Pupa, Pastry, Person: on artist Emma Brennan’s practice

In Hebrew, the word golem means Pupa, the stage in a bug’s life cycle when it’s inside a cocoon. It is a time for the creature to lay hidden in a shell protecting it while it develops slowly and is not able to defend itself on its own. Pupa is the last stage of becoming a mature, fully formed creature.

In Jewish mythology it is a man-shaped block of clay risen to life with mystical use of letters: a word written on paper put into the Golem’s mouth, and letters spelling “true” written on the forehead. To collapse a Golem back to still clay, the letters on the forehead are to be changed to spell “dead”. The most famous Golem tale is the 16th Century Golem of The Maharal (Judah Loew ben Bezalel) who, according to the myth, would use the Golem to terrorise those spreading blood libels about the Jewish people in Prague. In the tale The Maharal forgot to alter the letters and the Golem ran wild until his creator caught up and disabled it, shattering the creature, and the remains are still in the synagogue where it was caught.

So much for stories of myth and nature I heard as a child.

Why is this interesting?

I started thinking about the Golem and the Pupa after meeting Dublin-based artist Emma Brennan, and had a quick peek of her studio in residence at Draíocht in Blanchardstown. Brennan works with dough and bread as method as well as subject matter. Hearing her talk about dough, how it breathes, grows, has and gives life immediately echoed The Golem myth in my mind. Brennan looks at food as social practice, and considers it as part of the cycle of social living. The cycle runs from its intention, the giving act of preparing nourishment for others and how it is included in the relationships formed from it, through the relationships between the cook and those eating it creates “in real time”, and onto the impact it has on the body of the person eating: the social understanding of belonging to one’s own body.

The things most in common between the Pupa, the Golem, and Brennan’s social views of bread are care and gestation. Rather than referring back to the artist’s own theoretical and artistic research and background, I thought it might be interesting to open a hatch to the practice through the social view of creation and nurture. In our conversation we did not explicitly discuss feminism but it was there in the recognition of the maternal process of creating a breathing, rising creature is there, the care to keep it from collapsing. Where the intersection becomes more interesting is in the critical function of Brennan’s bread practice. Her critical interest actually sits with traditional cooking methods, slow and thorough, cooking from the land, and in the land. The practice of food (through its entire process) is to Brennan an expression of belonging and being home. She explores in depth the value given to the care and gestation time food preparation, serving, and sharing gets, and in that it is a deeply feminist enquiry.

Images (mostly) by Emma Brennan and all courtesy of her

The traditional food practices Brennan is interested in were primarily a female’s responsibility in the household and the artist questions the assignment of value to the cycle in view of that. She looks at the idea of care and challenges its its materialisation or even fetishisation in society. The offering of food as sharing yourself is, to Brennan, an undervalued act. In her studio she creates dough creations and tests how they survive the space, and her performance is focused on carrying and sharing dough with the audience. Perhaps the time spent preparing and distributing food will newly have its judged value raised when practiced as performance art, though both practices suffer from being viewed as “soft” practices and are unpaid, unvalued economically. The time, care, and investment of one’s self both practices require get a tribute through Brennan’s work, bringing the need for recognision of their value into the discussion.

Her moving image and social media work correspond to the story of the Golem through the view of politics and creation as political. The corporeal nature of the visuals of dough resting, rising, rolled and stretched in the space, and the durational actions of kneading taken out of the defensive shell of the kitchen become a strong statement and a demand to be seen and accepted. This is accomplished by constant contrasting of the dough with the artist’s own physical being, Brennan is present in the imagery as a powerful creator of bread who forms, nurtures, patiently protects it while it rises, then graciously endows it.

In fact, she demands for her dough and bread to be valued for the worth of the care put into their creation. She demands it for the care she invested into the work as well as the generations of women before her whose practice was unvalued care and generosity. Brennan’s dough started out as a controlled Golem, but her studio work is fascinating in its seemingly dough-gone-wild qualities. Brennan’s video installation is currently included in PLATFORM, an exhibition at the Draíocht visual art gallery alongside (in the spirit of full disclosure) my own work, and it’s worthwhile paying attention to where her practice goes from where it currently is.

… and please vote to Repeal The 8th!


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