Mirren Kessling is a British visual artist based between London and Oxfordshire. She graduated from the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, in 2016 with a BFA and has subsequently shown at Modern Art Oxford and Cube Gallery London.
Much of Kessling’s practice is directly or tangentially related to the story of Pope Joan, which has long held her fascination. Disguised as a man, Joan was said to have received an education and risen through the ranks of the clergy, reigning as the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church for a brief period in the ninth century under the name of John VIII. Her demise is the subject of many theories. One popular anecdote recounts how Pope Joan fell pregnant and was killed after giving birth during a religious procession. While Joan was once widely believed to be a historical figure, her existence is hotly disputed now, with many scholars opining that she was in fact no more than a legend.
Maryanne Saunders spoke to Kessling about Pope Joan, her thinking behind some of her earlier works, and her new drawings, which will be exhibited later in 2019.
Image: Let’s start with the context of the ongoing Pope Joan project. When did your fascination with this story start?
Mirren Kessling: Around 2014, I had been archiving my college art collection [at Exeter College, Oxford] when I was at University. I spent my whole summer in this archive and I was daydreaming about how there might be treasures in this dusty cupboard that could have implications for how we understand history. That got me thinking about forgotten people or stories that get uncovered, such as The Booke of Margery Kempe, one of the earliest autobiographies in English that was rediscovered in a private library in 1934 after being lost since the sixteenth century. From there, I was researching women in history who had been lost or forgotten, or whose stories hadn’t been told until quite recently, and eventually came across the story of Pope Joan….and it just didn’t leave. I just couldn’t stop coming back to it.
Image: Is Catholicism familiar to you?
Kessling: Yes, historically, my family is Catholic, and I was baptized. My parents are more atheist/agnostic, but I went to a Catholic school, and I have been really aware of Catholic culture and have grown up within it. But I also feel I am critical of it too. So I think that also captured my imagination because I was also really interested in the art of the Catholic church anyway.
Image: How did Pope Joan become a focus of your art practice?
Kessling: After art school, I kept coming back to the story, and I had started looking more at clothes and getting back into drawing, which has always been a big part of my life. But when I was studying my focus lay mostly around the body, so time-based media, performance and print seemed best suited for working through my ideas at that time. When I left, I wanted to explore different ways that I could marry my ideas around Pope Joan with my drawing practice and my research interests in clothing as material culture. I wanted to somehow bring the material culture of the Catholic church together with this story.
Image: What was the first piece you did that was explicitly about her?
Kessling: A huge picture of me with a paper bag over my head staring directly into the camera. I had been looking at the Rembrandt paintings in the National Gallery and the eyes of portrait sitters. I tried to find a way to photograph myself in a way that the eyes would follow you around the room and implicate you in the gaze so you can’t just look at it like an object; it is literally looking back at you. I created a kind of papal hat, but it was just a paper Itsu bag with the slogan “eat beautiful.” It was about the fantasy of being more than you are or more than you can be—it was called Pope Joan.
Image: I can’t help but notice that there’s a link between drawing, fashion and this idea of finding forgotten women in history. They all involve the presence or absence of something. Particularly conspicuous absence—women in historical narratives. Did these ideas figure in your earlier work?
Kessling: I remember I did a pilgrimage and ended up at Wells Cathedral, and I saw a lace sample depicting St. Peter that had taken a group of Nuns 10,000 hours to create. It was beautiful, and obviously it only depicted men, but these women had spent this enormous amount of time on one sample of lace which was probably the size of a shoe box. I couldn’t help but think about all the conversations that must have happened and the kind of life around that piece that we don’t know about. Also, when I later attended lace-making classes, which were generally only attended by women, the thing I enjoyed the most were the conversations that were going on—the social culture of lace-making. Lace has a really intricate history within the Catholic Church, so that’s why I chose it as a material for the Pope Joan piece.
Image: Your Modern Art Oxford show was called “The Body Can Be Made and Remade,” and your new series of drawings are very fluid, hybrid images. Is Pope Joan’s gender ambiguity a big draw for you?
Kessling: In my first large scale drawing in this body of work, I drew a lace collar that featured interpretations of historical and highly contrasting images of Pope Joan, one of which was a self portrait as a Pope. As my research into Pope Joan has deepened, I’ve been really struck by the array of artists’ presentations of Joan’s gender identity. I cannot speak to Pope Joan’s gender, but I’m interested in Pope Joan’s status as a symbol of resistance for different movements that oppose the status quo of the Catholic Church, and to this end, in Pope Joan as a queer icon. For example, when Pope John Paul II visited Berlin, shortly after the wall came down, gay activists understandably protested against the the church’s anti-homosexual preaching. The protest featured a mock papal coronation of Pope Joan, played by a local sex-worker.
