A Conversation with Eleanor of Aquitaine

(This piece is also posted at Drawn to the Page. The pictures are my own but were taken with the permission of the gallery at the De la Warr Pavilion)

“In a Dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy”, I hear her say; and I pause.

Recumbent; at rest; approachable yet regal, bronzen yet not bronze. 800 years ago officially dead. 2017 very much alive and not in effigy alone. This alluring person in sepulchral stillness shifts a knee and then a finger as she turns a page of her book.

Eleanor d’Aquitaine had lain reading into eternity, ceaseless words at her fingertips. No boundaries; save the single wire that surrounds her. Installed I guessed by concerned gallery management. Concerned for her dignity? Accorded by her birthright – probably not. But likely installed for her safety that she might prevail, physically unharmed, upon this exhibition as its patron, disseminator and gallery guide.

As she wryly observes, closely to my ear; “I have become a part of the gig economy. It’s art and it’s work”. Her gig lasting about 5 weeks at the De la Warr Pavilion.

“Good book you’re reading?” I ask. “A page turner?”, thinking that 800 years might be a long time to be reading the same story.
“One of the Bronte girls”, she replies. Her right thumb (she appears to be right handed) she inserts into the book saving her page; regards the cover and announces; “Charlotte. Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre”.

“The Brontes inhabited the mid 19th century”, I inform her.

“I was re-cast in the mid 19th century. Read the information”; she curtly responds flicking a neat digit towards a tiny label on the wall behind her.

“My eternity is installed in your thoughts and dreams. Remain respectful and don’t get ideas above your station”.

“Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was a go-to literary work for intelligent women, such as me, during the 19th century.”

Still in recline, turning towards me, she places her chin upon her right hand and announces, “this show is laden with sexuality and sensuality. Do you understand the meaning of those two words and worlds? I am your witness to death but also to life, existing as I do in your dreams and my eternity.”

Eleanor rises fully from her bed, takes me by the hand and starts her brief tour, diagonally heading to a small photograph – Chris Killip’s tractor in a field. Eleanor’s brow furrows like the distant stripes on Killip’s field. “This is life. Ploughing is life”. Beware the precipitous cliff edge, she is reminding me as I am drawn to the distance. Her presence has now settled on me like a warm blanket.

 

Pirouetting, briefly on tip toe, and looking back across her shoulder, her mourning garments resplendent now in life and dream, she beckons me towards a swirling woman on film. The kaleidescopic synthesis of a technology emerging in the late 19th century. Art in moving images. Deceptive colours merge and ebb. The whole palette in a symmetry of exciting movement. The Lumiere brothers at work. “This is sensuality. The body, movement, intimacy”. Should I ask her to dance. Had she slipped me a philtre I wonder?

Her arm interlocking mine, she glides me away from this hypnotic dancer.  Suddenly she unlocks me and stops beside a colour photo. ‘Enfield Close 1977’; vigorous motion captured in absolute stillness.  Time in flying seconds, split into thousandths. We are inside the mind of a young girl, allegedly possessed of a poltergeist. The girl is in mid-air as her brother (I suppose) sleeps, soundly, on an adjacent bed. Male heroes, of hers or his, displayed on the wall. “If she is possessed” – Eleanor is emphatically arguing -“…then I suspect it could be by joy she is possessed. Spirited, defiant joy. Not poltergeist”.

Close to Eleanor’s temporary place of rest in this gallery is the overbearing exhibit. Wrestling men filmed by Fassbinder. A squalid homo-erotic struggle to the death played out below the dispassionate gaze of a woman who displays a clear understanding of fine millinery and only a passing interest in the mayhem of men in battle.

“Typical men. Find out they’re gay when it’s far too late”, is Eleanor’s laconic comment. “Must say though their final struggle for life is impressive. I have witnessed such struggles over hundreds of years. That watching woman knows that the only one who will overcome, is her. Commentary on my eternal life.

“Am I stylish in this death scene?“ she asks rhetorically; settling again into her position of exhibition.

“Yes you are stylish. May I add modish, too. Where would you prefer to rest; if not here?”, I say.
She answers pensively; “Perhaps as a figure carved in carrara marble. In the mind of Bridget Reilly. Or alongside a fallen man, condemned to sleep, rather than to rest. But most comfortably, if not here then in the chair of Charlotte Perriand. It’s her chair not Corbusier’s and I would be proud to open my book, enfolded by her work.”

Recumbent again; settling her head on the hard pillow and opening her book, Eleanor d’Aquitaine addresses me finally. “Miss Eyre, like me, will continue to speak to you and others. We are eternal. Great run I have had here. Great gig. Shame it’s ending soon”

To sleep, rest or die