3. Engendering Other/Selves
Site/Moment: Route 126, 1972. A fantastic spectacle is on display along Route 126 near Valencia, attracting wayward glances from unsuspecting automobile drivers and hesitant rodents. The day before, hardly anyone would have given prolonged thought to a wrecked convertible stalled in an arid landscape next to a rustic highway. The dumped car was merely an unfortunate eyesore not quite camouflaged yet by dust, rust, fallen branches, and dried weeds. But an about-face has occurred: the vehicle has been resuscitated, parodically gendered, and transmuted into an eye-catching creature-sculpture named “Pink Jalopy” (fig. 9). True to her name, Pink Jalopy has an all-pink body surface, velvet red interior skin, a pink eye with a dark iris, another pink eye with a red eyelid and a rabbit-red pupil. Prostrate, Pink Jalopy has two mouths: one, with a tongue sticking out, or a heart exposed, opening wide toward the west; another shimmering in her plastic lipstick, voraciously chewing a mass of beard. Pink Jalopy has just received her renaissance makeover, in a participatory happening called Car Renovation, enacted by Suzanne Lacy, with other members of the Feminist Art program at CalArts.
Car Renovation, conceived by Suzanne Lacy, an Anglo American feminist artist, encompasses two phases: the initial process of a live action performed
9 Suzanne Lacy, Car Renovation, 1972. Photo: Suzanne Lacy. Courtesy of Suzanne Lacy.
A prolific artist and writer, Lacy was an active contributor to L.A.'s performance art scene from the genre's inception there in the early 1970s and has continued to practice performance art in many different formats. When she
As a self-identified feminist artist, Lacy has created performances guided by an activist spirit, a search for social relevance, and inquiry into self/other dynamics. Her feminist projects critique dominant cultural assumptions in both the elitist art world and popular culture. Her work zeros in on the diverse sociocultural forces that contradict her claim to artistic subjectivity and to full—de facto—citizenship, seeking to expose, subvert, and alter the normative/hegemonic structure of power. Lacy tackles her experiences of otherness and challenges her sexualized subjugation by treating her own subjectivity as both particular (belonging to her personal body/self) and exemplary (expressing the common political conditioning of her gendered class). By virtue of her political resolve and activist practice, I regard Lacy'sfeminist performances in L.A. as redressive measures against some deep-seated problems that have plagued the city's multicentric and polarized cultural environments.
Lacy's practice reflects the confluence of two types of redressive performance in the 1970s: conceptual/lifelike performance informed by Allan Kaprow and feminist performance inspired by the women's movement. While Lacy's feminist conviction has always been the dominant force in her art-making, part of her attitude toward art can be traced to Kaprow's influence. Through his insistence on the blurring of art and life, Kaprowbrings a heightened awareness to quotidian activities, either reframing these activities as art or appreciating their innate qualities as artistic. His art/life projects often turn nonart routines into live art events merely by re-perceiving them outside habitual contexts. His lifelike performances attempt to democratize art as a widely accessible tonic, a perceptual/conceptual retooler of life, thereby redressing the commercial art world's parochial professionalism.
Having studied with Kaprow at CalArts, Lacy emulates her teacher's democratic approach to art-making. In its jubilant mood, Car Renovation exercises this vein of lifelike redressive performance, for it celebrates the fortuitous encounter with a decrepit object in life by performing a transubstantiation procedure, turning this once utilitarian item into a gratuitous sculpture. But there is something else in this work that punctures the relaxed gestalt of a life-like performance. The pointed message is revealed in Lacy's choice to adorn the vehicle in pink, a color feminist artists reclaimed from popular constructions
Car Renovation is enacted specifically at the intersection of Lacy's individual circumstances with her larger geocultural location, L.A. Invested with the artist's feminist politics, Car Renovation demonstrates the characteristics that define Lacy'sart/cultural practice: a proactive resolve, a commitment to other subjects, a preference for participatory action, and an engagement with the immediate site. An artist by trade, Lacy is a maker of symbolic signifying systems. But she also strives to connect the symbol with the material world, studiously exceeding the supposed boundary of “art” in order to touch “life”— to cite Kaprow'sart/life dichotomy. There is a resulting engagement with both the literal (factual) and the metaphorical (artifactual) dimensions in Lacy's performances.
