Virginia Lee Montgomery: Ponytails, power drills, and political action

By Laura Demers

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Deep See (2017), video still. Courtesy of Virginia Lee Montgomery.

A blinking eye peers through a circular opening in a foam board seabed. A manicured hand then reaches through the hollow, extending its fingers towards a disembodied ponytail that dangles alluringly (Deep See, 2017). The suspended blonde prop appears again on another display screen across the hall. The viewer is transported from a natural environment to a sterile business setting; this time, the prop slithers through a corporate landscape of hotel furniture (Pony Hotel, 2018).

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Pony Hotel (2018), video still. Courtesy of Virginia Lee Montgomery.

Texas-born, New York-based artist Virginia Lee Montgomery’s video practice has recently received great acclaim; her work is accurately described as an exploration of “the economic, ecologic, and emotive uncanny”[1] that characterizes both psychic and daily life under capitalism. Upon first seeing VLM’s work in the New Museum’s Screens Series, I quickly became captivated by the narratives she conjures. Palimpsestic historical references, found footage, sensuous sound samples, and idiosyncratic visual motifs come together in surprising ways, thus “enabling surreal awakenings.[2] Drawing from materialist philosophy, metaphysics, semiotics, psychology, environmental activism, and personal experience, VLM makes masterfully layered videos. Beyond their initial hypnotizing effect, these pieces left me pleasantly bemused. I revisited her work online, again and again, eventually noticing the cyclical themes underpinning her works; psychic loops, redundancies in history, geological and meteorological patterns, the reproduction of labour, the circulation of symbols and signs, etc. Most striking, I think, is VLM’s way of showing how feminist and elemental agencies are affected by —and implicated in — these cycles of hope and oblivion.

Most of VLM’s videos are set inside hand-built maquettes. She perforates the walls of these fabrications with a Dewalt hole saw, producing holes wide enough to allow parts of her body to interact with objects and substances embedded within. Fingers stretch, stroke, prod, and probe, sometimes wielding power tools or other instruments, while viscous liquids such as tar and pastry frosting drip across various surfaces. Her works bear the same magnetic effect as ASMR youtube clips; uncanny yet appealing.

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Water Witching (2018), video still. Courtesy of Virginia Lee Montgomery.

At first glance, the works also remind me of Mika Rottenberg’s absurd video installations where female bodies and body parts are compartmentalized according to their function in the production chain. Rottenberg exposes, with perverse humour, the structures that feed off of Sisyphean forms of labor and that embroil women across the globe in complex and rather dubious relations of power. In No Nose Knows (2015), for example, “female workers cultivating pearls on an assembly line [in coastal China] take sustenance of noodles that are sneezed out of the massive nose of their [North American] manager.”[3] Likewise, with works like Innovation Porthole (2015), VLM is interested in the ways in which the body —and perhaps even more so, the psyche —experiences daily life within a neoliberal economy that “emotively engineers [its] employees.”[4] The artist drills through the fabric wall of an office cubicle to grab a gooey pastry from a platter that rests on the opposite side. She drills another hole in the back of a protective helmet in order to better accommodate her ponytail, adjusts the gear on her head, and proceeds to navigate her corporate surroundings like an obstacle course. “The activities you see in the video are […] portrayals of ridiculous hoops that I must jump through, reach through, squeeze through in order to be acceptable”[5], she says. It is important to mention that aside from making art, VLM does graphic facilitation at conferences across the United States. In this particular professional context where women are largely underrepresented, she is required to present herself as a “businesswoman”, an identity that is somewhat at odds with her own —hence the “Business Witch” persona that occasionally makes an appearance in her artistic work.

 

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Innovation Porthole (2015), video still. Courtesy of Virginia Lee Montgomery.
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Innovation Porthole (2015), video still. Courtesy of Virginia Lee Montgomery.

