As a child growing up in Leeds Georgina Starr kept dossiers on the people she met. In 2003 Starr was commissioned to make an artwork for her hometown's art gallery (Leeds City Art Gallery) and chose to use these early dossiers as a starting point for a new work. Making a list of the twelve people from her past, she employed someone to track them down. Each were given a particular photograph and asked questions about memories associated with it. Most of the people had not seen or heard from her for more than 25 years.
BIG V appears as a series of actions and re-enactments narrated by four teenage girls loosely based on the interviews with people Starr grew up with. The work explores themes of female sexuality in relation to Catholicism, memory, half-truths, the origins of guilt and the significance of the Virgin Mary to the Catholic schoolgirl.
Photographs from 'the early dossiers', Big V, 2004
The Big V
Suffering and punishment have always served to unite the Catholic with Christ on the cross. The image of Christ dying and that of his mother, the Virgin Mary, wallpaper the Catholic child's mind. 'The Virgin' is the pop idol of the pre-pubescent Catholic girl. Alongside the posters of pop bands and teen pin-ups there stands Mary with her oversized sacred heart exposed. As a child growing up in Leeds I conversed with Mary regularly. Kneeling at a homemade altar in my bedroom I would talk to her about all aspects of my life. Every flicker of sunlight was a sign of her glorious presence, I believed she could hear and see everything and my actions were ruled by this assumption. At one point I toyed with becoming a nun.
The female saints were all children when they had their calling. St Bernadette was 14 when she saw the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, St Thérèse of Lisieux was 14 when she entered the Carmelite order, and at 9 years old Gemma Galgani spent three days in confession. All of them believed that Jesus, Mary or God had spoken directly to them. They were comforted by these voices, but along with the calling always came the guilt, the punishment and the self-denial. Many of these saints would do anything to get closer to Christ and they used their pain as a productive force. St Francesca of Rome wore a hair shirt under her dress and a band fitted with metal studs that dug into her flesh and St Clare of Assisi only ate on 3 days of the week.
Outside of the church the meaning of self-inflicted pain is often lost. When teenagers pierce and cut their own flesh many see it as degenerate behaviour, but pain only has the meaning we ascribe to it. As adults we loose the ability to truly understand the teenage girl, in the same way as we lack a context in which to understand why the saints suffered so willingly. The ideas of the 'Immaculate Conception' and the ‘virgin birth’ confused and intrigued us Catholic girls. In my ‘Mysteries of the Rosary’ booklet I read that Mary became pregnant without having sex and that this was supposed to be a very joyful thing. Her womb, like a holy suitcase, had been borrowed to deliver ‘the flower of her virginity’ and everyone was ecstatic about it. It was a terrifying thought. If it happened once, we all secretly wondered, could it possibly happen to any of us?
Every year a girl at school was chosen to be the ‘Queen of the May’ in the church procession. It was a coveted role where the chosen girl would dress like a bride and be crowned with roses in devotion to the blessed virgin. It was a mystery to me how they chose, I only got to carry her train.
Our perception of 'virginity' dominated our conversations. How did an invisible spirit impregnate a woman? Who was a virgin, who wasn't? Who was pretending to be or not to be, and who would choose to stay one forever? Whether it was to condemn or condone our religion, we Catholic girls could never really escape The Big V.
Published on the occasion of the exhibition at Leeds City Art Gallery in 2004