The wrecked convertible in Car Renovation, for instance, is at once raw material and rhetorical device. As I read it, the convertible's initial damaged state relates it to other disenfranchised subjects, with whom Lacy feels an emotional and ethical bond. Lacy and her participants further feminize their joint artwork in a culturally intelligible code, hence turning it into a metonymy for women in general. If we consider that a car is also conventionally addressed as a “she,” the women artists' effort in embalming a dead convertible amounts to a feminist intervention, which sarcastically quotes the melodramatic motif of rescuing a damsel-in-distress only to protest against the abandonment of a much-ab/used vehicle in a roadside open grave. Their actual attempt to salvage the car therefore hints at the symbolic redemption of all women. While this implied telos may be seen as too immoderate or naive, its grandiosity is humorously checked by the artwork's literal status as an automobile, an apt synecdoche for its broader motor politan locale. Inthis sense, the women artists' collective action becomes nothing but a Girl Scout good deed to redecorate the environment. Thus, Car Renovation is simultaneously globalized as a feminist project, advocating all women's interest, and localized as a project in L.A., designating the particular community it serves.
Car Renovation evinces an ethos of connection that sustains Lacy's feminist vision. The piece locates its aesthetic pleasure in an external network of sympathetic affiliations that at once binds Lacy together with her participants and links their artwork metonymically with themselves and with other unspecified female subjects. On the one hand, the actual interactions among the participating artists embody their coalition politics, a coalition based on common
Despite its disarming humor, Car Renovation draws on stereotypical myths about “sentimental femininity.” As such, it is vulnerable to the charge of “essentialism,” in a debate that has raged through the terrain of feminist and cultural theories since the 1980s. Lacy's call for a feminist solidarity—through external networks and internal reference to femaleness—may be criticized for romanticizing womanhood and bracketing the multiplicitous contradictions among female, or female-identified, subjects. Viewed through the antiessentialist lens, Lacy is at fault for assuming that gender identity can serve as a glue cohering all female subjects across diverse cultural, class, sexuality, and age strata and for her utopian projection of an ideal sisterhood. But is Lacy's idealism instrumental to her art? I ask. Is it not possible that some of her essentialist strategies are precisely the theoretical “problems” that her feminist performances must absorb in order to practice her identity politics?
Identity politics, as Marvin Carlson points out, emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as a prominent trope among performance artists. Following my own assessment, identity politics characteristically involves two conceptual platforms: (1) an individual politics based on the distinction between self and other, and (2) a coalition politics based on the commonality among similar selves. The performative investigations of identity politics, then, tread the minefield of essentialism, which may be defined in the present context as the belief in either a given essence that qualifies a particular entity (e.g., “womb-ness” as “woman's nature”) or an irreducible foundation that homogenizes a group of entities (e.g., “skin color” as an identificational marker for “race”). Lacy began practicing performance art long before the term “identity politics” became domesticated in the art world. Her feminist art, however, may be seen as a precursor to the identity performance associated especially with multiculturalism and queer politics in the later decades. In this sense, Lacy's performance of feminist identity/politics is surely not above suspicion of essentialism.
The basis of Lacy's identity politics derives from her acceptance of her female, or non-male, gender without contest. This assumption of a definite gender identity serves not only as a departure point for her individual art practice but also as a foundation for her feminist politics. In the 1970s Lacy joined other feminist artists in utilizing her own body as an embodied source to understand her female-sexed-and-gendered body/self/subject. Her concurrent large-scale performances weremade explicitly to demonstrate an ethos of feminist connection, often to the point of minimizing the dissension, egotism, myopia, discrimination, and competitiveness that also exist among women. Lacy's feminist/redressive performances, consequently, cannot avoid being
Although Lacy left L.A. in the late 1980s, her nearly two decades' contribution to the performance culture in the city cannot be overestimated. The scope of Lacy's achievements is inspiring in its persistence, multiplicity, and singleminded conviction. As she maintains, contemporary artists interested in socially relevant art practice often have to play multiple roles in a spectrum of fluid identities: as an experiencer, a reporter, an analyst, and an activist. In developing art strategies to interact with her diverse audience constituencies, Lacy has realized the potential of intermedia artists to be public intellectuals, reinterpreting Marcel Duchamp's assertion in 1917 that to be an artist is not just to produce visual objects for “retinal” pleasure but “to rethink the world and remake meaning through language.” Lacy has succeed in creating a hybrid form of conceptual art practice that mixes aesthetic performance, community activism, and feminist politics with theoretical analysis, translating “the dematerialization of art as object” into “its rematerialization in the world of ideas.”
