Interview with Lydia Towsey

In ‘The Venus Papers’ I am reimagining Venus – and attempting, via my own and other women’s experiences – to return to her a voice.
— Lydia Towsey

Extracted from a fuller interview with Alice Bryant (courtesy of Wise Words Festival) and ahead of the next show at JW3 (29 June, read more here)

What is The Venus Papers and where did the idea originally come from?

‘The Venus Papers’ is a full-length poetry collection (publisher: Burning Eye Books) and a stage show supported by a live score, set design, choreography, direction and production.

Both take Botticelli’s infamous 15th-century painting ‘Birth of Venus’ as their starting point, then relocate her to a UK beach in the 21st century to ask what she might make of it all, were she to arrive here, now…

Inspired by numerous sources and experiences… including Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘World’s Wife’; Ted Hughes’ ‘Crow’; John Agard ‘From the Devil’s Pulpit’ and Italio Calvino’s ‘Mr Palomar’. In ‘The Venus Papers’ I am using the same device – of placing an unfamiliar figure in a series of familiar situations – to look at things anew.

I was initially drawing on my early training as a visual artist and continuing practice as a life model. I was also drawing on the past experience of anorexia, from my late teens through to my early 20s – with this naturally making me interested in such arising issues as mental health, body image, the media and cultural/societal pressures to conform.

Writing about Venus as ‘everywoman’ but also an ultimate traveller, I’ve been further motivated by my cultural background. Like many people in the UK I come from a family of immigrants, on my father’s side mostly Hungarian Jewish, though my great- great-grandfather was Mexican, his wife American – and there are people in my family from/of other places and cultures too. At the same time, I’m English and a descendent of the British Empire and therefore implicated in a story of colonialism and post-colonialism. A lot of my writing is interested in this question of cultural and national identity, its historical resonance and unfolding contemporary narratives – including Brexit and the European refugee crisis.

Your starting point in The Venus Papers is Botticelli’s 15th Century painting, ‘Birth of Venus’ which depicts Venus’ arrival on a shell at a Cypriot beach. What drew you towards this as a starting point?

Botticelli’s Venus was the first recorded example of a female nude, painted and exhibited life size and in many ways the medieval blueprint for every cover girl to come. In this way, the image has significance, has come to be iconic and is incredibly familiar – but anatomically speaking it’s profoundly flawed. In the real world, much like Barbie, it doesn’t stand – literally speaking she wouldn’t be able to…As both idealised imagination and painted figure – she immediately raises questions; what is truth and what is beauty...At the same time as being a woman, she is also the ultimate traveller, arriving on her shell, naked and vulnerable, and particularly resonant in the context of the current global migration crisis. As a life size figure, she invites the viewer to identify with her – in a way that I think is compelling.

What do you think are some of the most significant pressures that women are particularly affected by in contemporary Britain and beyond?

From cradle to grave, girls and women are expected to act and look a certain way, personally and publicly. The standards are exacting and limiting, whether we’re talking about the cult of youth and beauty, the pressure to have children, or to be more passive and less visible in public life – and issues like breastfeeding in public, ‘slut-shaming’ and the kind of work women are steered towards doing. Such topics are picked up in the show. Men of course experience different pressures – if a woman must be passive, a man must be active – a leader, provider and emotionally strong in ways that are crippling – so that such punishing and stereotypical expectations are good for no-one.

You speak about challenging the idea of the ‘passive nude’ and the way that we look at ourselves. Could you elaborate on this?

‘The passive nude’ describes the way in which the female nude has been depicted – almost exclusively – throughout the history of western art. As John Berger says, when it comes to the depiction of male and female bodies in art, ‘men act and women appear’ – usually for the viewer’s voyeuristic pleasure...As a life model, I attempt to challenge this. I assume active poses. My body is accurately depicted, not air-brushed to fit in with unrealistic and unobtainable standards. I collaborate, I have agency – and I hope ‘speak’ as clearly as the artist painting me.

In ‘The Venus Papers’ I am reimagining Venus – and attempting, via my own and other women’s experiences – to return to her a voice.

This is taken from an extract from a 2017 interview for Wise Words Festival (May 2017), interviewer: Alice Bryant

Read about the upcoming events at JW3 (29 June) and The Storey Theatre (15 July, co-hosted with Litfest).

Watch Lydia perform an extract of the poem 'Armed', the first in a series of poetry films and trailers being developed in 2017.

Lydia Towsey performs 'Armed' - part of a trio of Venus Papers England Tour poetry films.