Image: Most of your images in this series seem to be deliberately gender fluid or ambiguous, how did that come about?
Kessling: I’ve seen so many different presentations of Pope Joan that I was interested in synthesizing lots of these images I have come across in my research in a set of drawings which are variously ambiguous and fluid in their presentations of Pope Joan’s gender.
Image: Would you say this is the first time you’ve had to imagine a body?
Kessling: I’ve been working with imagined or re-imagined bodies for a while. I’ve worked with my own and others. I like the idea of hiding in plain sight, kind of like Pope Joan would have. For example, in my photographic work, I look at temporarily distorting the image of a body using tricks of lighting, poses and disguise, but have set the rule that they cannot be edited, so they are very staged or rehearsed. This comes from my experience making props and accessories for fashion shoots, where there was a disconnect between the experience of being there and the image, which I like playing with, such as temporary props which look really decadent in a photo but are actually just some cardboard with some plastic jewels stuck to it. You can sometimes see that disconnect in paintings. There’s a painting of someone clad in this vast swathe of silk in a portrait at the National Gallery, which I’m convinced is a fancy curtain from the way it interacts with the body. It just doesn’t hang like an item of clothing.
Image: How are you imaging bodies in your new works?
Kessling: Often the faces are whatever comes out of my head. These tend to look a bit like my face, which I find quite funny. My reference points are really varied for bodies. For example, I might start with a sculpture I came across in a church. Then I’ll start layering them with other bodies.
Image: Such as the sleeping hermaphrodite reference in the sleeping lovers?
Kessling: Exactly. This is also a reference to the tarot card, “The Lovers.” I wanted to make a nod to the fact that Pope Joan is present in many tarot decks as the High Priestess.
Image: Would you say you focus more on Pope Joan the person, or Pope Joan the symbol? Or both?
Kessling: I don’t know where I begin and where Pope Joan ends! In all seriousness, I think Pope Joan is a really potent symbol.
Image: The costumes in the drawing series seem to have a real clash between this ceremonial sort of dress, which is gorgeous to look at, full of these rich references, highly recognizable, but it’s sort of impersonal. Is that the point of these garments? They transform the wearer into a symbol or higher being; it could be anyone.
Kessling: Exactly, and that’s one of the things people have said about Pope Joan: that of course Pope Joan could have become Pope, because the clothes are so non specific. They just cover you up completely. You could theoretically hide a pregnant belly underneath them. Actually, with Ascension, it was a big decision for me to do an obviously pregnant belly on Pope Joan, but I felt like I needed to. I realized with this belly it could also be a beer gut, and I wanted that to be a bit unclear.
Image: Even though it is an image of a pregnant person, it’s still very ambiguous.
Kessling: Yes, the muscles have been extended. I was looking at [William] Blake’s angels when I was researching this; there’s something ambiguous about them as well as their supernatural strength. Blake’s angels motivate me to go to the gym.
Image: I can see the Blake influence in Ascension. Do you see Pope Joan as a mournful character? a guilty character? She is, in many ways, a tragic character.
Kessling: Most of them are, aren’t they? On a side note, I feel that the leadership in the church would benefit from letting people who aren’t just cis-gendered men into their ranks. I think we know that. I want to put forward a person who is not just mournful or tragic…for me it’s about the future and the kind of person I’d like to see in the leadership of the church.
Image: Finally, do you see your work as part of a religious response? Is it a theological endeavor, or an artistic one? Can it be both?
Kessling: I have thought to myself, does this work have a mission to change the church? I feel my role as an artist is to start a conversation, like in the way that Rihanna dressing as a Pope for the Met Gala [in 2018] started a conversation about who gets to be Pope—that was a huge moment! Some people might say it’s just fashion, but it wasn’t just fashion; it was a woman putting on a Pope’s outfit—she’s a contemporary idol.
Image: So it’s not a campaign?
Kessling: There’s definitely change I like to see in the way that the Catholic Church operates across society and organizes itself, but I don’t think this work is specifically a campaign. For the moment, there are many avenues to Pope Joan and the stories that I just want to immerse myself in. Recently, this has been extending out into other historical people in the church, such as Christian mystic Julian of Norwich or St. Catherine. But obviously, I’d love it if one of the groups advocating for change in the Catholic church, such as the Campaign for Catholic Women’s Ordination, used one of my works!
Follow Kessling on Instagram: @mirrenkessling
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Maryanne Saunders
Maryanne Saunders is a PhD researcher at King's College London focusing on gender, sexuality, and language in contemporary religious art. Her work has appeared in Times Higher Education, The Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception and the edited volume Encounters: The Art of Interfaith Dialogue. Follow her on Twitter @maryanne_fs