An Ethos of Connection
Lacy's diverse projects have left L.A. a legacy that affirms the potential of feminist performance as a strategy for sociocultural intervention, an instrument for personal empowerment, and a vehicle for communityformation. Lacy herself has coined the term “new genre public art” to contextualize her work— specifically to distinguish her large-scale public performances from more traditional public art that centers around permanent installation of a sculptural object. In Mapping the Terrain (1995), Lacy defines “new genre public art” as “visual art that uses both traditional and nontraditional media to communicate and interact with a broad and diversified audience about issues directly relevant to their lives.” Here she clearly names the discipline of visual art as the terrain of her activist art, in this way differentiating her performance art from the more theatricalized incarnations of this mixed medium in the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, Lacy's performance art has taken many forms other than that of theater.
Whatever the form, I argue that Lacy's feminist art both precedes and exemplifies
As I indicated earlier, Lacy's own brand of new genre public art bears the imprints of two strains of redressive performance: the Judy Chicago school of feminist art that repudiates the patriarchal repression of female subjectivity and the Allan Kaprow school of an art/life continuum that objects to the modernist injunction for aesthetic autonomy. Lacy adopts feminist politics without reservation, extending the sex/race/class activism that had rocked the United States in the 1960s. She nevertheless revises Kaprow's playful proposal of un-arting. While embracing Kaprow's anti-elitist tendency for the democratization of art, she shifts his apolitical and sex-blind emphasis to underline the purposive fusion between aesthetics and politics.
In her essay “Affinities: Thoughts on an Incomplete History,” Lacy identifies two prominent themes in the collective politics of feminist art in the 1970s: “[the] investigation of gender identity and the relationship of art practice to public life.” She further traces the reasoning behind these two themes to “the longing for distinctions” and “the longing to connect.” I recognize these two “longings” as the affective impetus behind the more abstract self/other dynamics that Lacy's performances address: the former motivates the inquiry into self -identity, and the latter propels the search for others who may meet the self's need for relevance, sustenance, and community. Although I observe both introspective and proactive impulses in her art, I believe what distinguishes Lacy's feminist project is her indefatigable contemplation and practice of the ethos of connection. Her search for affinities among different others is driven by this ethos, which is both a dialectic force and an activist stance challenging the essentialist assumption of a static essence within the self or a preexisting kinship among similar others. This commitment to connection locates Lacy'sperformative exploration of selfhood in the unfixed, contingent, and negotiating space of intersubjective relations. It partially explains why Lacy's public art has increasingly expanded in scale, joining together more and more
The Politics of Marginality
Lacy grounds her connective art firmly in the feminist context, maintaining that “[in] the feminist view, artcould express the self in ametaphoric encounter with the other.” This assertion of the self/other pairing pays homage to a seminal text that stands at the forefront of the second wave of the women's movement: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, which Lacy cites as an important influence on her feminist art. Amelia Jones has noted that Beauvoir's book was the first to expose the gendered specificity of the self/other formulation in the Western patriarchy.
The gravity of Beauvoir'sargument centers around the famous dictum that opens Book Two of The Second Sex: “ One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.” This passage, as Sonia Kruks holds, goes a long way toward undermining the notion of subjectivity endorsed by the Enlightenment, because it tacitly challenges the existence of a stable, coherent, fully autonomous and rational individual. By stressing the force of social construction in naturalizing “gender,” Beauvoir questions the concept of the self modeled on the Cartesian cogito and offers a rather more complex view by situating the subject in what Stephen Horton describes as “the tension-ridden ‘spaces’ between freedom and the social influences around her or him.” Consequently, as Kruks continues, Beauvoir is able to “both acknowledge the weight of social construction, including gender, in the formation of the self and yet refuse to reduce the self to an ‘effect’. She can grant a degree of autonomy to the self—as if necessary in order to retain such key notions as political action, responsibility, and the oppression of the self—while also acknowledging the real constraints on autonomous subjectivity produced by an oppressive situation.”
