Finding Kinship with Witchcraft in the Fight Against Patriarchy

An exhibition revisits the life of the last European woman to be executed for witchcraft.

Johanna Breiding, “Liberty Enlightening the World (July 4, 1776)” (2017), gelatin silver print (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — In 1782 Anna Göldi became the last European woman to be executed for witchcraft. The Swiss woman and domestic servant had previously run afoul of authorities and lived as a fugitive before her death. At a younger age, she was held responsible for her firstborn child’s death and sentenced to house arrest. She skipped town and managed to settle in the nearby town of Glarus where she found work as a maid. At 47, she was accused by her employer of trying to magically “poison” one of his daughters with needles, although the true intent of the accusation might have been to prevent her from revealing an affair. More than 200 years later, the Swiss government exonerated Göldi of her crime, acknowledging her death as a violation of human rights and erecting a memorial to her in the town in which she was executed.

Johanna Breiding, “Documentation of plaque outside of courthouse” (2016), digital C-print

Anna Göldi’s story is the through-line of Johanna Breiding’s exhibition at the Angels Gate Cultural Center, which begins with a video installation depicting the small, mountainous town of Glarus where Göldi was killed and buried. The short film (a collaboration with curator Shoghig Halajian and scored by artist Dorian Wood) features still shots of the Swiss town’s verdant hills and present-day calm, contrasting the brutal persecution of centuries past. An interview with feminist scholar Silvia Federici provides some historical context through her book, Caliban and The Witch, which theorizes how the transition from feudalism to capitalism consigned poor women like Anna Göldi to strict gender roles and undermined their ability to control their reproductive and labor power.

Johanna Breiding and Shoghig Halajian, still from “The Rebel Body” (2018)

In Federici’s scholarship, the rebel body resists church and state authorities that seek to subjugate women and gender-nonconforming people. The witch hunts of the past sought to punish those who dared to claim ownership of their own pleasure and labor, or seek out autonomy outside of the traditional family and state. In The Rebel Body, Anna Göldi’s story and the landscape surrounding Glarus serve as a kind of memorial to the collective rebellion of women and queer people across history. Witchcraft becomes a source of belonging and kinship rather than a mark of disgrace and humiliation. It frames Göldi’s life and death as belonging to a long line of defiant individuals who dared to survive in spite of patriarchal violence.

Johanna Breiding and taisha paggett, installation view of “Demonstrative Score” (2017), two-channel video

For the exhibition, Breiding collaborated with artist taisha paggett to reenact other historical moments in which rebellious individuals challenged state power and authority. In the two-channel video installation “Demonstrative Score,” we see, on one screen, the removal of Confederate statues in the US and the toppling of Communist statues in post-Soviet Europe; on the adjacent screen, taisha paggett mirrors the physical gestures, like the tugging of rope, that lead to the destruction of monuments representing patriarchal figures. At first, the connection between Göldi’s life and the toppling of offensive monuments might seem unexpected. But next to Göldi’s story, this video shows a different outcome for rebellious bodies — one that can avoid suffering and martyrdom.

In “Liberty Enlightening the World,” Breiding has taken a screen capture of a YouTube video about famous landmarks that narrowly avoided destruction. The image shows the Statue of Liberty, and a subtitle in mid-sentence: “that it was totally rusted through in a number of places, particularly in her torch and crown.” The monument’s near-destruction and rusting in key places seem to set up the possibility of symbolically upheaving the American project and its tawdry enlightenment ideals. Here, Lady Liberty is at the verge of going the way of Confederate and Soviet heroes, relics to be uprooted and knocked down to build an alternative structure.

Johanna Breiding, view of “Slippage / Spillage” (2015–2018), 44 digital C-prints

In “Slippage / Spillage,” Breiding has collected personal photographs and found images: fragments of bodies, family photographs, and odd details, like handprints on the hull of a ship or a smudged portrait of René Descartes, presented out of context. The constellation of images, while deeply intimate and sometimes strange, doesn’t always connect with the rest of the show’s content. However, in all this looking and archiving, the artist seems to be continuing her search for Anna Göldi and others like her, with traces of personal memory and collective histories spilling into the present.

Johanna Breading’s The Rebel Body continues at Angels Gate Cultural Center (3601 South Gaffey Street, San Pedro, Los Angeles) through March 17.

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