This astonishing, terrifying work by the incredible feminist artist Nancy Spero is reproduced stunningly by Siglio Press. The 14 panels are reproduced in full, then showing the details in their full legibility. It’s hard to get a sense of scale from a book, but even so, this work seems massive. Not just in size but in scope.
The collage is sparse, encasing the fragments of testimony and witnessing, and of Spero’s imagery in swathes of visual silence. The kind of silence that engulfs the actual practice of torture. Often, the reproduced typographical accounts of the experience of torture seem small, in comparison to the emptiness of the scroll-like panels they inhabit. That contrast is also an affirmation, that the torture which attempts to silence, attempts to obliterate self and speaker, can not be allowed to reign. That Spero as an artist is compelled to counter that imposed silence in the same way as the survivors of torture do: by discussing it.
Spero frames her collage discussion within a mythic context; the story of Tiamat and Marduk serving as the archetype of the torture of women. This framework, and the nearly blasé factual reportage of the testimony, help Spero avoid that kind of pleasure in the obscene that appears occasionally in art about tragedy and violence. There is no moralizing, either, merely outrage, anger, and pain.
The critical essays following a selection of quotes by Spero about her role as a politically engaged feminist artist are insightful and thorough. Going through the work again alongside the critical explorations forced a kind of slowing, a more careful engagement with the work, exactly as good critical frameworks ought to. The final piece is a short story by the Argentine author Luisa Valenzuela, translated by the phenomenal Margaret Jull Costa, called Symmatries. It’s haunting, about a single man’s obsession with two deaths, as he puts it in the beginning. It unravels, conflates stories of imprisonment and torture and desire and love across time, and species. I really don’t want to say more about it, because part of the joy of reading it is seeing how the pieces fit together, and knowing more in advance would spoil it. But it’s really astounding.