The Venus and The Volture

Cheryl Hassen - The Venus and the Vultures

I currently have an exhibit at Roundhill Studio Gallery in Annapolis Royal. One of the talented Gallery Assistants, Linda Hulme Leahy, was inspired by my work, for which I am grateful, and she wrote this essay comparing and contrasting my images “Rock Condos” and “Bird’s Eye View.”

The Venus and the Vultures

– A Eurocentric Feminist Response to Two Photographs of Rock Faces by Cheryl Hassen

“A rock face can look like almost anything . . . It emphatically exists and yet its appearance (within a few very broad geological limitations) is arbitrary. It is only like it is, this time.”

John Berger, About Looking

Shale, I have learned, is a sedimentary rock formed from mud which is deposited in slow moving or quiet waters. It is a mix of clay minerals and other tiny fragments. It is fragile, readily splitting into thin pieces along laminations, like the skin of an onion flaking off at the merest of handling. Even the word, shale, sounds soft and delicate. One could imagine naming a child “Shale”. It is accommodating, gentle and, dare I say, feminine sounding. It is fitting, then, that the rounded, creviced rock face depicted in Cheryl Hassen’s “Rock Condos” displays a gathering of rounded stones and pebbles nestled within dark, eroded fissures. Upon seeing this photograph I immediately began to internally refer to it as “she”.

“Rock Condos” by Cheryl Hassen

About 70 per cent of the world’s crust is shale, which becomes exposed when there is erosion or some sort of surface deformity. What was once buried is revealed and, in so doing, begins to change and respond to its environment. This particular rock face has been made smooth and inviting due to it being situated by the harsh north Atlantic. Dark yet friendly, she could be a wrinkled toothy African elder graced with body art and beaded adornment, skin cracked and worn after long years of exposure to the elements. Experienced, wise.

What my gaze sees, though, is a figure with bulbous breasts and an ample torso. This rock face is a Nova Scotian version of the paleolithic Venus of Willendorf, a 26,000 year old statue found by archaeologists on the banks of the Danube in Austria. This Venus, like her counterpart, is faceless but with a corpulent, undulating body that, though armless, is somehow gentle with pregnant accommodation. She is a fertility figure (though recently her status from goddess has been demoted by some researchers to that of mere Woman of Willendorf. But aren’t all women goddesses?) 

Venus of Willendorf (source: Wikipedia)

This south shore goddess is rounded and pregnant as well, embracing wave-smoothed stones as if they were a village of children. The Willendorf figure, like her shale sister, is also made of a sedimentary rock. Oolite has many concentric layers of tiny spherical grains called ooids (ooid is derived from the ancient Greek word for “egg”). Both are found at a water’s edge, both synergistically made up of materials that contain other materials. Both appear maternal.

Psychologists examining the Venus of Willendorf believe that her so-called exaggerated proportions are due to a behavioural response called “peak shift”. Peak shift happens when preferred attributes are exaggerated and, thus, create an exaggerated response. This statue, less than five inches high, would have been made during the ice age, a time of scant resources. Her large breasts and hips plus the sculptural attention to her vulva would have been considered attractive and fertile. This faceless, armless figure may have represented hope in harsh circumstances. 

Perhaps I experienced peak shift when examining Hassen’s dramatic photograph. My own body is bulbous and rounded. May I have recognized my own form? Or perhaps I see the female form in general which has weathered many storms and still experiences social erosion. Our bodies may be subject to harsh environments, but what is exposed is a fertile beauty and strength, a mature sophisticated hope made up of many materials that result in forms greater than the sum of their parts. And above all, enduring.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“A rock face is always there.”

John Berger, About Looking

Closely related to shale is slate. When shale is subject to immense pressure, it compresses and hardens into slate, a metamorphic rock. Slate – it sounds considerably harsher than its softer cousin. The word is more rigid, unyielding, foreboding. Imagine the hard-bodied hero of a romance novel named “Slate”, uber masculine and brimming with testosterone. Or one could picture a Norse warrior woman striking fear into the enemy with her unexpected ferocity. Upon viewing Hassen’s photograph, “Bird’s Eye View”, slate seems to me to be the appropriate term. Here is a rock face with jagged geometry, linear and pointy and cutting edgy. This rock has not been smoothed from exposure. It has shattered, which is geologically predictable considering that it has, like shale, natural cleavages prone to breakage.

“Bird’s Eye View” by Cheryl Hassen

Hassen’s name for the photograph is not a reference to the angle of the view, but to what is viewed from this angle. The top third of the image contains two red stains and it does not take long to recognize that they are eyes. Further attention reveals that these are the eyes of two large beaked birds. My immediate response is that they are stony vultures, one looming and hunched with a hook-nosed companion close behind. Their stare is omnipresent stoic, those red blotches large and judgmental. I feel like I am being sized up and I fear that acceptance into their gaze is difficult.

These hag-like creatures are like monstrous goddesses, harbingers of death. 

Again, I have assumed a feminine identity to Hassen’s birds, aligning them with archaeological and mythical creatures from a plethora of cultures – the Celtic Morrigan, the Sumerian Inanna, the Hindu Kali – all associated with death and judgment but also rebirth. Raptors such as the vulture are a recurring.