Scent of A Rose Chamber

Albury Regional Art Gallery, Albury, NSW

Academia’s Archaeology
by Bridie Lonie

In scent of a Rose Chamber Lynn Plummer continues to interrogate relationships between the gendered power structures of institutions and the panoply of ritual. Earlier work investigated the church: here she moves to the world of academe, often characterized as the female allegorical figure Academia. This work draws together threads of past works, a new focus and the possibilities offered by this site. Thus the gallery’s name yields associations with the enclosed and ritual spaces in which power nourishes itself.

The operation of power in institutions is usually a slow accretion of tedious bureaucratic acts, offering little opportunity for grandeur. Institutions such as the Masons gained their rituals drew their rituals from the period of their first flourish of production, when the building of the greatest stone cathedrals was already in the past. That past both legitimized and provided material for rituals of encounter and acceptance. Similarly, the rituals of entry into academe borrow the gowns and emblazons of the period in which those institutions were established. The original uses of those garments and their lack of distinction within the society of the times have been forgotten. Instead, a hierarchal splendour is built on generic signifiers.

Engaging with the fictional creation of that splendour, Lyn Plummer has looked at its obverse side, its abjection in the disempowerment of women within those structures. Academic ritual in its medievalising aspects refers to the period of the Malleus Maleficarum, the fifteenth-century text known as the “Hammer of Witches”, which drew its legitimacy from the equation of the female with sin. Its roots lie in a distinction between the rational male and the irrational female, the masculine mind/spirit and the female body. That the narrowing ladder toward academic power continues to prefer men reflects the persistence of that gendering.

Within this work, the claustrophobic splendours of ritual: throne, gown and academic ladder, are presented with their other. Plummer constructs parallels between the academic gown and the flayed skins of the animals who provided the manuscripts of establishment and the torn skin of those who stitch the gowns of academic entry. A throne of power is seated in the abjected ooze of this originary engendering. The logic of the work is binary: each element relies upon the other for its significance. Academia lies with her throat cut open in Plummer’s sado-masochistic drama.

Bridie Lonie © 1999
Art Historian and critic
Head of Art Theory and History
School of Art
Otago Polytechnic

1. This is the best known (i.e., the most infamous) of the witch-hunt manuals. Written in Latin, the Malleus was first submitted to the University of Cologne on May 9th, 1487. The title is translated as "The Hammer of Witches". Written by James Sprenger and Henry Kramer (of which little is known), the Malleus remained in use for three hundred years. It had tremendous influence in the witch trials in England and on the continent.