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Seven Chariots of War

Suzanne Bellamy

(A version of this essay first appeared in The Rule of Mars ,Cristina Biaggi (ed) Knowledge, Ideas and Trends. USA 2005)

17TH APRIL, 1999

I climbed out onto a rock ledge over a deep gorge, at a place known as Narrow Neck. Massive rock formations held the space among dense eucalyptus forests in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia. A cold autumn sun beamed late afternoon light, flooding the senses with mysteries. A familiar sudden tension in my body hit me hard.

Looking high up into the western sky, I saw seven monstrous war chariots heading toward our little planet in a fan-shaped terror advance. I felt the shock but held my gaze. They looked like the old Assyrian war chariots I have seen carved on friezes in the British Museum in London, unambiguously awesome, in full fury. No doubt the Greek fleet at Troy, a Spartan attack, Napoleon's army, the Americans on the road to Baghdad or in massed helicopters over a rice paddy in Vietnam had the same terrifying presence at first sight. But these chariots seemed conflicted in their intentions. From my position looking out into the sky, for those few seconds of earth time, I saw they were not focused on full attack, but seemed to be retreating in haste from something further out. This was not an invasion so much as a coming home to roost, at high speed. They were out-of-control warrior vehicles, in violent ambiguity, gathering speed on the fuel of pure force.

This was no alien invasion but something that belonged to the earth, our own terror coming home, violence looping back in the warp speed of space/time. They were seven chariots from a very old war, perhaps even the first big war, the iconic image of the patriarchal army. They were on a course for direct hits on our planet, no way

around that, and somehow we needed to live through this coming time of violence and paradox.

These images hit me hard, and their meanings would evolve only through working

them out in the studio. This experience has engaged me from that moment through September 11, 2001, the invasion of Iraq, accelerating ecological crises, and into ongoing wars and repressive times.

Resisting the shock of disbelief, I let go and entered a state of flux, certain we had entered a time of hubris. Here were echoes of Virginia Woolf's "moments of being," when the thin membranes of meaning stretch to allow for seeing strange connections before everyday blindness returns.

Creative humans pursue the mysteries, and struggle to name and understand the
patterns of being alive in historical time. We look into the abyss for secrets and hidden

undercurrents, loops and replays. What triggers what, where is the egg of the beginning, where does art come from? Artists, musicians, writers, and activists have always tried to hear new shapes into being, bring new form through to the material realm, and create visual languages. On that chilly rock ledge back in 1999, however, I saw a new order of magnitude as I looked into the face of the oldest patriarchal war form bursting through the skies. Why, and why now? Was it a return, a reintegration, or was it the final catastrophe of this form, taking us all with it in a death conflagration?

I was born well after the end of the last world war, but I thought, Well here it comes again. While that still remains to be seen, I was fully attentive to my times in a whole new way. Fighting patriarchy has been the mantra of my feminist generation, whether consciously or not, and the stakes just shot up to a new high.

1ST JULY, 2000

The mystery of a coming war culture was rekindled when I visited Japan. Two male friends had a country cabin, and the first night I slept there I had a dream about three samurai warriors, where they discussed with me the notion of "good men," something

in which I had little sincere belief or confidence. They expressed concern about the coming war culture and the shame it brought to their idea of the good man and the spiritual warrior, which they expressed as sacred contamination. At breakfast the next

morning, I told my friends about my dream memory. They were very quiet, then took me outside to a grove of trees beyond the rice field and the bamboo fence line where there were three distinct burial mounds of old samurai warriors, civil war death graves from the late 15th century. I was moved that my samurai dream had happened, and discovered that others who have stayed at the cabin had also experienced their warrior presence in sleep. I daresay they like the gay ambiance of the present scene, and I resolved to think more about their point of view.

The three samurai spirit men reappeared for me in Tokyo five days later when we investigated the infamous war shrine, the Yasakuni Jinja, where the elite Japanese war dead are buried, including those hung as war criminals. It has been controversially visited by Prime Minister Koizumi, violating political separation rules of church and state, in an action seen as a dangerous symbolic breach of great significance to Japanese peace activists. As we approached the first of the three inner gates, I felt the three samurai walking with us. I felt quite safe even though, as a woman, I was out of order, in alien patriarchal territory. In fact I felt quite purposeful,and ready to look at this temple to pure patriarchy.

In fact, it was all about purity, disconnectedness from the fabric of multitudinous life, and indeed that was part of the lesson. I could hate it, but I could also choose to see it, see into it, see past it. I felt that my new job as an unofficial ambassador of the post-patriarchal age had now truly begun, and trusted that it would make sense to me as I went along. These occasional conversations with men, real and surreal, have continued, seriously discussing how men's business seems out of their control and potentially threatening to all forms of life.

