Jesse Jones studies the monochrome footage playing on a widescreen television tilted on its side.
She stands over a table, arms crossed, talking with her film editor about how some of these shots are too frantic to keep and some too gorgeous to lose.
“That,” Jones says to the editor seated at a laptop. “Freeze frame.”
The editor holds on a still of actor Olwen Fouéré as she clutches her lower abdomen against a black backdrop.
Jones sits down to note this moment on a spreadsheet.
The video resumes. From a speaker, the serpent-like whispers of a teenage female choir fill the music room on the first floor of the Rua Red arts centre in Tallaght.
They mingle with the sounds of school children’s chatter coming up through an open window from the plaza below.
On the screen, Fouéré writhes and shakes. Her long white hair billows. Her eyes are closed. She is on her knees and dressed in a sheepskin cloak, which Jones refers to as the clouds and heavens.
The scene transitions to a close-up shot of a white stone. Mark those down as two distinct scenes, Jones instructs. One as “Olwen ecstasy” and the other as “Becomes stone”.
She repeats them, running the words together so they ring out like an esoteric couplet. “Olwen ecstasy becomes stone.”
Jones leans back for a breather. “You just witnessed 30 seconds of The Tower,” she says.
The Tower, a film and sculpture installation, has taken two years to develop, she says.
Starring Fouéré alongside a choir of 14 young women, the work is due to run this summer as part of Rua Red’s Magdalene Series, a programme of events and shows examining Mary Magdalene’s association with the incarceration and institutionalisation of women.
Based on the writings of medieval female Christian mystics, such as Hildegard of Bingen and Marguerite Porete, _The Tower _explores the women who were burned as heretics even before the first witch trials.
“Before witches, there was a need to kill the imagination, and the psychedelic mysticism of the female imagination,” Jones says.
The film is surrealist, she says. “The story I wanted to tell was, what potential had the female imaginary from this moment in the 12th century?”
The Tower is Jones’ first major installation developed and premiered in Tallaght, where she was born, she says.
Its origins lie in Tremble Tremble, her earlier work of expanded cinema from 2017, which also starred Fouéré and was selected to represent Ireland at the 57th Venice Biennale, an international arts and culture exhibition, sometimes referred to as the Olympics of the art world.
Tremble Tremble was created in the lead-up to the 2018 referendum on the 8th Amendment, Jones says. “And was about the witch trials and patriarchy in relationship to the law.”
Her study of 16th-century European witch trials made her reflect on the relationship between church and state, and those trials’ parallels with modern Irish history.
“In a lot of ways, what happened to women in the 20th century to women in Ireland is that same marrying of church and state,” she says.
Jones says she began “decoding” the Magdalene Laundries and institutionalised abuse wrought against Irish women.
Her own grandmother was held in St. Vincent’s Industrial School for Roman Catholic girls in Goldenbridge, Inchicore, she says. Those memories are still raw.
“In Europe, they say, ‘We are the great-great granddaughters of the women you tried to kill in the witch trials,’ and in Ireland, ‘We say, we are the daughters and granddaughters of the women you tried to incarcerate and suppress,’” Jones says.
The Tower grew out of Jones’ research into the Magdalene Laundries.
She decided however, to step outside Ireland, and look to Germany, France and Scotland for stories.
“What I really wanted to do was never directly address what happened in the Irish Magdalenes,” she says. “I wanted to step out of the frame, so I looked at the Magdalene Laundries in France, in Germany, and the hygiene movement in Germany.”
She travelled to Glasgow to study Lochburn House, a Magdalene institution founded in 1812.
In 1958, 27 girls, aged between 15 and 19, broke out of Lochburn House. Jones was taken by this story of a rebellious gang with agency.
“They broke out and were brought back,” she says. “But they escaped again and scattered like dust in the wind, blending back into society.”
Later, when Jones listened to the testimonies of survivors of the Irish Magdalene Laundry system, what resonated with her was the pathos of hearing older women sharing their stories from when they were teenagers.