Beauvoir's challenge to the universalized notion of the (disembodied) Enlightenment subject gains significance in the light of her exposure of the builtin dichotomy between the male and the female sex. According to Beauvoir, the patriarchal culture assigns a fixed hierarchy to the pair, assuming the male sex to be the norm and the female sex its derivative:
Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being…. And she is simply what
Precise as her analysis is, I nevertheless find that Beauvoir speaks in the voice of an unsexualized, neutral subject, secured in her authorial prerogative as the “essential” and “absolute.” Since she leaves no room for self-reflexivity, the quoted passage curiously pivots around a male/humanist perspective. Although Beauvoir does announce early on in her book that, if she wishes to define herself, she must first of all say: “I am a woman,” she proceeds as if such an identityhad no bearing on howshe perceives, rationalizes, and produces discourse on women's condition. Beauvoir writes, as Nicole Ward Jouve observes, as if she were not a woman—“She is no longer down among the women, she's escaped the condition.” Or rather, as Beauvoir herself divulges, she reasons in the image/position of what she calls “the ‘modern’ woman,” who “accepts masculine values: she prides herself on thinking, taking action, working, creating, on the same terms as men; instead of seeking to disparage them, she declares herself their equal.” Beauvoir's uncritical self-assurance leads Mary Evans to criticize “her tacit assumption that paid work and contraception are the two keys to the absolute freedom of womankind, [which] suggested a set of values that place a major importance on living like a childless, rather singular, employed man.”
As Beauvoir conceives it, the project of liberation for women lies not in investigating howsexual specificity might empower an individual, but in denying that “woman (whatever the culture, civilisation, education, or world structures) can never be the same as man.” This insistence on the nonsexualized equivalence of consciousness between men and women explains Beauvoir's suspicion of the category “woman.” Her suspicion does not come from a utopian denial of this category for an abject class; rather, it results from her revulsion against the supposed female essence implicated bythe category: “To decline to accept such notions as the eternal feminine, the black soul, the Jewish character, is not to deny that Jews, Negroes, women exist today—this denial does not represent a liberation for those concerned, but rather a flight from reality.” Beauvoir herself must have striven to ground her analysis on “reality,” yet her text suffers from an unproblematic employment of the very philosophical order that casts subjecthood as male.
I am sympathetic with Beauvoir's desire to undermine the European patri-archy's gender construction and its myths of the eternal feminine (together with its hushed lamentation over its “haplessly” ethnic/racial other). In her attempt
Beauvoir's adherence to the very patriarchal value system that her work critiques is revealed in her acceptance of the predetermined asymmetry between (male-identified) One/Self and (female-identified) Other. To her, the One is necessarily superior to the Other. She does not entertain the possibility that the One's putative superiority might be vulnerable at certain moments and the Other's supposed inferiority might be merely a historical vestige, as arbitrary as the category of the second sex itself. Beauvoir's inherited system of valuation is clear in the following passages:
No subject will readily volunteer to become the object, the inessential; it is not the Other who, in defining himself as the Other, establishes the One. The Other is posed as such by the One in defining himself as the One….
To decline to be the Other, to refuse to be a party to the deal—this would be for women to renounce all the advantages conferred upon them by their alliance with the superior caste. Man-the-sovereign will provide woman-theliege with material protection and will undertake the moral justification of her existence…. Indeed, along with the ethical urge of each individual to affirm his subjective existence, there is also the temptation to forgo liberty and become a thing. This is an inauspicious road, for he who takes it—passive, lost, ruined—becomes henceforth the creature of another'swill, frustrated in his transcendence and deprived of every value.
The patriarchal valuation, which Beauvoir effectively reinscribes, constructs the One as the active subject, the universal and transcendental pronoun “he,” who is in absolute control over the (feminized) Other. The Other, in contrast, is passive, inessential, and immanent, necessarily lost and ruined. With the One and the Other reified in their uppercase fixity, Beauvoir'stheory precludes other permutations of self/other relations: a subject may see her/himself as the one and/or the other simultaneously or at different moments; a subject (out of compassion, empathy, curiosity, perversity) may volunteer to be an object, or an other, for the sake of other subjects; a subject may recognize
If to be the one is to be centered, then to be the other is to have the advantage and/or to know the disadvantage of being decentered and uncentered— that is, of being an edge as well as being edged. Yet, as I argued in Chapter 1, centering and decentering are not necessarily mutually exclusive, an “othered” one may just as well find validity or locate her/his provisional centricity in the (all but temporary) margin. A marginalized other may contest power from the (constantly oscillating) periphery and practice a politics of marginality that inverts the preexisting hierarchy of values. S/he may prefer the volatility of being an other/self over the strict sovereignty obligatorily assumed by the One.