In one of her latest works, VLM’s focus seems to shift away from the corporate realm of cubicles and conference rooms, and towards the natural world. Water Witching (2018) suggests a scenario where the elemental world and feminism, together, take action against patriarchal structures of instrumentalization and domination. Weaving together images of nature and of feminist protests, this work is about “conjuring the strength to weather chaos.”[6] The artist re-contextualizes the ancient pseudoscientific practice of dowsing — a method by which diviners would, with the help of rudimentary instruments, locate underground rivers and buried minerals — to address current climate concerns. VLM’s interest in dowsing is the result of her foray into the history and philosophy of various elemental materials such as rock, water, and metal, historically activated within theological or medicinal contexts by priestesses and healers. In her video, VLM cuts a wire coat hanger borrowed from a women’s march protest sign (a poignant plea for reproductive justice and for the right to access safe abortions) and bends it into two L-shaped divining rods. The artists’ manicured hands reappear once again, this time covered in blobs of black and blue dye, and re-enact the ritual so as to summon a stream of moving images depicting exploitative operations that continue to endanger the environment and women’s lives/livelihoods. Documentary clips of decaying nature, habitat destruction, and resource extraction cascade at a rapid pace, along with current and historical footage of feminist manifestations, to the sounds of wind chimes, tornadoes, power drills, and field recordings.

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Water Witching (2018), video still. Courtesy of Virginia Lee Montgomery.

The manifesto titled Feminism for the 99% was recently recommended to me by a friend; this book concisely addresses some issues that are also at play within VLM’s work. Like the artist, the three authors advocate for feminism that does not lean into the capitalist ideology (by “empowering” select privileged women within corporate positions), but that instead seeks to dismantle it. Furthermore, the authors state that “if today’s ecological crisis is directly tied to capitalism, it also reproduces and worsens women’s oppression.”[7]

Indeed, statistical data has shown that in situations of ecological catastrophe, women with precarious incomes and housing situations often become the sole supporters of their families and communities. Their exposure to poverty, displacement, and violence are also disproportionately exacerbated. Using self-organized women’s groups who have struggled for potable water, clean air, and habitat conservation in their communities as case studies, the authors of the manifesto explain that:

“In their refusal to separate ecological issues from those of social reproduction, [grassroots] women-led movements represent a powerful anti-corporate and anti-capitalist alternative to ‘green capitalist’ projects that do nothing to stop global warming while enriching those who [contribute to its abstraction]. Women’s struggles focus on the real world, in which social justice, the well-being of human communities, and the sustainability of nonhuman nature are inextricably bound together.” [8]

Similarly, through visual meta-structures and a panoply of signs that elegantly slip into one another, Water Witching (2018) points to the intimate connection between the exploitation of natural reserves, and that of women’s bodies and social reproductive labour[9] — especially as both are seen as infinitely renewable resources. More broadly, the looping video alludes to circular rhythms and to humanity’s perpetual indebtedness to nature’s processes.

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Water Witching (2018), video still. Courtesy of Virginia Lee Montgomery.

VLM’s practice as a whole proves to be rather difficult to pin down and can raise more questions than answers. Yet her work, to me, begs for political action that encompasses ecological issues and shows us that for any iteration of feminism to fulfill its mandate (that of emancipation) it must necessarily align itself with environmentalist and anti-capitalist ethics. Her interests, as varied and wide-ranging as they seem, are embodied in the props, gestures, and visual associations that reappear from one video to the next, producing an overarching narrative in which feminist and ecological concerns are tightly enmeshed in the most whimsical and jarring of ways.


[1] http://www.shefolk.com/creatorinterviewsrss/2017/8/17/8y1l5msefksjvf3wanv5mqld34xziz

[2] https://www.banffcentre.ca/articles/its-okay-be-many-things-once-conversation-virginia-lee-montgomery

[3] http://www.leapleapleap.com/2016/02/mika-rottenberg-no-nose-knows/

[4] https://www.banffcentre.ca/articles/its-okay-be-many-things-once-conversation-virginia-lee-montgomery

[5] https://www.banffcentre.ca/articles/its-okay-be-many-things-once-conversation-virginia-lee-montgomery

[6] https://virginialeemontgomery.com/WATER-WITCHING

[7] Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser. Verso Books, 2019. p.47

[8] Ibid. p.48-49

[9] The labour that occurs in the domestic sphere (and is therefore relegated predominantly to women, especially women of colour). This unpaid labour, despite being devalorized and taken for granted within capitalist societies, serves to sustain the economic profit of others in the long run. These “people-making” activities, according to Arruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser, include, among many other things, the raising of children who will one day become compliant adults fit for the workforce, education, and healthcare work.

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