The Terracotta Woman
Preface 3 to the book The Terracotta Woman
Art Critic Lorella Scacco
Roma, May 2008
Statement of Women
Throughout her career, Marian Heyerdahl has focused her research on the connection between life and art. Her sculptures and installations devoted to themes like birth and fertility, life and death, draw inspiration from the sarcophagi and devotional figures of ancient civilizations. This approach mirrors the artist’s knowledge of archaeological finds mainly from Egypt and Latin America all of which have surrounded her since childhood being, as she is, the daughter of the great Norwegian archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl. Her desire to travel and explore exotic cultures brought her to Gambia, where she made an installation in 1996, and to China, where she took part in a workshop in 2003 and modelled her first terra-cotta woman in 2006.
Remote, charming and little more than a myth to most Westerners for so long, China changed after 1976, when Mao died. Chinese contemporary art opened up to the Western world showing new artistic avant-gardes and is now internationally known.
Despite a massive export of Chinese works, Marian Heyerdahl went in the opposite direction and produced an installation in and for China with the help of local craftsmen. It was exhibited in Beijing in 2007 and proved to be a big success. Once again ancient works enchanted the Norwegian artist during her Chinese journey and inspired her to reproduce the figures of Terra-cotta Warriors from Xian, one of the most important and well known archaeological finds in the world. She has thereby taken on the challenge of an ancient art language, free of nostalgia, to demonstrate her creativity and ethical values. As a consequence, an army was turned into a group of women conveying the unhappiness that wars have brought them. With her The Terra-cotta Woman, Marian Heyerdahl projects the work from Xian into a modern and universal context, arousing our meditations on life and human conditions.
In several installations prior to The Terra-cotta Woman, Marian Heyerdahl compared the notions of death and danger to those of life and gender, such as in her work entitled Lipstick from 2002, in which some cartridges filled with clay are all lipstick-shaped except one representing an erect penis. In another installation from 2003, Walking, the shoe of a Berber girl lies on a case full of bullets, while Smoke presents a cigar box filled with cartridges. In a series of photographs taken between 1998 and 2003, Hole, the artist selected some tree trunks whose morphology reminds us of our intimate parts. As a result, life and death, male and female, danger and violence, run parallel on the rails of Heyerdahl’s artistic career and find their apotheosis in the work The Terra-cotta Woman.
Another aspect of her research is the ready-made, a concept that has its
origin in the art of Marcel Duchamp, in which manufactured objects or works
of art are removed from their original contexts to be placed in a new world
of the artist’s creativity. All installations mentioned above are ready-mades.
However, in The Terra-cotta Woman, the warriors from Xian underwent a “role
reversal” affirming their gender difference as a positive power. Such
a conceptual approach can only be explained historically as influenced by
the emancipation of women in the 1960s, when female artists started to deal
with themes such as politics and gender difference from which they had been
denied earlier access. Among them were Barbara Kruger and her politically
committed slogans (“We don’t need another hero”), and Jenny
Holzer and her electronic panels displaying political messages to stir a
collective consciousness (“Torture is barbaric). Is the expression
of life’s restlessness only a female prerogative? Actually, female
artists have always cared about telling about their experiences, personal
as well as collective.
Moreover, Ibsen’s Nora is there in Marian Heyerdahl’s background as she is in every Scandinavian woman’s. In A Doll’s House, when Nora’s husband reminds her that “before all else” she is a wife and a mother, she replies that she does not believe all that commonplace thought any longer and says “I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are--or, at all events, that I must try to become one.…I must think over things for myself and get to understand them.” Thus, Marian Heyerdahl emphasizes how sexual equality and mutual gender respect are necessary to achieve a right balance in society. As she affirms: “There is a huge natural difference between a man and a woman. I’m no feminist; nevertheless, I’m in favour of a social equality and mutual respect, which is such a natural thing for me.”
Every terra-cotta woman tells her own story and arouses philosophical reflections on the meaning of life. Titles and gestures of the sculptures are helpful to understand the underlying plot while the different heads explain the implied symbolism: red for pain, white for purity, black for mourning. Every face has its own expression that gives strength to the conceptual meaning of the artwork.
Even though every sculpture was modelled on an ancient art formal language, together they tell modern stories. For example, in The Little Devil, a girl screams while playing a war game and holding a gun to the spectator to show how the anger towards an individual can turn from a virtual world into a real one. Chemical War shows deformities of a woman’s head as a consequence of such a conflict. In Gene-manipulation, the electrical wires springing out from a woman’s breast and ending up on the amputated hand of a child are meant to symbolize cynicism and barbarism of genetic manipulation. In Amputated Breast, some blood flows from the injured breast of a woman into the palm of her own hand because of an explosion. The presence of electrical wire or of a pipe plunged into the clay–materials already used in her Intravenous Help from 1997– shows how the artist makes use of her previous means of expression in remodelling the warriors from Xian. In Girl and Invalid Sister, a disabled little girl is sitting on a structure provided with wheels and dragged by her sister, who will have to share her pain for the rest of her life. Heyerdahl focuses on the shaping of female suffering, which the media have rarely dealt with. It is no coincidence that she has dedicated a work to Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist who spread feelings of such strength, dignity, and love for life through her paintings, in spite of her physical suffering since she was a child. Fragility and strength are both conveyed into the female identity and are symbolized by the use of clay, a malleable and delicate material that gets harder after being fired in a kiln.
Revenge, Survival Kit, Oppressed Women, Mother of All Wars, and Suicide Bomber are other examples of works dealing with old and new war stories. In Offering Dead Baby, a woman offers her pregnant sister a dead baby wrapped in military uniform in order to warn her about what could happen to her in the course of her life. In Heritage, a woman wheels some babies in a pram: the new war generation. If clay was used to model those little baby-warriors of the Han dynasty, iron was used in shaping the pram as a symbol of the future. Enemies Child conveys how difficult it is to accept children born from raped mothers. The artist shows the suffering every woman inherits and endures as a mother. Moreover, the very location used in Beijing to exhibit the 70 statues reminds us that history repeats itself, since these conditions have been the same for thousands of years. The location is an old arms factory, no longer in use, and is real evidence of how humans still prefer to arm themselves to defend their claimed territory. In 1938 Virginia Woolf affirmed: “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” Would the experience of motherhood be a possible way to make mankind accept the idea of a large family? Would a world ruled by a majority of women be a little more peaceful and equal? As Marian Heyerdahl says, “patriarchy contributes to create social inequalities. In Norway many politicians are women, and we are approaching to equality.” In Norway electoral quotas for women in politics were introduced in the 1980s. History teaches us that sometimes minorities may be important and preserved when some brave individuals prove to be able to break the mould. Through a “role reversal” in her The Terra-cotta Woman, Marian Heyerdahl makes her contribution to overturning social conventions in favor of a feminine consciousness and an individual universalism.