Spirit of the Age

Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s iconic novel Orlando, the artists in Aperture’s “Orlando” issue explore the limitless territories of identity, history, and consciousness.

By Tilda Swinton

Tilda Swinton as Orlando in a preproduction image made by director Sally Potter to help secure funding for the film Orlando, spring 1988
Courtesy the artist

Jacques Derrida’s l’avenir: the unforeseeable that will appear, although we cannot control our expectation of what it will be.

It’s 2019, the wheel has turned, and here I am again, marveling at Orlando and its impact—not only on my own life, but also on the lives of a host of my colleague-artists.

When I sent out my calling cards to the extraordinary collection of individuals whose work you open here and now, between these covers, it was with an invitation to share the inspiration of a book, a novel: Virginia Woolf ’s 1928 “writer’s holiday,” her wild-goose chase of a fantasy.

The response was universally overwhelming. And overwhelmingly personal.

Woolf calls the book a biography and refers constantly to its diligent biographer’s task and the specific challenges therein, recording the life, with deadpan sincerity, of a young nobleman whom we meet under an oak tree, in an ancestral park, during the reign of Elizabeth I. During Orlando’s journey, he encounters the love of the ancient queen and a broken heart on the frozen Thames in the court of James I, learns to distrust the envy and cupidity of poets, serves as King Charles’s ambassador to Constantinople—there transforming with unremarked ease into the form of a woman. She sips tea in drawing rooms with Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, and Jonathan Swift; succumbs to the stifling Victorian age by breaking her ankle while running on a wild moor in a crinoline; marries an adventurer; loses and regains her estates; and, in the early twentieth century, delivers both a son and her great poem (the work of over three centuries).

How could one such fable inspire in the depths of so many disparate creative souls the sense of it being their own biography? How could one size fit all in such a way?

Maybe this is, indeed, a magic carpet of a book. It can transport so many of us so profoundly into the heart of our experience of living life again and again and again: an enchanted mirror in which to see oneself. A book about agelessness that honors our every age. A robust and reliable fellowship—all moments having, as Woolf might argue, an equality of weight, of buoyancy, of heft; all moments can do with the company of her wise, experienced perspective.

When I was a teenager, it read to me as a book about writing. Later, in my twenties, as a book about reading. Having just put the book down again, on January 31, 2019, I find that this febrile, synthetically hallucinogenic transport of a fable has slip-slid again and now reads to me as a book about revolution, about the dismantling of everything it touches, about a recalibration of perspective and will. A book about looking up.

Lenare, Vita Sackville-West, ca. 1920s
Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University

Our very first sight of the adolescent Orlando is of him swinging at the decapitated head of a Moor, brought back by a crusading forebear and hung in the rafters of the family’s great house as a trophy. This mindless, violent sport notwithstanding, there are frequent references throughout the book to Orlando’s discomfort at the brazen barbarism of his patrician milieu. He/she regularly ducks under the silken ropes of court enclosures in all centuries to seek the company of people in backstreets, huddled about braziers. In the East, Orlando learns perhaps the most profound lessons of all from the itinerant gypsies with whom she lives, who are embarrassed for her that she has ancestors who must have thieved their great wealth, who had the “vulgar ambition … to possess bedrooms by the hundred,” and who were only able to trace their lineage four or five hundred years, whereas their own families, nomadic peoples who had built the pyramids, went back two or three thousand.

Colonialism, then. Inherited wealth. The illogical snobbery of class. The nonsensical vagaries of xenophobia. Orlando meticulously detonates each one. Beyond everything, the question of a properly responsive “civilized” self appears to me, today, as a principal preoccupation of this synesthetic portal of a book.

It is also, of course, a vivid record of the processes of making art—the urge to interpret and describe. The imagistic vortex of Woolf ’s mind, as manifested in Orlando, is a gift to artists. It seems a large part of the reason for the deeply felt enthusiasm of this gathering of eyes and minds and hearts in these pages. And at the core of Orlando is the steady, dual pulse of two undeniable influences: the weather and the spirit of the age.

We live at a moment of stilled consciousness. All our hackles are stimulated, our noses urgently—to the wind. We’ve been straying around perilous corners recently, and there be dragons.

We tell ourselves it must have been rough in past centuries, that the Black Death, the Russian Revolution, the Great War were surely something of a challenge, that more recent developments are survivable. But we are stumbling. It’s a next-level shit show—maybe not entirely what Pharrell Williams was thinking about, but somehow best described as a room without a roof.

Maybe the questions before us right now number among some of the most profound possible: What is a society? What is a social conscience? What is social responsibility? What is a human? What future can we envisage for ourselves? What is hope?

And, certainly, this particular moment we live through, this 2019, these days, these vertiginous times—with more than Chicken Licken, whose ancient folktale has him convinced the sky is about to fall in, running for cover, for shelter, for safer, higher ground— call for a new breath and a fresh commitment to the life we mean to build here while we can.

So many lines are being drawn, differences cast in stone, daggers unsheathed, territory marked, positions owned, dignities abused.

I propose, in general and in this issue of Aperture, a contrary tack: openness, all fences down, all go molten, all arms wide.

I’ve been thinking about how certainty is becoming our nemesis. How doubtlessness is killing our ability to expand as a society and as individuals. How the once essential search for a definable, and immutable, identity has become stifling to our sense of development and the possibilities of finding true fellowship with other complex, variously wired, hesitant, sensitive beings.

Paul Strand, Bent Grass, Machair, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
© Paul Strand Archive/Aperture Foundation

Woolf believed the fundamental creative mind to be androgynous. Obviously, the most celebrated context within which we have come to see Orlando referenced concerns that of transformation, especially in relation to gender: as Orlando himself/herself so memorably remarks (in the film) at the critical moment of transformation, “Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex.”

However, beyond this field of discourse—and, it has to be said, in the era of the all-gender bathroom—I have come to value the landscape of this beloved book far less as being only about gender and far more as being about the profound flexibility of the fully awake and sensate spirit. I embrace its visionary perspective as an invaluable parable about true freedom—from the imperatives of nationality, of history, and of class, as well as of gender. A directive to the existence of an authentic and responsive soul: consistent and evolving, inviolable and pure.

And now, within this issue’s panoply of colors and tastes and imaginings, I see, afresh, once more, Orlando as a story about the life and development of a human striving to become liberated entirely from the constructs of prescriptive (tired old binary) gender or social norms of any kind.

We offer on the previous spread two formal portraits by the Lenare studio in London, the go-to stamp of high-society identity, taken some forty years apart: a three-year-old girl and a pearl-bedecked lady, linked by the avatar of Orlando that they share, one in Woolf ’s book, the other in Sally Potter’s film. I’m proud to clarify: Vita Sackville-West in the pearls and me in the organza with the ribbon in my hair. Two Orlandos, here among so many others: the future ahead of them, as ours lies before us now, ready for the making.

To consider this story’s limitlessness, its sense of innate and empowered boxlessness. To consider the wider territories of identity, of dream, of heredity, of consciousness, of memory, of history, of fantasy, of the limitations of mortality, of life itself. To consider the consolation of the wilderness of the future. This was the invitation offered to our contributors here.

It has been my profound privilege to lay the table for this feast.

Tilda Swinton is the guest editor of Aperture’s “Orlando” issue.

Read more from Aperture issue 235, “Orlando,” or subscribe to Aperture and never miss an issue.

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