On 9th and 10th October, the Royal Festival Hall played host to the premier of ‘The Hollow of the Hand’ – a collaboration between musician PJ Harvey and photographer-filmographer Seamus Murphy. It was essentially a book launch, but it will also be a project that includes a film to be released next year. It’s a relatively new breed of art, with politics at its heart, where reportage and art combine to create a particular type of documentary where the genre is combined with artistic photography/videography, poetry, and music.
The project saw Harvey and Murphy travel to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington DC. Murphy stated that they went to these countries without any agenda, without a particular message they wished to convey. It appeared Murphy enjoyed going down the road less travelled, and cited a chicken coop in Kosovo as an example of the kinds of places he liked to visit, and was glad Harvey felt the same way.
they came alive the most when combined with music, and where we could hear the emotional depth of Harvey’s vocal chords.
Some of the footage captured was of Harvey; she spoke in the first film clip, where she stepped over rumble inside a dilapidated building. She appeared self-conscious, stepping tentatively, a hand holding back a mass of locks and speaking to the camera, as the real-life Polly Jean Harvey stood ominously on stage. Maybe it would have been too much to talk as well as read poetry and perform songs, but it felt like something was missing in that Harvey didn’t also speak about the work; it took away from that sense of collaboration.
Murphy’s work was dispersed throughout the show, where we were given the neat format where this footage was followed by conversation and then Harvey’s poetry and music. The poems themselves often overlapped with the songs, and felt like they were, essentially, song lyrics. Poetic song lyrics, maybe, but Harvey’s delivery of them lacked the passion of her music. It certainly felt more of a ‘reading’ than a ‘performance’. The words formed a basic narrative, with very few sensory images created that added to the physical images we already had – a lot of it simply told us what was apparent in the photography. One image that did work more was when she spoke of children in Afghanistan, walking barefoot in cemeteries, connecting to what we were previously told of bones being collected to sell. The pieces were stronger when there was rhythm and rhyme, but they came alive the most when combined with music, and where we could hear the emotional depth of Harvey’s vocal chords.
When we were taken to Washington DC, we saw footage of a white couple with anti-abortion sign, which I interpreted as highlighting the hypocrisy of America, and the Western world, as the shocking image and their concept of ‘murder’ echoed the previous image of what an air strike can do. The photograph of a burnt body, with missing limbs, from Afghanistan, is seen as a kind of necessary death by the West, and thus the definition of murder becomes a mass of contradictions. The image of the American couple also connects to the idea of women’s bodies being policed, and it begs the question – if they define abortion as murder, why aren’t they protesting about these air strikes? Instead, they shame women for making a choice about their own bodies and lives – a choice that doesn’t harm anyone else, as this is a procedure carried out at a pre-life stage, and in an over-populated world, could even benefit society in some cases.
In most of the footage, we saw the erasure of women from public life. Women are in the shadows – either in the background or simply not there at all.
In speaking of women’s choices, this brings me to the issue of Feminism within this project, as well as Harvey’s wider work. Harvey has denounced Feminism in the past and has been quoted to say ‘I don’t see that there’s any need to be aware of being a woman in this business. It just seems a waste of time.’ Maybe one can see where she’s coming from here: it is perhaps a waste of time when you have to work just as hard and try to ignore any obstacles your gender means you have to face, despite some artists such as Grimes, facing these obstacles head-on. However, with lyrics in songs such as ‘Man-Size’, ‘Me-Jane, ‘Sheela-na-gig’ and ‘Who the Fuck?’ easily being Feminist anthems, it seems confusing that she would not identify as such. You never know, she may eventually do a Lady GaGa and change her mind.
When it comes to this particular project, it seems inescapably political, even from a merely observational stance. I come back to an expression that is at the heart of what I believe: the personal is political. Bar one of these new songs, none of the music shared was explicitly about women. In most of the footage, we saw the erasure of women from public life. Women are in the shadows – either in the background or simply not there at all. The scenes are dominated by men, from the images of fighting birds to the board rooms of America. There are two images where the women themselves aren’t featured, but instead there is a focus on their shoes. One such woman was assumed to be a “prostitute” – dressed in blue, with bright red shoes sinking into the mud in Afghanistan. Throwaway comments such as this, and the idea of Harvey not being allowed into most mosques, ignore the position of women in society. If Harvey has this political interest, then why do we hear so little of the women in these countries, and why does Harvey herself not seem to have a voice of her own, other than to parrot what we see in the pictures?
There are many worthwhile and interesting aspects of this project, but Harvey just seemed to be a celebrity figure, used to deliver someone else’s project. What would have been truly remarkable would be if she was given an equal voice in the discussion element, and if the women in these countries were also given a voice, instead of being reduced to a pair of shoes.
‘The Hollow of the Hand’ by PJ Harvey and Seamus Murphy is out now in both hardback (£45) and paperback (£8).