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Unit 2b - Research


Alice Oliver 

This is a digital sketchbook/collection of things I have been researching throughout this term based on working towards final pieces and the degree show. All the artist/author names are hyperlinked to external web pages with more information about them.

Before I get into the research, I will start with a vague idea/plan of why my work may look like in the show, a lot of the artist research revolves around these plans.

These are all the pieces that I have made with the degree show in mind, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'll be exhibiting them all as I worry it might look cluttered. I think I will only know what looks best when it comes to the install.

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A provisional exhibition plan


Ways to recreate the landscape the work was made in

Multi-media installation artists

Exhibition Contexts

Abortion within art

The history of wise women/witch craft

History of Women's reproductive rights and loss of knowledge

Stepping away from descriptive plaque on the wall

Textual ways to give work context

Working with materials that link ancient medicine with modern medicine


Celestial Artists

Unit 2B


Botanical Artists

Artists who work with text

Cyclical connections between Women, the Moon and the land

Artists who utilise nature with analogue and cameraless photography

Why analogue methods in relation to the photographic image?

Why analogue methods in relation to the topic?

Walter Bejamin's Aura

The ritual


There is a combination of reasons why I chose to step away from the digital processes and cameras in general for this body of work, the main reasons revolve around the preservation or reclamation of ritual.

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​Decay of the Aura

A question that comes up quite often in regards to my work is why have I chosen to use analogue/cameraless or ancient photographic methods, and what does this mean in relation to the contemporary photographic image. In his influential 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin coined the term Aura, a characteristic inherent in a piece of art that cannot be conveyed by mechanical reproduction techniques, such as digital photography.  He believed that reproducing an art object detracts from its aura, which exists in a unique space and time. Benjamin claimed that "even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be." He referred to this unique cultural context, ‘its presence in time and space’, as its aura.  The aura, authenticity, and uniqueness of works of art, according to Benjamin, are inextricably linked to their integration into tradition and ritual. The reproduction of art detaches itself from the original and is disconnected from the realm of ritual. 

Benjamin discusses how the earliest works of art's purpose were for ritual and were dependent on it for its aura. In the modern age, art has somewhat been liberated from its dependence on ritual and has perhaps become less of a necessity and more of a privilege. As a result, the experiences connected with ritual and tradition are lost, and it's also interesting to consider if the autonomy of art is then also lost. Ritual in art also emphasises the complexity of personal experiences, local knowledge of specific environments, and the uniqueness of each individual and their praxis.

This idea of ritual that Benjamin writes about in regards to the aura of analogue photography is so important to my body of work, in regards to both the subject matter: the loss of the ritualistic knowledge of healing, caring for and maintaining the sexual and reproductive female body, in the face of modern medicine. But also in regards to the photographic image. To me, this idea of the loss or decay of an aura through digital reproduction feels really important to the physical process of the work I make. There is a ritualistic nature to the Lunargram process I go through. As I stand on the edge of a field, by the wayside, surrounded by a vast pharmacopoeia of plants used for contraceptives and abortifacients, all captured in a transient moment, under the light of a full moon. The aura of this process, the history it holds and the importance it has in the contemporary world, is somewhat dismantled and lost as soon as these images are digitised to be seen on a screen.

Women's Ritual


The idea of a ritual that stems from the history of women's control over their reproductive bodies and the ritualism of maintaining and caring for women's bodies. This is, of course, where the idea of Witchcraft originated, however, in contemporary pop culture, witchcraft has become a buzzword of late. But I looked beyond that and began to reexamine the meaning of witchcraft, its history and how it stands as an archetype against patriarchy. Long before witchcraft became trendy, feminist and leftist writer Silvia Federici examined the ties between the witch trials, patriarchy, and the creation of capitalism. But in regards to the ritual, texts from as early as medieval times show that women were using herbal medicine and witchcraft to control their own fertility. This was considered the norm, it wasn't prosecuted or frowned upon and didn't hold the stigma that we have today. But religion soon changed that as Catholic Churches across Europe enacted canons forbidding women to undertake means of controlling their own conception, herbal and ceremonial, as well as to end pregnancies or perform abortions. Midwives were forced out of practice because they were so often considered witches and persecuted by the patriarchy in the form of the Catholic Church.


