Bed-knobs and Broomsticks
April 4th 2011
You're wandering through Chippendale, minding your own business, when you stumble across some water-colour dildos in amongst some bunny rabbits and toadstools. Monika Behren and Rochelle Haley's playful new show at MOP Gallery explores historical witch craft and contemporary female sexuality.
My immediate response to the show was to have a good giggle. Was that what you were aiming to get from your audience?
Yes – what's not funny about watercolour dildos?We were certainly aiming for humour and spent a lot of the time preparing the work in fits of giggles ourselves. We're glad people have found the paintings fun after approaching what look like pretty serious studies from a distance.
Laughs-out-loud aside, however, the show touches on some fascinating historical ground. Can you tell us about your research in to witchcraft?
Our interest began when we read about a witches ‘flying ointment’ potion that was administered vaginally using a special dildo hence ‘broomstick’.?? Our research has turned up lots of references to ‘phallic wands’ or staffs used for ritual purposes in witchcraft. Some authors mentions the ‘ride’ witches undertake is a euphemism for sexual congress. The written records of Witch trials in 1460 Arras, France mention anointing a small wooden rod and putting it between their legs to straight away ‘fly’ to their assembly with the devil. We came across colourful witchcraft tales in the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ (The Witch Hammer), the 15th century witch-hunting handbook. It has a passage describing witches stealing men’s ‘virile members’ and hiding them in birds’ nests. ?Our paintings include hemlock, datura, nightshade, belladonna, monks-hood, fly-agaric mushrooms and poppies. Also common kitchen herbs that are hallucinatory in large quantities. Surprisingly, parsley is mentioned a few times as being a strongly hallucinatory ingredient for a witches ‘flying ointment’. We considered it such a boring herb and had no idea of it’s sexy magic genealogy!?
And expand on your thoughts about female sexuality, then and now?
Well it's interesting that imaging sex toys mainly used by women can be culturally more provocative than graphic sexualised images of bodies. Painting them in watercolour can be equally as subversive. The vilification of women (often independent of traditional female roles) with knowledge and control of the natural world was brutal and effective. Not as effective however as the almost total euphemisation of a history of female sexuality. Disney and others take it so far as to suggest the 'broomstick' should be ridden side saddle!
The watercolours are so lush and delicate they could belong to a book of children's stories. What inspired that aesthetic?
The aesthetic of botanical illustration was a reference point for us because many of the hallucinatory plants of the middle ages we researched are presented in this clinical and turgid way. We felt the uptightness of the imagery was a comical contrast to the content of glass dildos, vibrating ticklers and the like. Fairytale illustration is another important inspiration as it is a wonderfully imaginative and seductive cloak to cover ideas to do with sex, death, love and the devil….
There's a little surprise in the back of the exhibition brochure. Whose idea was that and why?
The catalogue includes a sachet of personal lubricant inside the back cover. We came up