Updated: Sep 27, 2020
'Embodying the simultaneous domestication of the angel as passive female and its expression of female autonomy, the Climate Guardians appear graceful, even passive, but their techniques are designed to wield maximum power across contemporary live and digital platforms' - Denise Varney, 2018
The Climate Guardians in Paris. Photo Credit: climarte.
Although the initial idea to make trash angel wings during Call Us Angels came from the American women's underwear brand Victoria's Secret, the image of these trash angel wings have grown and developed throughout the project into something more than just a copy of Victoria's Secret's angel wings. I started to think about angel wings as mystical and ephemeral. Wings also give angels the ability to move freely and spread the word, but somewhat ironically the image of the angel is stuck within a historical canon - something that I am terrified to handle.
In this blog, I am going to try to think through the symbol of angels within this canon, with the help of Australian activist group Climate Guardians. I hope that we will be able to unpick what it means to wear angel wings, whether made of trash or not, to protest climate change and the ecological crisis.
Let's get going before my thoughts fly away from me...
'The Fall of the Rebel Angels' by Luca Giordano. Photo Credit: Google Arts + Culture.
The history of angel iconography is varied and intimidating to handle. Grown from a religious (predominantly Christian) background, the angel was seen and often painted as 'an emissary of God, a warrior, and a spiritual being [and] unquestionably a male figure' (Varney, 2018). It wasn't until the 19th century that Western European artists romanticised the angel, turning the symbol of the angel from a male messenger or warrior into a passive, ephemeral and beautiful female figure (Richman-Abdou, 2018).
Modern history has seen different creatives take the image of the angel from its religious historical background and try to make it their own. Some include angels with elaborate, feathery wings such as the representation of Ariel in Jim Herrin's version of William Shakespeare's The Tempest at the Globe (2013). Other representations remove the wings from the angel, as in Wim Wenders' 1987 film Wings of Desire. Such varied representations of angels, and their wings, highlights the impressive canon of angel iconography. However, all stem from the angels' original religious and masculine artistic representations.
This religious and masculine history of the angel is something I have struggled to grapple with throughout Call Us Angels. This project revolves around women, making wings out of trash and sharing knowledge about the gender disparities of the ecological crisis. Can I truly appropriate this religious and masculine image of the angel and use it to fight for gender, climate and ecological justice? Or will my trash wings be forever tainted by this patriarchal representation of the angel? Do I even want to handle this historical canon of the angel, instead focusing on the bigger issues at hand - women around the world being disproportionately impacted by the ecological crisis?
To help me try to answer these questions, I'm going to enlist the help of Australian academic Denise Varney's work on the Climate Guardians.
The Climate Guardians protesting in Melbourne. Photo Credit: John Englart.
The Climate Guardians are a female activist group based in Australia, but their actions often take place worldwide. The Climate Guardians turn up to public spaces, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, dressed as angels all in white dresses with beautiful, fearthery-looking wings. They aim to use 'angel iconography to highlight the vital role of guardianship of precious and natural resources in addressing the global threat from the climate emergency' (Varney, 2018).
There are a lot of obvious similarities between these beautiful Climate Guardians and our project Call Us Angels. For instance, both are made up of passionate women fighting for climate and ecological justice. What's more, both wear wings in public spaces to bring climate and ecological issues to the attention of those passing by. What is different is that the Climate Guardians look like angels. Their wings are delicate and beautiful, copying the graceful and ephemeral images of female angels within 19th century Western art. Instead, the wings made during Call Us Angels are ugly, extremely DIY and made of trash, and have been worn with comfy leggings and a colourful t-shirt - not really your expected angel attire.
Wearing the wings for the first time. Photo Credit: Charlotte Discombe.
Varney considers what it means for the Climate Guardians to appropriate the image of the angel, when the angel has historically been seen as a masculine figure, and then later on in Western history, a ephemeral and beautiful, but passive, female figure. The fact that the Climate Guardians wear white dresses and beautiful wings whilst carrying out slow, thoughtful and peaceful protest reinstates the image of the 19th century female angel. This is because the Climate Guardians look like beautiful and passive female angels to viewers from a distance. However, this image has always been a conscious decision for the group. Varney makes it clear that by turning up to urban environments, like the Engie head office in Paris, the beauty and ephemerality of the Climate Guardians significantly contrasts to the city-scapes in which they often appear, making the group stand out to the public. Furthermore, the actions of this group are by no means passive as, even though they look harmless, these angels are powerfully protesting Government inaction to tackle climate change and the ecological crisis. It is these contrasts between the image of the beautiful female angel, the urban environment and their protests which confuses the iconography of the female angel as passive and the male angel as messenger throughout history. The beautiful female Climate Guardians have become powerful angel messengers for the modern world, warning society of the dangers of climate change and the ecological crisis.