This article,, is a hugely informative insight into the suppressed history of contraception. Here is a little extract regarding the plants, methods and rituals:

"What herbs did women use for contraception? Most of the knowledge has been lost to centuries of repression, except for what survives in classical Mediterranean writings. We know that the Egyptians used acacia gum (which contains compounds still used in spermicidal jellies) The Libyans made a drink from silphium, a type of giant fennel. The international demand for silphium was so great that it had become extinct by about 400 CE. The related asafoetida and opoponax were also used, though they were less effective. So were myrrh, date palm, and pomegranate. [Riddle, Estes & Russell, 30-33]

Several contraceptive plants mentioned by ancient Mediterranean writers were probably among those women used in early medieval Europe: members of the carrot family (cow parsley/queen anne's lace), pennyroyal, artemisia, willow and rue. These were all herbs known to later witches, some bearing rich folkloric traditions. [Riddle, Estes & Russell, 30-33] Certain penitentials mention potentially fatal mixtures using such herbs as belladonna and honeysuckle. [Rouche, 523] Northern sources refer to women using vaginal suppositories with cedar oil, cabbage leaves, or fresh mandrake. More recent German folk contraceptives include teas of marjoram, thyme, parsley and lavender (which also abort), the root of worm fern, and brake, known as “prostitute root.” [Noonan, 171]

Canonical literature indicates that pagan magic also played a part in contraception. [Noonan, 156-8] It appears that women gathered, prepared and consumed the herbs with incantations and other rituals."

The ritualistic process of picking the plants, or sourcing them from other women, brewing a tea or making a suppository, is such an important part of this forgotten history that I wanted to mirror within the process of the work I was making. It was a tactile, sensitive and slow process that depended on the Earth and the cycles of life and I felt that the process of my Lunargrams mirrored the ethereality of the ritual perfectly.

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The third reason for my choice of analogue printing techniques is quite an important yet simple one. This whole body of work was born out of an obsession or connection I have had with the moon since I was very little. To work with the light of the moon feels so much more magical than that of artificial light or even sunlight. I decided to utilise the ancient light of the moon, which has such deep intimate and cyclical connections with women, to quite literally shed light on the suppressed and forgotten histories of women's control over their reproductive bodies. After all, it is the same moon that has looked over these women centuries ago, I guess by using the moonlight, it connects me to these women throughout history.

The cycles of the moon determine our monthly and yearly calendars, with an ancient light that has ruled our lives since the beginning of time. The changes that come with each passing moon have been seen to indicate the times for planting, harvesting, hunting, and gathering, reflecting the close connection between the cycles of the moon and plants and non-human life.


The moon has also always been seen as a female energy, connected with fertility and similarities have been found between the menstrual cycle and the lunar cycle. The inner rhythms of the menstruating body have been considered to synchronise with those inner rhythms of the moon. Menstruating bodies mirror the moon's waxing and waning stages of approximately fourteen days, producing a twenty-eight-day cycle equal to the average menstrual cycle. To go through a cycle of new growth is consistent with these ancient cyclical ideas of ovulation, flowering, harvest, degeneration, and replenishment. This period of change or transformation in the menstruating body is in tune with lunar energies, a celestial relationship that dates back to the beginning of evolution when beings were exposed to moon cycles for thousands of years before being exposed to artificial light. In an environment with solely natural light - solar and lunar, menstruating bodies were found to do so on the new moon and ovulated on the full moon, linking with fertility and harvest, all timed to the natural rhythms.

The Myth of the Midwife-Witch


Another insightful article/podcast is Sarah Handley-Cousins and Averill Earlshow's'Doctor, Healer, Midwife, Witch: How the Women’s Health Movement Created the Myth of the Midwife-Witch'.

