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Choreographing the body in pain

dancing the sculpture of Jeanne Dueber, S.L.

Living in such proximity to another person’s art is quite intense, and I find myself dwelling in relation to these sculptures as if they were ghosts. Not ghosts in any otherworldly or ominous sense; rather, ghosts of presence and re-vision — I am seeing in these sculptures energies and forms that I had never noticed before. Energies and forms that I think evaded all those who might confine Jeanne Dueber’s art, or misunderstand it as purely religious. Of course, she cast classical Christian iconography into metal and made many traditional crucifixes. But the far larger contribution of her efforts is a kind of Gnostic rendering of the physical body; the seductive, playful, and suffering movements that give the body in numerous states of non-normality, a prescient presence through radical shape and form.

Jeanne Dueber’s (S.L.) sculptures carve form into an prescient conflict concerning the affect of the physical body in Christian iconography. So central to the faith is the physical body and blood of one body nailed to a cross; yet, how in looking at these representations of this act of physical torture at the hands of a brutal state does the solitary image connote such distance – as if we see not the body at all, certainly not being in the body, as in one’s own body, as it transmigrates through life and therefore through numerous instances of suffering, the mental inflictions that render one limp and moving with great difficulty, the physical symptoms that cause one to look through the bows of limbs with trepidation upon all architectures designed for assumptions of a “normal” body. Dueber’s sculptures nullify bodies that are absent from pain – the suffering body is the representation. 

Between the material and the spiritual comes a very felt rift pointing towards a crisis of faith for this sister who, in being perhaps unable in her life to access the very physical foundational feelings of her body, expresses those desires for fleshen connection through sculptures. Sculptures which are at once “spiritual” because they imbue organic forms (primarily the fallen branches of trees) with human presence – the limbs of trees are the limbs of the body, tentatively reaching out, tentatively feeling the suffering of the deities, through their supremely beautiful gnarls and mangled expressions (as well as sometimes through their clear and concise ones.)

The movement between what is gnarled and what is concise is another tension at work in the sculptures of Sr Jeanne Dueber. But there is no greater rupture in her vision than between her close-to-dogma representations of the crucifix, and her transmigration of trees into human form – the sacrilege of the naked body, the reaching body, the body in pain, the body finding expression in space and time. The dance of the ascending body when released from the nails of the cross: that dance.

And it is also the suffering of Mary whose choreography Sr. Jeanne Dueber enacts. In each of the seven stations of the cross Dueber isolates the body of Mary – her suffering as she carries him, holds him, prays for him, resurrects him, helps him carry his burden, etc. In Mary’s suffering Jeanne Dueber sees “the suffering of all women” but really this is the suffering choreography of caregivers — anyone  “under” weight of another, and in the transmigration of caring the load for another suffering person, finds in herself an ascension to a new form.

This choreography of the suffering of Mary’s body is very far removed from the stasis of most depictions of the mother of mothers: standing so calmly, eyes down, hands by her side, relaxed yet extended out, feet bare, robes skirting whatever waters she is standing on. In Jeanne Dueber’s vision, the final movement of the traditional iconography of Mary’s suffering is reversed in terms of her gaze, feet, torso and direction of hands…and the placement of the child. Not swaddling, but uplifted.

“Fiat: Let it be done to me” is the title of this work — this divine feminine expression of ecstasy, presence, and rising — the movement that effects an energy in the dormant place of the spirt, when stuck, when inert, when oppressed by the stasis of singularly defining interpretations.

My dream of a choreography would be to put all of these movements into motion – to see them danced, to see these sculptures breathing into life, into flesh…

My own physical body, now 54 with osteoarthritis in my hip, renders me a less than ideal dancer – but I know that through the ethers of this medium, the power of these sculptures now released from their shroud as they face the harsh reality of a languishing religious order… what will become of the gallery after the sisters have all left this place?) The dancer will come forward!

For myself I turn towards the past to find another ghost – that of my younger self, dancing in the fields of Loretto, a private ritual and homage to my mother who is buried in the cemetery here. Another ghost: that of myself, 30 years ago, embodying the sculptures of Jeanne Dueber – dancing the mourning of a young girl over the loss of her mother into form.


And I am grateful to my younger self for having interviewed Jeanne Dueber back in 2006! Here she is, a rare interview, speaking about her work. I remember knowing that the only way I could get her to talk to me is if she was in the process of making it…


Sr. Jeanne Dueber is currently in the infirmary — they tell me she is no longer aware of herself or of herself as an artist. Because I am unable to see her, I cannot verify this…but if  she is far removed from her previous self, I am grateful that some part of her lives on, here in her gallery.

It is for this reason, living amongst her vibrating works, that I have written this communique, in the hopes that others (future bodies) will find something in it worth translating, worth sharing and passing on. In the future I hope this gallery is transformed into an artist residency…

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