Wetness has long been considered a destructive force. Floods. Waterboarding. Torrential downpour. Drowning. Sobbing. A leaky facet. Dampness that leads to mold. In Ancient Greek, wetness was associated with the female body and with it carried connotations of destruction. “Physiologically and psychologically women are wet,” Anne Carson wrote in her essay “Dirt and Desire.” She goes on to quote Hippokrates:
The female flourishes more in an environment of water, from things cold and wet and soft, whether food or drink or activities. The male flourishes more in an environment of fire, from dry, hot foods and mode of life.
This binary between wet/dry and women/men is repeated in contemporary culture. Women’s wetness is weaponized against them. The weeping woman is weak; the sexual woman, impure. Women’s wetness is dangerous, it represents a disregard of boundaries, so therefore it needs to be squashed and replaced with dryness. An artificial boundary is erected.
Azza El Siddique’s exhibition at Cooper Cole in Toronto from October 26 to December 9, 2018, Let Me Hear You Sweat, proved the danger of water. Dripping faucets and humidifiers gradually disintegrated unfired clay vases, creating a time-based exhibition that shifted depending on the day you visited.
The title Let Me Hear You Sweat seems oxymoronic until you realize that wetness does make noise. The reverberation of a drop of water into a larger vat of water. The muffled sound of sobs. Rain tap-tapping on a window. A humidifier gurgling throughout the night. Siddique made use of these sonic tropes in her sculptures, if not literally, then figuratively. Standing in the basement at Cooper Cole amongst Siddique’s moist sculptures, my mind heard the sound of wetness—of sweat—and the discomfort that comes with.
Clay vases were lined horizontally, and in one sculpture, vertically, in increments of three. They laid atop shelves made of metal grates that worked as sieves, the clay breaking open and flowing through the wide-open grates. What was once dry is now wet, allowing it to break through the boundary of the grate. Since I visited the show a few weeks into the timeline of destruction, I couldn’t tell if the vases were at one time all the same size and the water was affecting each uniquely, resulting in vases of mismatched sizes and shapes. The sieve plays an important role in Greek mythology, often appearing as part of the penance of Goddesses who misbehave and are shunned to eternal life in the underworld collecting water with a leaky jar or sieve. The metal grates work as metaphoric sieves in Let Me Hear You Sweat, visualizing the impossible task of keeping the dripping water and clay at bay.
The viewer was confronted with a boundary of clear plastic when viewing two of Siddique’s sculptures. Carson isolates the lack of boundaries wetness has as seen as the main offense against women in Ancient Greek, “[Aristotle] tells us that the wet is that which is not bounded by any boundary of its own but can readily be bounded, while the dry is that which is already bounded by a boundary of its own but can with difficulty be bounded.’” In other words, women need exterior boundaries to contain them. It feels potent that 2/3 of the sculptural pieces—the one that uses humidifiers as the source of wetness—in Let Me Hear You Sweat play with this concept of boundaries in the form of a plastic sheaf. “On this reasoning, it becomes possible to differentiate woman from man not only as wet from dry but as the unbounded from the bounded, as content from form, as polluted from pure,” Carson continues. An unbounded woman is capable of anything, is mistrust-worthy. It’s worth noting, boundary or not (whether in the form of unfired clay, a plastic wall or metal shelves), water persists in its quest for destruction. In Siddique’s work, the boundary that separates the viewer from the work turns out to be what propels the damage wreaked by the humidifiers.
On a more literal level, the disgust lobbed at women’s wetness in Ancient Greek illustrates the lack of knowledge and prejudice against female’s sexual biology—discrimination that persists. Carson points to the mistrust of “the wet” due to its ability to transform and deform. Women’s “moisture and malleability make women more vulnerable to the onslaughts of erotic desire upon psychic form. Second, female wetness gives women a weapon, which men do not possess against the excessive heat and dryness that may accompany desire,” Carson writes. In one sculpture, below the vases and metal shelves, are copper hands that have oxidized, the antiquated colour of patina. The hands are tilted at the wrist, a kind of come hither that is inherently sexual. One can read these hands as Goddesses from the underworld (the same ones shunned there and forced to collect water) ready to catch the broken shards of clay.
In Siddique’s sculptures, wetness, which has long been associated with women, becomes dangerous. The sculptures personify the distrust of wetness and lack of boundaries that appear in Ancient Greek and Greek myth. Like almost every other power that women yield, efforts have been made to quell the wetness of women by creating a taboo around it and encouraging a culture of dryness cultivated by male boundaries. Siddique rejects this as the norm and instead, shows the unbounded power of wetness.