Edinburgh Art Festival: Jesse Jones’ The Tower

One writer reflects on her experience of Jesse Jones’ intensely haunting installation at Talbot Rice, which explores terrifying histories of misogyny in Ireland and beyond

Article by Rachel Ashenden | 12 Sep 2023
  • Jesse Jones, 'The Tower', 2022

Inside a usually sun-drenched room at the Talbot Rice, a mesmerising ritual unfolds. Comprising a film, sculpture and performance, The Tower explores the intergenerational persecution of women as heretics before the witch trials of the sixteenth century. Illuminating the tangibility of inherited trauma, artist Jesse Jones situates the making of The Tower in the wider Irish context of the feminist fight to repeal the Irish Constitution's eighth amendment to increase access to abortion. Powerfully describing the witch trials as a “misogyny tsunami”, Jones navigates the aftershocks of the 12th to 16th-century persecution of heretics and witches.

Plunged into darkness, the sensory deprivation of The Tower is initially deeply jarring. Unconsciously, I inspected corners of the room for movement, eyeing up fellow visitors with suspicion and fear. Flickers of light offered moments of respite. As the artist’s accessory encircled me in a shadowy curtain, I became entangled in the ritual and succumbed to the frenzy of The Tower. Muttering words borrowed from the language of witches under her breath, the performer moved between objects which form the sculptural installation, activating them in her path. A harbinger of sorrow and suffering, she haunts like an apparition, cryptically telling the matrilineal story of our ancestors. 

A still from The Tower by Jesse Jones.
Production still from The Tower, 2022-2023 by Jesse Jones. Photo by Marion Bergin, courtesy of the artist.

The performance enhances the main event of the exhibition: a newly commissioned film which captivated my attention in the darkened room. The film delves beyond the prevailing narratives surrounding witchcraft, taking an abstracted look at one of the original heretics, Mary Magdalene. Alongside Magdalene, the film absorbs the music of eleventh century abbess and polymath composer Hildegarde of Bingen alongside the writings of medieval mystic Marguerite Porete, who was publicly executed in 14th-century Paris with her mystical text tied to her body. While this broad church of influences could make the exhibition seem disparate and dull its impact, the precision with which Jones draws them together only sharpens the haptic experience of The Tower

The experimental expanded cinema event which Jones and Talbot Rice have conjured deserves repeat visits. Knowing that several performance artists have been trained to activate the exhibition, I returned a few weeks later to experience the same ritual. While one was not less committed than the other, there were palpable differences in mood and delivery between the two performers. On both occasions I felt a guttural sense of betrayal in my chest when I left The Tower and its witchy coven behind. 

Jesse Jones: The Tower, Talbot Rice Gallery, until 30 Sep, Tue-Sat, 10am-5pm, free entry

This article was commissioned as part of Edinburgh Art Festival's Emerging Writers programme