Although the Climate Guardians have thought through their choice of using the image of the beautiful, passive female angel, I always knew from the beginning of Call Us Angels that I wanted to avoid taking on this Westernised image of the female angel from the 19th century. I think this was partly because I wanted Call Us Angels to be as inclusive as possible and accessible to a diverse range of women. By dressing up as a beautiful angel all in white during litter picking sessions, I felt like I would alienate some who: 1. found this image confusing and/or not representative of their culture, and 2. saw this act of dressing up as too theatrical or extreme, alienating them from getting involved in the project.
Unlike the Climate Guardians' wings that looked delicate and feathery, the wings I made during Call Us Angels were ugly, DIY and made of trash. Despite these differences in our wings, they had a similar impact. Instead of protesting in urban environments, the actions taken during Call Us Angels have always been local and in the countryside. For instance, during 'A Call to Action', in which six angels litter picked in their local area, the group started at Newlands Corner - an area of outstanding natural beauty. Placing these ugly, trash wings into this area of natural beauty made our group of litter pickers stand out. The trash angel wings contrasted significantly to the rolling Surrey hills, in a similar but contrasting manner to the Climate Guardians' wings in urban environments. By litter picking in the countryside, whilst wearing trash wings, we made the usually invisible issue of waste pollution in Surrey evident. Furthermore, we highlighted that the ecological crisis and its gender disparities will even impact areas of outstanding natural beauty.
I have talked about Call Us Angels trying to remove itself from the Westernised version of the passive female angel by not dressing up as angels, instead just wearing trash wings in an attempt to make the project more accessible, but I have yet to tackle the representation of the angel as male messenger and its relationship to this project.
Call Us Angels emerged from the observation that women were, and still are, leading protests against Governments who are not doing enough to stop climate change and the ecological crisis (Michelson, 2019). Throughout, I have questioned whether women could therefore be seen as guardian angels of the world. The Climate Guardians certainly fit this image. As stated previously, they have taken the image of the passive female angel within the historical canon, and turned themselves into powerful messengers - thus also taking the iconography of male angels in Western culture (pre-19th century), and making it their own. For Call Us Angels, I was hesitant to take on this representation of an angel as messenger, and not just because Call Us Angels is an eco-feminist project and this image of the angel as messenger has come from a complicated, male-dominated history.
I think another reason for not dressing up as angels during litter picking sessions, instead only wearing trash wings, was because I am still unsure what it means to categorise women as guardian angels or messengers for the world. In their book on ecofeminism, Australian academics Lara Stevens, Peta Tait and Dennis Varney warn of the potential of society to limit the role of women to climate change solvers just because they are currently motivated to protest against climate change (2018). This would leave responsibility of sorting climate change and the ecological crisis to women, something that I believe would create further inequality and less change within our patriarchal world. Although I have used Instagram to share and learn about the gender disparities that will, and are occurring, as a result of the ecological crisis, I do not see myself or Call Us Angels as guardian angels or messengers. Even whilst wearing my trash wings I did not feel like an angel - a member of the public even stated I was a 'trash butterfly' rather than a trash guardian angel. Am I coping out by not taking on this image of the angel as messenger just so I don't have to deal with its masculine history? I don't think so. I think by making the trash wings and wearing them I realised that women shouldn't have to be messengers. We shouldn't have to be guardian angels. Instead we should all work together, no matter our gender, to save the world from climate and ecological disaster. This is what we should be discussing in this project, not the historical canon of angels and their wings.
Maybe I should change the title of Call Us Angels.
Maybe Call Us Angels should come with a question mark.
Call Us Angels?
Climacts. 'Climate Guardians'. Climacts, 2014, https://climacts.org.au/climate-guardians/, (Accessed: 2020).
Michelson, Joan. 'Women speaking and leading loudly on climate change - COP 25 & Greta'. Forbes, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/joanmichelson2/2019/12/11/women-speaking-and-leading-loudly-on-climate-change--cop-25--greta/#70498a15317b, (Accessed: 2020).
Richman - Abdou, Kelly. 'Exploring the heavenly history of Angels in art'. My Modern Met, 2018, https://mymodernmet.com/angel-art-history/, (Accessed: 2020).
Stevens, Lara et. al. 'Introduction: "street-fighters and philosophers": traversing ecofeminisms'. Feminist Ecologies, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 1-22.
Varney, Denise. 'Climate Guardian Angels: feminist ecology and the activist tradition'. Feminist Ecologies, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 135-154.