Much of my adult life has been spent in a systematic knowledge-quest to see into the dynamics of violence, domination and war, and the core structures of patriarchy. This quest is imbued with a magical kind of dialogue with the world of images and ideas. A conversation happens with things, with dreams, with waking moments, when sudden experiences manifest some new idea or project. This is the common language of the creative life, and it always brings some shift in perception. The meaning and uses of the word "patriarchy" have changed much for me over time, moving through sexism and inequality to misogyny, rape, domestic violence, war, dominance and control of resources, and deep old archaeological insights. Feminists embraced all the ways women lived laterally within a fabric not of our own crafting. Finding a useful word, picking it up and breathing new meaning into it is a powerful act. This little essay is a

conversation with and about a word, and so allows me the freedom to reflect on a small patch, on my way of living with that word over time as an artist. I can test its efficacy for what my thoughts now confront in a time of escalating war.

As a young archaeology student, I read about James Mellart's first digs at the site of Catal Huyuk in Mesopotamia, started in 1961. He found no weapons, no violent deaths, and no signs of kingship in this ancient desert site, and had no explanation for this apparent absence. This mystery sowed a seed in me, a deep memory and desire which fed the creative imagination. The subsequent work of archaeologists and writers like Marija Gimbutas raised the idea of cultures flourishing without the dominance of violent patriarchal hierarchies. If there could be a possible pre-patriarchal time or even alternate history, then could one imagine exploring a post-patriarchal consciousness?

Virginia Woolf was the first writer I read who used the term patriarchy as a political tool of analysis. First in A Room of One's Own (1928) and then in her book about war, Three Guineas (1938), she dissected the rule of the fathers. She came to the position by 1938 of what she called "freedom from unreal loyalties," a refusal to support any forms of war and violence, even to nurse the sick. Her circle of friends recoiled from this position, as anti-fascist war unfolded and nationalist patriotism banged its drums, but she did not budge. I have been most deeply influenced by her work, and still feel the question of false loyalty is a key one, for all Outsiders looking to walk the path beyond fractured forms, and cycles of repetitious rage and vengeance. Woolf invoked Outsiders who work to change the mechanics of Patriarchy, refuse to be bribed, refuse to join onto the ends of processions and professions that lead to war. I chose this position also, a creative life, internationalism, activism, and enquiry.

Dilemmas, of course, abound on this path of analysis. Brute force lacks subtlety, but it works in complex ways nonetheless, even in this age of new/old terrorism and gangsterism, and the expansion of the American Imperium. Surface loyalties are stretched in these times, particularly for women who reject violence and yet are again asked to support western forms of government that give some support to civil rights for women like voting, working, and owning property. Islamism frightens many western women in visceral ways, and I understand that. However, that reaction is then manipulated by western patriarchs and fundamentalists to produce false loyalty. Some kind of feminist twist itself helped to bring about the rise of the new woman warrior, young women demanding to have the rights of the soldier, to join the profession of war. There they are now fighting and dying in the deserts of old Mesopotamia. The

mosaic of change is clearly not linear, the triangulations of ideas will always spin out in complex ways, impossible to predict.

Ideas morph in unpredictable times. In 1991, I made an installation called The War between the Worlds, with sculptures of four women on horseback placed on a large canvas map of the Tigris and Euphrates Valley in old Mesopotamia. My "Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse," invoking the values of peace, plenty, health, and life, rode across a historical geography of mirrors and distortions, where the ancient cities of Mesopotamia were overlaid with the new war targets of the modern Iraq and its neighbors, as the First Gulf War began. The grids were identical. Global power struggles were looping back, or coming home to roost, fighting inside the heart of some of the oldest archaeological sites known. My horsewomen, memory riders, endured as archetypal Outsiders waiting for a moment of return. Now, more than a decade later, they stand facing the seven patriarchal chariots in the first and the last great war, perhaps about to be replayed again.

JUNE 1ST, 2003

I visited the exhibition First Cities, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, only two months after the sacking of the Baghdad Museum, and the rolling of the tanks over the ancient city of Ur. The Standard of Ur, a priceless artifact, sat in a glass case, safe enough in the greatest metropolis of the west. It depicts a war also, and the time that follows war—the slavery, reparations, and conquest. It was created by an artist, not a king or a warrior, and it carries the code of what the maker sees, the blunt details of a war. The real story is in the thing itself. Things themselves carry our stories, not those who attempt to control the spin. The intensity of rage I had felt in April 2003 about the Baghdad museum destruction rose up in me again as I stood in this prestigious exhibit. I walked through the exhibition three times, each time affirming that the makers of artifacts carry the spirit and form, and that it still survives.

