Scything semantics at Knole: Alice May Williams dissects primogeniture

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Still from film installation, By the Accident of Your Birth, 2018 .  Courtesy of the artist Alice May Williams

The much anticipated new film by one of my favourite moving-image artists, Alice May Williams, made my journey out to Knole House in Sevenoaks last week very worthwhile. Five artists present their artworks in the house and grounds including the Turner Prize winner, Lubaina Himid, as part of A Woman’s Place, a project curated by Lucy Day and Eliza Gluckman. Williams dual-screen 23 minute film installation, By the Accident of Your Birth, is the work that most successfully captures the contemporary significance of Knole and its murky family history. Taking the contrasting figures of Vita Sackville-West and her cousin Eddy as her starting point, she comprehensively rolls up a vast range of boundary-challenging issues including division by spatial, gender, botanical, linguistic and national categories. There is even an intimation of the Windrush and Brexit controversies by slotting in a sly aside on the vagaries of defining citizenship and nostalgia for the blue UK passport. Williams instills in the viewer the urgent imperative to address the complexities of identity fluidity in all its forms in this bigoted era of ours.

Williams’ signature strengths, first spotted by the Jerwood Award panel, are applied in creating a compelling multilayered experience that conveys a coherent argument. The film is concisely edited and the carefully synchronised narration and footage incorporate a vast array of historical examples including the third androgynous sex posited by Greek mythology and Vita’s anomalous position of failing to inherit Knole because she lacked a penis. The role of lawyers and doctors in policing gender is contrasted with the naturalist’s obsession with categorising species. The concepts of hybridisation and continuuum infiltrate the film’s imagery which gives a panoramic exposition on how distinct boundaries are required to appease our unconscious insecurities.

There is rich seam of irony to be mined in the Knole disinheritance debacle. Williams is highly sensitive to this and delicate witty touches highlighting the absurdity of gender categorisation pop up throughout the film.  Vita, a pioneering garden designer, had many lesbian affairs and was barred from inheriting her beloved childhood home but produced heirs through her devoted lifelong marriage to the diplomat Harold Nicholson. Her cousin, Eddy Sackville West, a music critic who championed Benjamin Britten, inherited Knole and the barony but as a largely closeted gay man never married and left no heirs. Eddy was drawn to Berlin as more conducive to his lifestyle and eventually left Knole to live in Ireland.

Gender confusion is given a subtle twist by noting that androgynous bisexual plant species can be given masculine names. Just one example, as Williams aptly describes it, of how semantics “scythe” through our conception of the world and divide it into rigid arbitrary categories. A visual counterpart to these binary oppositions is worked out through line drawing portraits that appear superimposed on the filmed footage illustrating the androgynous physiognomy of the Sackville-West dynasty.

Installing contemporary art in a stately home has its problems and the compromises reached highlight the power imbalance between art and the heritage industry. Williams’ film is being shown in a tiny side room that only two people can view at one time. I can see the logic of its location as it is accessed through Eddy’s atmospheric music room high in the Gatehouse Tower. But even under optimal conditions that means that maybe 20 people a day can view the film in its entirety, a fraction of the 500+ daily visitors to Knole. Releasing it online, as Lindsay Seers has done with her film, would be one option. A more radical one would have been to display it on larger screens in the music room itself granting this work the wider audience that it surely deserves. But of course this would jeopardise the National Trust’s sumptuous permanent display. This theme is played out elsewhere on the site through the difficulties in viewing Lubaina Himid’s tiny paintings installed metres above the eyeline in the Stone Court and the restricted access to CJ Mahoney’s installation of stained glass and shuttered screens cordoned off at the far end of the Great Hall. This link between power and spatial relationships has been clinically dissected by Turner Prize nominated research group, Forensic Architecture, led by Eyal Weizman, to be further explored in my next blogpost.

Nevertheless, By the Accident of Your Birth exposes a fascinating story, provoking debate on our current woes. Inheritance is under scrutiny within identity politics as an iniquitous example of gender discrimination. But it has wider economic relevance as the squeezed middle class worry that, as they reach their dotage, their highly valued homes will need to be sold off to finance their expensive nursing home fees. Not a worry for the Sackville-West’s or the rest of the aristocracy. However they are still burdened by the archaic male primogeniture laws that as recently as 2017 deprived Amanda Murray of her baronet father’s title and estate. Although legislation passed in 2013 made succession to the throne gender neutral, if Prince William had been born Princess Wilhelmina, Harry would now be the heir to the throne instead of his elder sister!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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