Visitors to Anna Bunting-Branch’s exhibition The Labours of Barren House at Jerwood Space, as part of their Solo Presentation series, are met by an oversized pair of puckered lips with a suggestive tongue sticking out. Painted fleshy pink,Mother Tongue, 2016, looks like it has been hacked away from a larger monument and sits on top of a plinth. At once alluring and slightly threatening, the lips are taken from a scene in the artist’s new animation, The Linguists, 2017, exhibited nearby. In the film, women enact a séance and talk in a constructed language that is translated underneath by subtitles. “Rarilh,” for instance, is a word that signifies an attempt to “deliberately refrain from recording; for example, the failure throughout history to record the accomplishments of women.”
Láadan, was invented by the Science Fiction writer Suzette Haden Elgin, and conceived as a language for women, by women and was disseminated in her novels, Native Tongue, throughout the Eighties and Nineties. Within The Linguists, there is persistently fraught relationship to speech with characters frequently proclaiming that they “have no language” and “there are many words we do not have”. Who gets to speak — or doesn’t — to who and how are frequent touchstones within Bunting-Branch’s work. In the film, lips become free floating signifiers — variously becoming ears, mouths and vaginas. The sculpture Fingerspell (“G.L.A.M.O.U.R”), 2016, presented in the same installation continues this focus on the communicative agency of the body. Encompassing broken fingers seemingly taken from the same imaginary monument as Mother Tongue, the sculpture, as noted by Bunting-Branch is a speculative monument from the future. The fragmented body, as articulated by Linda Nochlin, suggests an erosion of the totalising view of history. Language, just like the past, is full of lacuna and shaped by erasure. The mouth and the hand are the motors of communicative agency through voice and gesture, and here they remain disembodied and fractured.
Bunting-Branch works across sculpture, painting and animation, threading Feminist genealogies with historical and contemporary motifs, focusing on ideas around female collectivity and community. Her work references an array of thinkers, writers and musicians associated with first and second generation Feminism. By rendering the visibility of these influences so publicly, Bunting-Branch creates an intergenerational dialogue with her artistic forebears. A particular influence is science fiction and the notion of worldbuilding. These fictive realms clearly hold a possibility for new imaginaries and Bunting-Branch frequently references research and knowledge that resist dominant Western hegemonic modes of thought. From neo-paganism to the occult, eco-Feminism to spiritualism, Bunting-Branch foregrounds possibilities for matriarchal and queer experiences that sit outside heteronormative frameworks.
In an earlier animation W.I.T.C.H (“Women Inspired to Commit Herstory” and other tales…), 2015, Bunting-Branch shifts tone. The film moves between scenes of a rural idyll where women swim freely and a nocturnal urban landscape. The title’s acronym alludes to the name of a loose affiliation of Feminist politicos active in New York City, San Fransisco and Chicago in the late Sixties that attempted to connect Feminism with other Leftist causes and various forms of anti-institutionalism. Branch has a great eye for detail and musical tone. Mary Watkins’s Witches Revenge plays in the background and the records’ late Seventies Funk perfectly captures the radical ferment of that period. A disparate array of props appear in one scene as a black cat walks slinkily through. A gun, a foot and some recording equipment appear like props from an imagined, if absent, narrative. A women’s nose starts to bleed, and the wound quickly becomes exacerbated. The silhouette of a woman appears as she pleasures herself in front of a full moon. A circle of women hover in mid-air, as if kneeling in prayer to an unknown deity. These non-sequiturs operate like the artist’s sculptures, favouring a type of elliptical storytelling over cohesive narrative.
At the end of the film Bunting-Branch namecheck’s Sally Miller Gearhart’s eco-feminist novel The Wanderground, 1979. In the book, women have fled the male dominated city to live in female communities in the wilderness in “harmony with nature”. Monique Wittig’s Les Guerilleres, 1969, is another feminist book cited by Bunting-Branch. In Wittig’s story, a war of the sexes breaks out and women, joined by some sympathetic men, engage in battles in an attempt to create a new matriarchal society. In a world of post-truth politics, social media echo chambers and alternative facts and an elected, yet clearly unqualified, male U.S president, issues of who speaks to who and how seems increasingly prescient. The recent anti-Trump women’s marches clearly attest to the ongoing power of collective and imaginative action against dominant patriarchal narratives.
Alongside her sculptural and film work Bunting-Branch has created paintings on folded aluminium, mimicking protest posters that also appear within scenic backdrops in her moving image work. With phrases such as “Whispers Increase ‘Til Cacophonies Heard” and “Wild Imaginations Transform Chauvinist Hegemony” Bunting-Branch foregrounds the need for an effective language that counterposes dominant discourse, that conflates polemic with something more poetic and playful. The posters suggest new possibilities and narratives whose achievements, this time around, demand to be recorded by history.