The New Myth: Wendy Wersch
June 13 – July 6, 2002
a response to the exhibition by Bev Pike
Grace, my thousand-year old cat, is snoozing peacefully next to me as I write. She is dying, dear Reader. I watch her deteriorate hourly, and worry over her coping with her difficulties. All I can do is give her love and try to alleviate her troubles a little. It helps us to try to engage with the character that used to live inside her body as she is fading away.
I did not see Wendy Wersch as she was dying last March. We were more colleagues than close friends. Over the years she had asked for advice on our profession. I edited the proposal which led to her Emergence exhibition at aceartinc. in 1996. Wersch invited me to her studio the year before she died, to dissect the progress of The New Myth.
In her last six months, we worked together on a feminist action to preserve the control of a local women’s organisation by female art professionals. Although it was physically taxing for her to participate, her voice was fierce. She anchored my own confusion, when after an obstreperous community meeting she quietly said, “We would have lost our autonomy”.
Wersch’s tenacity to self-determination was profoundly inspiring. She had a vision drawn from deep in history and a vigorous perspective of the distant future. Her struggle with mortality in the midst of the immediate political struggle only enriched her perspicacity. While much smaller inconvenience causes most of us to retreat from feminist empowerment, even as she was so very ill Wersch was not about to give up a single principle.
There was an immediate feminist coalescence following her death. Friends and colleagues formed the Wendy Wersch Memorial Committee with the purpose of preserving her legacy on behalf of her family. We established a perpetual fund (with the Winnipeg Foundation) that will support an annual distinguished lecture series on women’s autonomy. We presented her papers to the Provincial Archives. We set about donating her major works to public galleries for their permanent collections. We proposed The New Myth and other exhibitions.
The Committee, although composed of wildly diverse personalities, accomplished these tasks by being non-hierarchical and united in support of continuing Wersch’s vision. She had touched us all with her brightness and her resolute belief in the unrecognised power of women. This endeavour has been our funereal ritual, one that has great meaning because it sprung from, and returns to, Wersch herself. Thus we enriched each other.
The New Myth exhibition is one of these memento mori for Wendy Wersch. She wished to inspire strength in women by embodying it through the piece’s hidden mysteries. Her installation uses the metaphor of Stonehenge to invoke the hierophant in women. For seven years Wersch exercised her own power by naming adversity, by writing graffiti on the walls, and by claiming this ancient site. She wrote laboriously, creating hundreds of layers of text that obscured one another until the last words literally shine above the rest.
She described injustices, crimes, abject philosophies, and cultural filth. Wersch was enraged. She was prescient. Sadly, she died before her work was completed. The very fragmentation of The New Myth uncannily elucidates her energetic process.
We can receive her communication quite clearly. We can see her character before her vitality started to fade. We, the living, have the luxury of contemplating Wersch’s poetics in the Committee’s final version of the piece, which reveals her intermediaries: the first and final layers of words. We can perceive her determination to model a woman retrieving, or discovering, her own massive foundation of power. This is our inheritance as a community.
We are, however, missing a crucial piece of the souvenir, one that cannot be replicated. Wersch intended to perform within the installation. Writing obsessively, in solitude, for those seven years, and reconfiguring a monolith was not enough for the artist. For five hours every day she would have worn a cumbersome costume and walked about the piece, silently gliding alongside visitors. She wanted to become a stoic witness from time immemorial, a living testate bequeathing pre-historical verisimilitudes still relevant to contemporary viewers. I imagined an eerie precursor like Nellie McClung or Emma Goldman, bringing a startling tap on the shoulder. Wersch wanted to be an opaque, pagan, feminist spectre with a pulse.
It may seem spinsterish, dear Reader, to illuminate the loss of a precious colleague by the light of the loss of a pet. Yet it is the extirpation of vital exchanges of one’s esteem, affection, and love that both dark circumstances share. In any case, one’s duty remains to care for the being and their purpose, whether they are living, dying, or gone.
My lovely cat companion will die and be buried at home, her memory mine alone to archive. Although Wersch died quietly amongst her family, the subtleness of her passing caused a phenomenal group wake. Embodied in The New Myth and other projects, this vigil has ensured the perpetuation of Wersch’s outstanding fervour for women’s culture and self-determination.
Bev Pike is a Winnipeg artist who is adamantly passionate about protecting the culture of both women and cats.