Sex and Death

Georgia Metaxas
Ponch Hawkes (standing left) and Samara Hersch (seated centre) have collaborated on the live art work Sex and Death. We asked them to discuss their feelings on intergenerational collaboration, their mutual experience, how much has changed…and how much hasn’t.

Images contributed by Georgia Metaxas.

Ponch Hawkes
Samara Hersch and I been working on Sex and Death over a three year period. It’s a live art performance, one-on-one, a series of experiences that asks questions about ageing.

At the heart of it is a question and answer conversation with an much older person – the type of conversation we never have,  especially with strangers.  There are 3 or 4 elders or conveners who run the questions in the ‘game’.

I always thought of the conversation leaders of that group as elders and it wasn’t until the last day of the first performance series that I realised I was an elder too. It emphasised for me the part of the collaboration that has equality at its core but it feels surprising to find your age and experience venerated. 

I came to feminism in the 70’s, when Samara wasn’t born – I imagine she arrived in a world where it was no longer such a decision to either act or call yourself a feminist.

The demonstrations I went to as a young feminist were about equal pay, conscription, abortion rights, childcare, reclaiming the night, women’s refuges, women’s health. It seemed like we had to start with the absolute basics before we could progress.

Apart from the idea of consciousness-raising (informally organised and -run discussion groups), groups of us organised together into women’s theatre groups, women filmmakers, childcare and healthcare groups, women’s circus workers, etc.. We made women’s newspapers and women’s centres. We tried to learn skills and teach each other.

It seemed being a good wife and mother were the only real roles available although you could be a teacher or air hostess or hairdresser until you got married.

Feminism basically put a torch to this notion. Now we told ourselves we could be refrigeration mechanics, CEOs, film directors, doctors, or photographers – anything we wanted to be.

Of course it’s one thing to say and another to carry out. Not only did we have to address the inherent structures of capitalism but also address the internalised male gaze.

Nowadays, the progress is easily seen, seemingly open access to all occupations, no need to take a husband to the bank to get a loan, you may even get paid in a female sports team.

Seventies feminists provided an inheritance: it’s easier to have a career but we never solved the childcare/home duties question or made much of a dint on commonplace misogyny. In fact, we seemed to have landed in a place where previous gains are in danger , as post-Trump, a wellspring of hatred of women has been tapped into.

But one of the noticeable differences with younger feminists is their easy internationality, their globalism, and ability to connect with new ideas from elsewhere while maintaining ideas of the importance of community.

Their confidence is inspiring.

Samara Hersch

I met Ponch Hawkes in 2007 when she took my headshot for my postgraduate directing degree at the Victorian College of the Arts. She (and her black poodle, Woody) both left a very strong impression on me.

It was in 2015, when I started to think about the project Sex and Death, that I got back in touch with Ponch. I wanted to work with a female photographer who could sensitively capture the ageing body in a way that spoke to its power and beauty; something that contemporary culture tends to deny.

In fact, Sex and Death is led by a team of intergenerational female artists – aged between 30 to 80s. It is one of the most extraordinary encounters I have had in my career.

Thinking about feminism in this context, I realise how indebted I am to the relentless fight that many of these older women fought, so that I can think about my identity as broadly as I wish it.

Having said that, being a woman in my 30s in 2019 still raises many frustrations. We are still fighting for equal pay, we are still trying to break into or deconstruct the ‘boy’s club’ that often doesn’t acknowledge our abilities or equality and many of my friends who are now mothers are struggling with affordable childcare.

We are also dealing with the likes of Trump and the Liberal party who position women as inferior objects, we are currently busy with the #MeToo movement and giving voice to the covert abuse that operates within the workplace. But perhaps most profoundly we are thinking and talking about intersectionality and the way that solidarity within feminism needs to acknowledge the compounding forms of discrimination experienced by women across race, age, class, socioeconomic status, physical or mental ability, gender or sexual identity, religion, or ethnicity.

For me, solidarity amongst feminists comes at a critical time when right-wing Nationalist politics, led mostly by white men, aims to separate, divide, scapegoat and ‘other’.

I am currently in awe of the leadership of New Zealand Prime Minister  Jacinda Ardern who, in the wake of a tragedy, has demonstrated a leadership that stands in utter contrast to those who try to divide us through a kind of radical listening that is by no means passive.

Adern embodies what Donna Haraway describes as ’staying with the trouble’. In particular, this type of leadership proposes staying with the complexity and the differences and in doing so demonstrating a practice that accepts our inevitable interconnectedness and interdependence, or as feminist theorist Karen Barad describes in Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007) as our ‘entanglement’.

In the performance Sex and Death I feel we too have tried to develop a practice in listening. Each audience member and the elder performer who leads the game are invited to listen to one another and to create space for each other to be heard without the need to give advice or counsel.

This space for listening and relating has profound affects in terms of generating intimacy, vulnerability and feelings of connectedness. I think I have come to understand Sex and Death as a practice in learning how to be together in our differences with respect, tolerance and curiosity.

Through my encounters with Ponch (and the many other women I have worked with through Sex and Death including Lorna Hannan, Delia Bradshaw, Liz Jones, Natalie de Maccas, Sandy Green, Bec Reid and Georgia Metaxas) I have had the privilege of meeting women who demonstrate, with strength, power and skill, the possibilities of rethinking female identity.

In doing so, they continue to contribute to the world with determination, creativity, boldness and care.

Discover more about Sex and Death via Ponch Hawke’s and Samara Hersch‘s websites.

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