On my third walk through, and filled with intent, I imaginatively invoked those makers to take up their tools again. In the presence of powerful little cuneiform writing tablets, ancient miracles of invented text, I dreamed of artists challenging the warmongers who have offended the creative spirits mightily. There are days when life brisdes with intent, when all the moments link up, when being here really matters. I want another opening to a time such as the brilliant years around the First World War, when in a few acts of artistic breakthrough, perception changed forever, creative psyches exploded in new thinking and seeing. Dada, but still dada, can we get past that this time? When the doors open next time, it is to all energy, not only the destructive. We need a steady gaze not to be distracted, to see through it, to see it through, free from unreal loyalties.


At the moment when the first plane flew into the Twin Towers, a surrealism of the everyday had come to our planet, never to be reversed in the visual culture or the history of war. We saw it, over and over, matter mutable in incongruous images made manifest in our time. Visual shift, a time when the common language truly became the visual surreal. A plane merged with a building, in a collage of deathly transformation. Anything became possible to imagine, and everything was truly just made of atoms. Now, too, there are the genome maps and the DNA tools, and a new material world of uncertainties and inventions, a new mutability, but still in the hands of pow­erful patriarchs. Terror focuses the mind. How do artists make a bridge between what ideas and images are given and what can be done with them? It is a difficult question when the images are more stunning and primal than anything I could make with them. I thought again about the seven war chariots as our planet moved into an escalated war period, and started taking the hits. I made a print called EXPORT SPQA (Senatus Populusque Americanum) with the head of the looted Uruk Woman, 3200 BCE, on a packing crate labeled "Export, Baghdad Museum." A new imperial logic served the interests of investors, armaments makers, and aesthetes—a new Sybaris, almost. There can be invasion and show business, reality war and stock market projections. The rules of war have changed, but those old chariots are still out of control, and hubris still stalks the land.

There is a certain view that wars follow periods of feminism to reassert the penis culture. Was this what was happening, a cyclical resurgence of tighter patriarchal control, with western men jealously lusting after the apparent undiluted patriarchal dominance that Islamic men seemed to have over women? Was this fighting some kind of

merging and possession, a kind of brotherhood of misogyny? Was it also a crisis in resurgent western Christian cultures with their absurd, ill-fitting monotheisms borrowed from the desert, taking them back to their genesis places? I thought again about Virginia Woolf's wildly discordant courage when writing Three Guineas in 1938, refusing to support allied western males against fascist ones, asking all women to confront

the patriarchs at home everywhere. There seems to be a new triumphalism (triumph of the phallus) in the western imperialist contact with the Islamic world, a religious mission to invoke the time of Revelation, fighting the idea of terrorism with yet more terror, drawing on a new form of moral rectitude. Are extremist Christian warriors and Islamist fundamentalists pumping iron on patriarchal energy, like homoerotic partners in a sadomasochistic feeding off each other? In these dangerous times, all things come to the surface. Where you stand determines what you see, and it matters to try to see everything, with no false loyalty.

Are there men or women anywhere who argue publicly that "patriarchy" is a good system, in the way that people argue for capitalism or globalization? Systems of power domination no doubt work best when they are seamless in their hold on reality, and probably once they have to defend themselves they are already changing form. The idea of patriarchy is still the "Great Invisible Idea," like the elephant in the room. The word still has the power to divide women against their own best interests, and cut off the few from the many. The generic Christian church still holds a consciously patriarchal view in its doctrinal core and texts, its ministries and work practices. So do the other global spiritual structures that uphold the rights of male hierarchical experience and authority, down to their ownership of transcendence itself. Western women in recent years have been encouraged to retreat from rebellion, to believe that things have changed for them, that feminism is superfluous, not needed any more, or can only be sustained within a liberal western capitalism. This argument also occurred in the 1930s, at the same time as the ideas of father-right and fascism were disseminated by National Socialism. The challenge of religious patriarchal belief systems in secular cultures has a menacing feel to it again. We are due for a new cyclic uprising, but the pressures on women to divide up according to other loyalties are great in this war landscape. The real war is not declared since it has never ceased to be, the war between the worlds and the words.

The cult of nihilism and violent suicide is by no means confined to some factions of Islamism. Historically, these kinds of violent protest are key patriarchal forms, and sit at the heart of the old medieval Christian cults, as well as some forms of European anarchism in the late 19th century. There is a new expression of sadomasochistic passion welling up within sectors of the western imagination that seems to indicate that a revivalist frenzy of some kind is attaching itself to the post—September 11th landscape. Perhaps it is as much a reaction to the rise of women as it is to the shock of unexpected attack. Are the old patriarchal systems beating themselves into frenzy and war to keep their grip on power, or will emerging post-patriarchal ideas and structures emerge out of the confusion in better shape? However elusive, there are new structures emerging in a slipstream of new forms outside nationalist boundaries.