Lacy herself has not explicitly related the self/other motif to center/margin dynamics. I contend, however, that the politics of marginality offers an astute angle for viewing her feminist politics, which follow an ethos of connection that collapses the supposed division between self and other and deliberately inverts the masculocentric value system. This politics of marginality is shared by many other subjects, all coming from what we might call the multicultural contingency, including ethnic minority, gay and lesbian, and other socially marginalized artists. As we shall see, the politics of marginality frequently deploys otherness strategically, whether this otherness derives from the artists' own sociocultural status, from their chosen cultural affiliations, or from the “deviant” qualities of their subject matter and modes of presentation.
The politics of marginality benefits from Beauvoir's exposure of the patriarchal schema, although it radically erodes her inherited masculocentric valuation. Demonstrated in the corporeally charged live performance undertaken by subaltern subjects, the politics of marginality not only upsets the morphological stability between center and margin, but disowns the masculocentric devaluation of the other/female/body/flesh, a conceptual coinage that cannot be fully intelligible without Beauvoir's important work. Here, my compounding of other/female is indebted to her en/gendering of the Other as female—punning on “engendering” (giving birth) and “en-gendering” (attributing a gender). My melding of “other/female” with “body/flesh”
Butler's observation recapitulates Beauvoir's tacit equations between oth erness and other supposedly abject attributes, including femininity (being female), subjugation (being other), corporeality (being body), and objecthood (being flesh). Nevertheless, I reiterate my doubt that all these attributes are necessarily overdetermined bythe preexisting hierarchy of values. For the politics of marginality practiced by some subaltern artists, including Lacy, has effectively inverted such hegemonic value systems. I would therefore rewrite Beauvoir's self/other paradigm to expand its conceptual possibilities for the politics of marginality.
To be an other/self is to be an en/gendered body/flesh —both born and gendered (made male or female) by the (hegemonic) One, both a body/subject and a flesh/object. To deploy otherness as a performative trope, then, requires the artist to move her/his other/self into action by literally taking up, putting forth, or laying down her/his body/flesh. In this sense, body art—being an extreme performance genre that utilizes the artist's body as simultaneously an animated corporeal body/subject and a sentient if inert flesh/object—may well be a powerful strategy for those artists who perceive or identify themselves as (non-normative) other subjects. Topractice their politics of marginality, these artists frequently enlist their own bodies as at once the performing subjects (the ones) and performative objects (the othered selves), stressing their own double status as artistic subjects and subaltern individuals. In this politicized context, the use of the artist's body is essentially strategic. This strategic convenience may account for many feminist artists' obsessive and recurrent use of their bodies in performance, a trend which Lacy has joined and which has also been a prime target for anti-essentialist critique.
Lacy's Feminist Body Art
Lacy began exploring the self/other paradigm within the visible and invisible domains of her embodied self: her female-sexed and -gendered body. This intimate turn to the body was far from exceptional, given the preponderance of body art performances and the emergence of the feminist personal/political ur-theme in the 1970s. As Lacy maintains in her essay “The Name of the Game” (1991), the use of the body in art fit the feminist project for “collective redefinition,” challenged the cultural “censorship” of people hitherto “not allowed access to self-representation,” and tapped into this material site as “an
Between 1973 and 1976 Lacy produced a series of performative photographs entitled The Anatomy Lessons. The series documents Lacy's various actions to consume otherness: through eating, butchering, and symbolic disembowelment. With humorous explicitness, these “over-exposed” images show Lacy eating different parts (wing, arm, breast, leg) of a chicken in Chickens Com ing Home to Roost, for Rose Mountain and Paulene, utilizing parts of a lamb carcass to lecture on Learn Wherethe Meat Comes From, and wearing a bathing suit featuring internal organs (fig. 10).The Anatomy Lessons vividly questions the conventionally assumed rigid boundary between selfhood and otherness, explicated by Beauvoir's critique. The eating of a chicken and the partition of a lamb both comment on the fluent exchange of tissues between self and other through injection, digestion, and discharge. The female figure showcasing her guts echoes Beauvoir's disclosure of woman as the degraded—and here, gutsy—Other; it also alludes to the medical knowledge that one's body is always partially an other to oneself. Lacy's body is then both anatomically classified as female and clinically signaled as a human specimen, a flesh sample laden with auto-governing organs. Her body is, in this light, an innate other/self, for it is simultaneously part of her self and her self's inborn other.