What moved her was the distance between their voices and experiences, she says. She thought about the incarcerated but defiant girls in Lochburn, their older selves, she says, “and the space between these two subjects”.
“I knew I really wanted to work with teenagers,” says Jones, “but in a way where they never fully meet with the older body on the screen, but instead are connected energetically.”
Jones strolls through the echoing, dimly lit performance space in Rua Red.
She passes a three-storey scaffold and piles of loose wooden planks and pauses at a tall white pillar.
During the film, the 14 choir members are sprawled at its base, dressed in overalls decorated with golden brown locks of hair.
Working with teenage performers is a first for Jones, she says. “It has been one of the best creative experiences of my life.”
The choir is led by Naomi Moonveld Nkosi, who, Jones says, was cast as a visionary.
Nkosi’s dialogue is a contemporary interpretation of texts by Porete and Hildegard of Bingen, whose portrait Jones is halfway through carving into one of the walls.
Nkosi helped to reimagine their works, Jones says.
“She often disagreed, saying, ‘Maybe my character would say it like this’, and I would always say, ‘You’re totally right’,” says Jones.
Fouéré, the actor, says that Jones has a strong but complex vision, which she nonetheless articulates with clarity.
“But at the same time, the collaboration we embarked upon allowed me to respond with suggestions,” she says, “and she would be very open.”
Costume designer Roisín Gartland says it can be hard to wrap your head around Jones’ pieces.
“Because her work is so multifaceted,” says Gartland, who worked on both The Tower and Tremble Tremble.
“I think Jesse is the only person who could pull all of these elements together in the form that she does and see it as an overall vision,” says Gartland.
Fouéré says Jones sets off on a powerful and intuitive path. “Combined with an extraordinary kind of rigour and research.”
The Tower takes from actual historic figures but it doesn’t try to tell of an actual history or create a heightened version of past events, says Jones.
“I’m completely using my own imagination as an artist to conjure this world of psychedelic medieval feminism,” Jones says.
Consider one of the costumes worn by Fouéré, says Gartland. The white skin-tight top with silver milagros – Mexican folk charms – stitched into the collar.
The design came from their combined imaginations, Gartland says, rather than historical sources.
They had been looking at Spanish tabards – short-sleeved coats from the Middle Ages – because oftentimes, the wearers would decorate these items with their achievements, Gartland says.
“The milagros were an evolution from that idea,” Gartland says. “The idea came that they would be falling onto a drum, and when the body shakes, it becomes essentially like a drum, a body drum.”
Behind a door leading to the backstage area, Jones is eager to show a sculpture that is the centrepiece of the installation’s physical component.
The piece is a 3D print of actor Olwen Fouéré, whose voice is not heard in the film, but which is played separately as this statue is lit.
Jones began to work in 3D printing during a residency in the King’s Inns beside Grangegorman during the pandemic.
Her first foray was a statue depicting Máirín de Burca, a member of the Dublin Housing Action Committee and an activist whose legal action against the state in the 1970s allowed women to sit on juries.
This statue of Fouéré was inspired by the period in Mary Magdalene’s life in which she was secluded in a cave.
She wears the Gartland-designed sheepskin coat from the slice of the film that Jones is fresh from editing in the music room.
According to Gartland, the coat was originally only intended as a reference point, but once they did the scans for the 3D print, it became essential. “One of those magical pieces that just fell into place here,” Gartland says.
Jones stands over the sculpture, looking upon it with pride.
It reminds her of pebbledash, she says, which was a happy accident. “I had always wanted to make a sculpture from pebbledash.”
She rests her hand on its shoulder, delicately as if it was the actual actor in the flesh.
On a later phone call from Glasgow, Fouéré says Jones possesses a deep connection with the invisible. “With the forgotten powers that we might have once had as human animals and our deeply religious pagan side.”
Jones’ mother was a fortune teller, Fouéré says, observing that this maternal influence is deeply present in her work.
Fouéré compares both Jones and herself to modern-day shamans. “I perform the rituals. But Jesse is the shaman who has the visions.”