JULY, 2003

I visited a great elder of the French left, Professor Jean Chesneaux, at his home in Paris, after having known him during his travels in Australia some years ago when he visited my farm at Bredbo. We had lunch at the Paris zoo, watching the yaks.

International President of Greenpeace for many years, a Resistance hero, a renowned geographer, historian and anti-nuclear fighter in the Pacific, he held firmly onto the vision of new forms of human organization emerging in the midst of the hardening structures of the old world order. We came from different generations and traditions of resistance but the optimism was the same, the long view just as sustaining. Alliances matter, optimism and clarity matter, friends build bridges and open our eyes to emerging patterns, and how one lives in the moment with agency and contingency matters.

A few years ago I worked as a set painter/artist at a women's music festival which

was going through a great power struggle, in which all of us who worked there were inevitably caught up. Not a man in sight, the women battled it out over time with fierce intensity. Non-violent struggle is still a wild ride, but no one died, and many resisted the mindless simplifications of warlike factions. It helped to clarify a great tension I had always felt, especially as an activist. Art and politics, that narrow bridge, is not a simple divide. This is not about being separate from power politics, but it is still

another kind of power. The politics of creativity follow a different beat. It has taken me many years to figure this out. Artists live on our own island.

It is possible to become used to a certain kind of ambient discontent and fail to

see the possibilities in the moment. Ages of lost contingency have happened at every level of human history, and have left deep tracks in the way human cultures name, see, and act. We carry fierce grudges and disappointments, and these contaminate genuine memory, and so the cycles repeat. Living in states of perpetual mourning for lost pasts fuels the endless repetition of grievance. Living in the present—being here now—is no simple thing. Letting go of the dead corpse of linear history and seeing what has

always been there—possibility, unexpected contingency—seems to me like a kind of geometry now. This means finding the right angle to perceive the possible and subtle

moment of alignment when the shift comes. The great experimental writer, Gertrude Stein, once said that in a work of art or in living, if you know where you are going, why go there?

As she said in her book, How to Write

When you are you you are you without the memory of yourself because if you

remember yourself while you are you you are not for the purposes of creating live in the actual present, that is the complete actual present.

A habit of thinking is hard to shift, and a memory bank that repeats old tracks of outcome will sabotage the reading of this moment in time. Our brains are historical organs, banked up with accessible memories and formulas filed in tired, outmoded categories. Could we humans invent a new memory cycle, a new passion play, and jump across the tracks to a new narrative? As an ambassador for the post-patriarchal time, I choose to live with the new geometry and go looking for these gateways. In A la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust chronicled in seven volumes a previous age and way of life that carried on literally as it passed away, largely unaware of its own demise, unable to sense the moment before the shift. Before the First World War, it was inconceivable for most people to imagine what was about to come.

There is an eerie quality just before a change, when structures based on rigid hierarchy miss seeing the present moment, miss imagining the mosaic, the multitudinous present. When fear creates a feeling of restriction, contraction, and shrinking, it is all the more necessary to expand the heart and the mind and the seeing. Earth-changes now appear to have entered a new phase, happening so quickly that previous evolutionary mutation processes appear not to deal with this amount of acceleration. Regeneration alone may not stop the process of loss of habitat, even if this could be achieved. The dehydration of the planet, very dramatic in my country of Australia, and the speed of ecological shift requires another kind of practice and thinking, working with shock minimization, and directly dealing with shock itself. It seems to be all about shock as systems shift. War games about oil and zealotry are a criminal waste of resources and a violent distraction, crippling the brains that need now to be fully attentive to the planet.

The 20th Century was exhausted by wars, and that has to be an end to it, my official diplomatic position. If carbon-based forms like us humans are soon to run out of

water, run on empty, stress all systems, destroy habitat and species, then we enter a time not-so-friendly to life at all. Here, perhaps, is the Proustian moment that is inconceivable until it happens, when all things change despite conscious illusions of

being in control. In, down, and through the hubristic moment, by resisting shock and false loyalties, humans might just, be forced to move the dead hand of the old patriarchs and embrace creative intention, and to find the new geography of creative dissonance and thrilling disruption.


Suzanne Bellamy is a writer and artist from Australia, exhibiting internationally in prints, sculpture, and mixed media installations with an emphasis on text and visual fusions she calls Visual Essays, and musical text abstractions. She works from a solar-powered, rural art studio in southeastern Australia, teaches and exhibits annually in the U.S., and is a published Woolf and Stein scholar. Her academic background in history, archaeology, and women's studies informs her artwork, her travels, and research into the new art/thought forms of a post-patriarchal age.