Dr Janine Burke launched Kate Just’s The Furies St Kilda at the Town Hall Gallery, 99a Carlisle Street St Kilda on International Women’s Day 2015 (8 March). The Furies runs until 25 March (interior work) & 30 June (outdoor work).
I’m so honoured to be opening Kate Just’s exhibition The Furies, today International Women’s Day, 2015. In our society, acts of violence against women have become a constant and hideous presence. Nearly every day, or so it seems, we react to fresh reports of this violence with dismay, disgust and fear. We ask ourselves, what can I do? How can I deal with this onslaught?
In this magnificent and moving series, Kate Just invokes the wrath of the Furies and they release their power from the walls of this building. These fabulous creatures have existed since the creation of the world, so Hesiod tells us in his Theogony written in the 8th -7th centuries BC., and which provides the earliest reference to the Furies. The Theogony, a geneaology of the gods, tells the Greek creation story. The Furies are the goddesses of vengeance and retribution. They were born out of violence. An assault on their father – Great Heaven or Ouranos – occurred as he slept next to Gaia, the Earth, the mother goddess, his partner. Drops of blood fell from Ouranos’s wound. These were nurtured to life by Gaia and they became the Furies.
Sophocles describes them as ‘the Daughters of Earth and Darkness.’ Their hair writhed with snakes – a symbol of magical power over nature. They were said to be terrible to behold. The Furies were tasked by the gods to hunt down those who commit serious crimes. To bring justice to the guilty, to subject them – in some cases – to the torments of madness. To pursue until the wrong-doer shows remorse. The Furies are the Law. Implacable. Invincible.
Greek myth has proved a fecund and enduring source of inspiration for Western art and thought. Sigmund Freud based the Oedipus complex, a cornerstone of psychoanalysis, on the legend of Oedipus, vividly captured in Sophocles’ play, written in the fourth century B.C. Like much classical Greek art, Oedipus involves the pressure of moral force and its resolution. On the road to Thebes, Oedipus gets into a fight with an older man, and kills him, without knowing that it his father, the king. After Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the people of Thebes reward him with the hand of the queen, Jocasta, in marriage, whom he does not know is his mother. But the Furies are waiting. An epidemic, droughts and famine ravage Thebes. Oedipus tries to discover the source for this disorder, why the gods have turned against him and, when the awful truth comes out, Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus blinds himself.
Freud’s construction of femininity was extremely problematic and remains the most controversial area of his thinking. In a nutshell, Freud seemed incapable of imagining women’s potential beyond the pale of convention. His attitude parallels that of ancient Greece: in myth and art, women were worshipped as goddesses: Artemis, moon goddess of the hunt, strong and independent, and in need of no man; Athena, namesake of Athens, goddess of war and wisdom, the arch diplomat, adviser to gods and men. But in daily life, the role of women in Athenian society was highly restricted. They were often treated little better than slaves. Unfortunately, such contradictions remain familiar to us.
Like Freud, Kate Just re-interprets Greek myth for a contemporary audience, mining its intensity, drama and psychological complexity. As we see from her banners, The Furies have lost none of their powers over time. They are big, bold and glorious. The Furies are enraged. The Furies fight back. We gaze at them with awe and pride. These Furies are women in our community whom Kate got to know when they participated in self-defense classes. What do we read on their faces? What do their bodies, their actions, reveal?
This series reminds us that the space of physical confrontation is rarely one that women confidently inhabit. It is one reason that makes these extra-ordinary images. Though the Furies are galvanised by righteous anger, traces of fear can also be detected on their faces.
Perhaps it is not only the fear of what may confront them as they move forward to engage in combat. Perhaps it is the fear they may have experienced, in testing personal situations, which, nurtured by the support of community, they now have the freedom to expose and release. Fears they have learned to conquer – as we must all learn to conquer our fears, time and time again. Such duality makes the Furies both divine and human – immortal deities with the might of heaven on their side – and vulnerable women who have learned to defend themselves against attack.
Myth reminds us of the power of imagination, the resource we possess to see ourselves as greater, better, stronger than we are. That is the power of art – and one that Kate Just so memorably manifests in this significant and beautiful exhibition.
Which I now declare – open.
– Dr Janine Burke
Dr Janine Burke is an art historian, a curator and an award-winning novelist. In the 1970s she lectured in art history at the Victorian College of the Arts. During that time, she wrote Australian Women Artists, 1840-1940 and co-founded the Women’s Art Movement and Lip, the feminist arts journal. Since then, Janine has published 20 books including Australian Gothic: A Life of Albert Tucker, The Heart Garden: Sunday Reed and Heide and The Gods of Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Art Collection. Most recently, she curated Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing for the Freud Museum London (October 2014-March 2015). She is Honorary Senior Fellow, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne.
Kate Just can be found at http://www.katejust.com/