to the books. I have always been interested in finding was to represent larger, “real” bodies. So the bodies I have created are middle-age bodies – they sag, they have flat butts, and fat rolls. I’ve elevated and adorned them. They’re also standing on a mirror as a way of making them even bigger and multiplying them, but also to connect them to early feminist organizing in the 60s and 70s. One of the early ways that the women’s movement started was through ‘consciousness-raising sessions’, where women would come together in spaces and talk about their experiences and connect about oppression. They worked to make politicized women feel less isolated or alone or crazy. It was these small pockets of women that created a groundswell for feminist action. Consciousness-raising sessions were a way of women to theorize their oppression, so it had big-brained ideas around it. The cliché exists that consciousness-raising sessions were about women sitting around with mirrors looking at their snatches, which happened, yes, but certainly wasn’t the only thing that happened.


Photo of elements of ‘A girl’s journey to the well of forbidden knowledge’ courtesy Allyson Mitchell, 2010

Which brings us to the large, crocheted brain that hovers above them, to which they are attached by cables extending out from their genitals.

Well, going back to those consciousness-raising sessions, in addition to the understanding and reclaiming of the body, there was also a lot of other ways of thinking about changing the world– big-brained, genius thinking. This is why the giant brain is hovering above the two women in my installation. There is a cable connecting their crotches to the brain too and with this I’m trying to play with that cliché that men think with their dicks and women think with their hearts. I’m not saying that women only think with their vaginas, but I’m trying to allow women the kind of virility or sexuality that men get to have. You know, “boys will be boys”. I want to imagine what would happen if women were allowed to have that kind of sexual free license, one that’s linked to intelligence as opposed to frivolity.

Can you tell us about the poster you created for the exhibition with Cecilia Berkovic? On one side, you’ve got a reproduction of the books, but what about the image on the other side, where did that come from?

The provocative image on the poster came from a book called Touching for Pleasure: A 12 Step Program for Sexual Enhancement. We chose this drawing of a woman looking at her labia in the mirror. The picture connects to what I was referring to about the feminist Consciousness Raising sessions but it also has larger implications about women being looked at and posing for the camera or for the painter, for the eyes and pleasure of others. There is a sense that women’s bodies are to be regarded and judged. I really like this drawing because the woman is naked, which is a very traditional image in art history, but in this image she is looking at herself. The image isn’t necessarily for the consumption of the viewer. Her nakedness is for her own pleasure. We don’t see what she is seeing in the mirror. The image of a pretty naked girl makes us think of pornographic images but this is not pornography. I wonder how the image would be read if it was the naked body of a fat middle aged woman with a body more like my own. The image works as a kind of Trojan horse that brings people to the work with certain preconceived expectations but what they find in the gallery will not look as familiar.

And what about the tagline, ‘What time does the labia close?’

Using the word ‘labia’ and having it printed on a poster that’s pasted around the city seems pretty interesting to me. I am curious to see how people will respond to it. The term labia is a anatomical term – it is generally not used as a sexual term. And we know that there are a lot of sexual terms that are used to refer to women’s genitalia. Labia also means lips – I like the idea of women’s mouths being open and speaking loudly and with big fat opinions. But it’s also a play on the word ‘library’. When I was in university, we would always joke and say, “I’ve got to go get my reading for the week – what time does the labia close?” So, it’s a bit of a play on the library/the labia – the idea that there is this secret knowledge within the labia, which is where the installation’s title, ‘A girl’s journey to the well of forbidden knowledge’, comes from. The text is about breaking down the public and private, and making sexuality public in a way that is non-oppressive.

Earlier, you were talking about seeking departure from some of your earlier work. Do you feel that this work is the beginning of a new chapter?

Yes, it is. In some ways it’s a continuation of the themes I’ve been working with for a long time now, about creating environments that implicate the viewer into the politics, whether it’s been with large-scale sasquatch circles that people join in, or room-sized vagina dentatas that people enter and become part of. This work is a way of bringing in somebody who wanders into the gallery into this sort-of hidden lesbian world, and also validating somebody who knows it or lives it. Some of the techniques are the same – I’m continuing to explore larger bodies, which I have done through sculpture and through performance – but this is a different kind of sculpture. The sculptures are made very differently from my previous techniques. The treatment and appearance is quite different. The women have more of a human form than an animal one. But they are still weirdos, hopefully!

To see Allyson’s work in person, swing by the Young Gallery, the AGO’s free, street-front gallery, located next to FRANK restaurant on Dundas St. W. A girl’s journey to the well of forbidden knowledge will be on view from October 2 through November 28.

This post was updated on October 4, 2010.