Helena Walsh

Current Work: Occupied Bodies


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This video performance combines footage shot in two separate locations: a woodland, and the site of the Waterford Magdalen Laundry ran by the Good Shepard Sisters (1842 - 1994), which now constitutes part of the Waterford Institute of Technology. It responds to the sense of cultural amnesia and silence surrounding the Magdalen Laundries. It also questions the ongoing moral policing of women's bodies in contemporary Ireland, bringing into view the authoritarian systems and draconian ideologies that limit women’s reproductive autonomy. The work draws a parallel between the Magdalen Laundries and Ireland’s abortion laws as instruments of state control centred on containment of female sexuality.

Sitting on a church pew, amidst hushed tones a woman with bound breasts twirls a stick of chalk in her hands. Knelt on the floor she begins to draw chalk X‘s on the ornate tiles that were once meticulously scrubbed by women deemed as society‘s filth. Her marking or staining is a tribute to the many unknown and disappeared women who were once detained within the grounds of the building she marks and were forced to labour unwaged in the convent‘s industrial laundries. So too, her inscribing of chalk X’s on the floor speak to the Irish government’s long-standing failure to legislate on the Supreme Court ruling in X Case in 1992, which ruled that abortion should be permissible in cases where there was a risk to the life of the mother, including suicide. The Irish state finally legislated on the X Case in 2013, after 21 years. However, women’s right to control their fertility in Ireland remain severely restrained.

Glimpses of religious symbolism and the building‘s architecture appear in flashes. Simultaneously, in the woodland, the same woman, naked and heavily pregnant, digs up the soil with her bare hands. Is she attempting to unearth or bury something? Eventually covering her pregnant body in the fresh dug up soil, she questions the ideologies that outline certain maternal bodies as dirty and shameful.