Women's conquest of space

Invited to programme events at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, Michÿle Roberts leapt at the chance to explore her fascination with space - both public and private, metaphorical and physical, male and female
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Our urban landscape is beginning to offer us new and exhilarating possibilities of losing and finding ourselves in huge spaces as previously derelict industrial buildings are renovated and thrown open to the public. It can be very enjoyable to feel yourself become tiny, about to be crushed by toppling weights of air. Tate Modern at London's Bankside is an obvious example of a space that offers that opportunity. I keep going there ostensibly to look at the art but find that a major part of the pleasure is the freedom to roam through it or up and down it and feel awed and excited.

Our urban landscape is beginning to offer us new and exhilarating possibilities of losing and finding ourselves in huge spaces as previously derelict industrial buildings are renovated and thrown open to the public. It can be very enjoyable to feel yourself become tiny, about to be crushed by toppling weights of air. Tate Modern at London's Bankside is an obvious example of a space that offers that opportunity. I keep going there ostensibly to look at the art but find that a major part of the pleasure is the freedom to roam through it or up and down it and feel awed and excited.

The Turbine Hall rears high above your head like an Egyptian temple. Louise Bourgeois' sculptures installed here let you explore the architecture in two radically different ways. The monster spider looms over you, both protective and potentially threatening, as powerful as a mother bending over her infant and the wobbly towers take you spiralling up towards the roof as though you're flying and risking falling. You can test out both containment and escape, play with energies that used to be divided between the sexes and called feminine or masculine. Bourgeois makes both kinds of experience, active and passive, available to everybody. That's why her work is so radical. She re-combines elements and emotions that used to be seen as strictly separate. She unsettles us.

A similar process of renovation and experiment has been under way at Wapping Wall in east London where the enormous Wapping Hydraulic Power Station is about to open as "The Wapping Project", a multi-purpose exhibition and performance space founded by the Women's Playhouse Trust. How exhilarating that this new centre in east London will provide such large spaces for artists. No more assumptions about women's plays being essentially suited to the intimacy of studio performances, or women's paintings being condensed versions of men's. If you can choose between large and small spaces and sizes, whether of art work or display space, then you can properly re-evaluate both. As long as women were lined up with small indoor spaces and men with large outdoor ones, with men's way of working having higher status, then large works and big public spaces were automatically seen as better. Massive interior spaces full of the work of women joyfully rebut those assumptions.

When I was a child the only large buildings I encountered in our suburb were churches and cinemas. Everyone I knew lived in a house. Prefabs were still around and we regarded their seeming impermanence and fragility with fascination. The local council estates grouped their low-rise dwellings, cottage-like, around the semblances of village greens. Domestic space was tight, whether you were in 1930s mock-Tudor or newer pebbledash.

Both the church and the cinema provided sensual impact you couldn't get anywhere else: darkness, music, emotion, scent, all shared in common with a mass of strangers. A sexy feeling. You could go to church alone and feel safe but not to the cinema. A girl by herself was likely to be harassed by smelly men in raincoats. I loved railway stations but it was always easier to get on a train rather than sit on a bench, people-watching. The boring chaps would appear as soon as you sat down just as they did in parks. If you wanted to be left alone, church was the only place to go.

When shopping malls began to be built they offered new public venues where women could roam. They are often described as the new cathedrals but there is more than a routine acknowledgement of Mammon as the new God being invoked here. Malls are bigger and shinier and warmer than your own home, and they are sensual public spaces in which women can feel safe to wander freely. In 19th-century France, a man who strolled the boulevards, was a flâneur while a lone woman doing the same thing was a streetwalker.

We take for granted nowadays that women are free to walk wherever they choose but many women still don't feel able to take advantage of their supposed liberation. Although statistics show that it is young men who are at most danger from other young men out on the streets, plenty of women dislike walking alone in cities, especially at night. Is it really a rapist they fear or some internalised authority berating them for stepping out of their assigned place? Though that is what a rapist is doing, of course, punishing a woman for being a woman. So the one fear very closely elides into the other, even though many rapes happen at home in that traditional female space supposedly identical with sanctuary.

It's as though we still retain some unconscious rules about who is supposed to dominate what spaces. Space can never be simply a matter of geography. It crucially involves psychology too, taboos that still exist inside us even though they are not talked about. Space is an important metaphor in relationships. For example, if you are honest with yourself, you know whether or not you feel able to claim and hold your space equally with a close friend, whether you tend to shrink back apologetically, whether you loom forward, bullying, whether you're always trying to create the psychological space for the other to feel happy in. A dance over the joined space ensues and you can see it happening at work, in the classroom, wherever you go. That's why the sculptures of Louise Bourgeois can baffle at first, before you realise she is dealing with those deep emotional issues. She had to claim a lot of space, both physically and psychically, to do it.

I have always been fascinated by people who didn't know their place, who stepped out of their place, who talked back and rebelled. So when I was invited to programme some events at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, I jumped at the chance to explore some of my obsessions. I invited writers to come and talk about the theme of space understood in a metaphorical way. Two of my enduring heroines are George Sand and Colette, both of whom, in order to prove themselves as serious artists, broke the rules about decorous feminine behaviour and earned a fair amount of opprobrium as a result. Belinda Jack and Judith Thurman, in their recent biographies of these novelists look at the myths surrounding them. Sand, who famously adopted male dress in order to roam Paris looking rather than being looked at, ended up being caricatured as a cigar-toting nymphomaniac. How, then, to explain the love and esteem that her great compatriot and close friend Flaubert had for her? Colette continues to be painted over here as the frou-frou product of decadent fin-de-siÿcle Paris, as nothing but the creator of Gigi, whereas she is a superb and innovative modernist. We seem to continue to put women into little boxes. Out they exuberantly burst. And on to the generously proportioned stage at the Cheltenham Festival.

Events programmed by Michÿle Roberts today and tomorrow include discussions with Mary Loudon, Hermione Lee, Belinda Jack, Judith Thurman and Paul Bailey. www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk. Booking: 01242 227979

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