In this podcast, Sarah Handley-Cousins and Averill Earls, discuss the history of the women’s health movement, and how women had been marginalised in their own healthcare. Women used to be an important part of the medical profession as midwives, but the midwives were forced out of practice because they were so often considered witches and persecuted by the patriarchy in the form of the Catholic Church. The idea that midwives were regularly accused of witchcraft seemed so obvious that it quickly became taken as fact. There was only one problem: it wasn’t true. In this episode, they discuss the convoluted origin story of the myth of the midwife-witch. 


As Averill says ‘it makes perfect sense that women who dabbled in medicine would be accused of witchcraft: they were breaking gender norms, threatening the power and exclusivity of the medical profession, and maybe even contradicting God’s will. One kind of woman healer, in particular, is most associated with witchcraft accusations: the midwife, who often had knowledge of herbs and folk healing but also presided over women’s reproductive health, brewing abortifacients, growing herbs that might prevent pregnancy, and delivering babies. Midwives had access to the mysteries of birth and death, and to the products of childbearing believed to have magical power: the caul, the placenta, and the umbilical cord. It seems only logical that early modern people might look on a woman with that kind of power and position with suspicion, and that religious and medical authorities would look for ways to control such dangerous women.’


Sarah goes on to say, ‘midwives that were regularly persecuted as witches, was taken as a given for decades. It appeared in dozens of histories of witchcraft and has become entwined with the history of women and religious dissent in colonial New England. But it also has more modern implications. We already mentioned that it’s become embedded in popular culture, but it also became a touchstone for second-wave feminists. The belief that midwives were persecuted as witches because they threatened the supremacy of the Catholic Church and the professional power of male physicians helped to add ideological fuel to the women’s health movement of the 1970s, a part of the women’s liberation movement that sought to reclaim women’s health from the control of men. There’s only one problem: it’s not accurate.’


The discussion as a whole was so informative. Of course, I didn’t get taught this kind of history at my backwards Catholic School. So with an hour, I learnt all about the male medical gaze, to Ehrenreich and English’s 1973 Our Bodies, Ourselves, a pamphlet for women wanting to reclaim knowledge of their bodies, to Szasz's dissection of the diagnosis of hysteria (which was nearly always given to women who failed in one way or another to meet expectations of womanhood). To Foucault’s BioPower and all the way back to the 1486 ubiquitous witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum, published by German Catholic priest and witchcraft inquisitor Heinrich Kramer.


All in all, I found it fascinating and I really recommend this podcast!


Woodcut, 1583 | Wellcome Collection


Cover of Our Bodies, Ourselves | 1973

Artist Research:


The Moon and a Smile

an exhibition at the Glynn Vivian, Swansea, 2017.

Greta Alfaro, Anna Fox, Astrid Kruse Jensen, Neeta Madahar & Melanie Rose, Sharon Morris, Sophy Rickett, Helen Sear, Patricia Ziad

The Moon and a Smile responds to a period in the 1840s and 1850s, when Swansea was at the centre of early experiments in photography worldwide. In particular, the Dillwyn family circle was prolific in the development of photography, in particular John Dillwyn Llewellyn, his sister Mary and his daughter Thereza. John Dillwyn Llewellyn was said to be the first person to take a photograph of the Moon and of a smile, but after researching letters and journals of the Dillwyn's, it is now thought that his daughter took these photos, but John took credit for them. 


Botanical artists:


Rooted Beings - Wellcome Collection - 2022

‘Rooted Beings’ invites you to embark on a meditative reflection on the world of plants and fungi. The exhibition considers what we might learn from plant behaviour, and the impacts of colonial expeditions on the exploitation of natural resources and indigenous knowledges. Plants sustain life on earth. They are sensitive, complex and interconnected beings, playing surprisingly active roles in ecosystems and human societies. ‘Rooted Beings’ asks if we can become more rooted, attentive, flexible and caring – and attain vegetal enlightenment. The exhibition is curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz with Emily Sargent.

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 RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show - Saatchi Gallery - 2022.

The show features some of the best botanical artwork and garden photography from global artists.

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