We sat on hard chairs in a circle, framed by white walls topped with silent books and tall arched windows set in ancient stone. It was a meeting of CAS artists early this year. Each of us had read the same text recommended by August Davies, curator at The Winchester Gallery. Yonat spoke first, sharing her initial responses to the essay. As she spoke about the concept of hegemony I was interrupted by the image of a chicken, pecking, pecking. I had written a the words “hegemony” and “chicken” into a verse of poetry years ago. And here it was, the image of a chicken demanding my attention to the point I couldn’t listen properly anymore and I was bursting to recite the poem.
Mouths gape wide
in the black spotted night
of closed shut, blinked blind
Eyes locked inwards
seeing an abstract landscape.
Are we gaping wordless?
White pale wanting goldfish
at the window of an emerging thought:
packaged, produced, marketed?
Or are we screaming, fountains full?
Red run: an urgent fall of wool unravelling
across the carpet of our hegemony.
Ego blind, fears bind
And there’s a chicken
beak-pecking at the thread of it.
I’d come across the concept of ‘hegemony’ a year before I wrote that poem. I was studying Visual Culture 101 at Otago University, in which the act of seeing was put under a microscope of critical enquiry. Following on from college level media analysis where critical thinking was applied to advertising, now every form of visual stimulus including behaviour, clothing, historical photographs, and environments were also things to be ‘read’ and understood through the lens of culture.
‘Hegemony’ refers to the status-quo and for that reason is an essential concept when applying critical thinking and media analysis. By understanding the culture in which an image, symbol, or sign was produced we can understand not only the intended meaning, but also the alternative meanings which are rejected by status quo. To speak up for the alternative meanings is an act of Dissent because it challenges the status quo: the mainstream beliefs and narratives as well as the structures and institutions that aid in perpetuating them.
Now as I turn my attention to practicing Dissent in the Winchester Gallery with my fellow CAS artists I am drawn back to image of the chicken pecking at the ‘carpet of our hegemony’.
A quick google search gives me the meaning of chickens according to the spiritual traditions of established cultures. When googling symbolism you will usually be delivered results pertaining to mythological and historical contexts which embeds the symbol within a certain time, heritage, or tradition. However, feeling into the meaning of a symbol in relation to how it has appeared in your life and what it means to you is equally effective (more interesting and relevant even). In this case, I want to determine what the chicken in the poem represents to me now, on the eve of The Laboratory of Dissent.
My research tells me that a chicken symbolises knowledge, learning and observation. As a personal power symbol chickens represent the ability to absorb new ideas, sense danger and, guard your personal space. They also represent fertility and creativity. Individuality and uniqueness, and independence in groups.
The ability to remain individual and unique when existing among a large group is something I presume all CAS artists will be endeavouring during The Laboratory of Dissent. Whilst each group focuses on a wider cultural narrative, institution, or identity, (for example the institution of the art gallery, the narratives printed in newspapers, and the identity of a mother artist), the collaborative nature of this project will inevitably produce consensus within the CAS group itself, as well as the opportunity to dissent when subjective viewpoints collide.
So for me, the chicken represents the observer, both knowledgeable and curious. The chicken is a teacher. In the poem the act of pecking – the movement – draws our attention. What is it pecking at? It’s pecking at the carpet of our hegemony, drawing our attention to it (here it is!) and threatening to pick holes, pluck threads, and unravel the ground on which we stand.
In the gallery the chicken may be there as I, the red thread, unravel the line of my enquiry, expressively and with unnamed urgency. There is much that needs to be said, many questions to ask, and viewpoints to discover. And when fear rears it’s ugly head, and ego identifies with roles ascribed through hegemonic structures, in my minds eye the chicken is still pecking. We’ll get there in the end. The illusion will come undone.
Maija is collaborating with Kirsty Smith and Isaac Whitcombe during Week 3 of the Laboratory of Dissent project, a new exhibition at The Winchester Gallery. Week 3 ‘Are we in or out?’ takes place from Monday 7th – Friday 14th September 2015.