According to Lacy, The Anatomy Lessons primarily concerns the human body's status as mortal rather than gendered. She argues that, because of her less “voluptuous” physique, her body could appear as “neutral” rather than specifically female. I agree that mortality is a foregrounded issue in The Anatomy Lessons, but I question Lacy'sclaim of her body'sneutral status based on its perceived distance—less “voluptuous”—from a normatively assumed “female body.” Such a claim for corporeal neutrality, I believe, tacitly confirms the male body—which is statistically less voluptuous than most female bodies—as the universal (hence neutral and non-gender-specific) standard for human body. I do not deny that the male body is indeed reified by the patriarchal tradition as the “universal standard” of humanity. Nevertheless, I regard the most extraordinary achievement of The Anatomy Lessons as the artist'sdouble stance to both evoke and invert this universal standard without denying her own female anatomy. This series of Lacy's bodyworks, then, avers that a specifically female body such as her own can serve as the universal standard of humanity.
From my perspective, The Anatomy Lessons employs Lacy's body as both a particular and a general human specimen, vacillating between the artist's own gender specificity and what may be called her species-specific corporeal otherness. Her body is her innate other/self because (1) she lacks visual access to a
10 Suzanne Lacy, Under My Skin: A True-Life Story, performance #1 from The Anatomy Lessons, 1973–76. Photo: Rob Blalack. Courtesy of Suzanne Lacy.
11 Suzanne Lacy, Anatomy Lesson #4: Swimming, 1973–76. Photo: Rob Blalack. Courtesy of Suzanne Lacy.
The image of an eviscerated female figure points to an aesthetic of the “grotesque,” which is, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, a carnivalesque tendency that revels in the functioning of the body'slower stratum—the stomach, bowels, and genitals. Sally Banes has historicized the prevalence of “the effervescent, grotesque body” as a trope in New York's performance art in the 1960s:
The effervescent, grotesque body is seen as literally open to the world, blending easily with animals, objects, and other bodies. Its boundaries are permeable; its parts are surprisingly autonomous; it is everywhere open to the world. It freely indulges in excessive eating, drinking, sexual activity, and every other imaginable sort of licentious behavior. And it is precisely by means of the image
As a strategy to subvertthe strict and sanitized “official culture,” the effervescent, grotesque body featured prominently in 1970s feminist performances. Lacy's own plunge into this theme joined other feminist artists' revisionary confrontation with an art tradition that has both idealized woman's body as an erotic object of beauty and denied women their right to artistic subjectivity. This masculocentric tradition both worships ideal womanhood in the image of a classical—graceful, well-proportioned, clean, demure, and still— female body and relegates women to the “second sex” precisely for their corporeality. Critiquing this established art tradition, The Anatomy Lessons presents a woman who claims her artistic subjectivity byengaging her femalegendered body in mundane conducts and grotesque self-exposure. This type of feminist self-representation, as Lacy notes, attends to a triple procedure: (1) it recognizes “the political nature of imagery,” (2) it capitalizes on “the power that comes with the right to name and describe,” and (3) it aspires to “an imaginative revision of the [patriarchal] status quo.” Thus, censorious critique is not the sole purpose of Lacy's feminist body art, which also aims to constructively invert—if only nominally—the patriarchal devaluation of corporeality/femininity.
In an interview with Moira Roth, Lacy associates the image of her grotesque self-portraiture in Swimming with giving birth and with women's spirituality, stating that “women'sspirituality is rooted in the physical and that women will transcend through the body.” This statement divulges Lacy's effort to recuperate “the body” for women and her conscious challenge to the Christian binarism between the (eternal) spirit and the (ephemeral) flesh. Although I am not convinced that a woman's body is her messiah, nor do I agree that transcendence is every woman's aspiration, I endorse Lacy's attempt at retrieving the cultural valence of once-relegated concepts and her feminist investment in disrupting hegemonic assumptions. I am especially intrigued by Lacy's encoding of the birthing action onto Swimming. Since no infant is present in the photo, her parturition is visually linked with her visceral body, an other/self innate to her being. The image, then, presents the prima facie evidence of a double-birth, evoking both procreation (begetting an other who is not-quite-self) and self-generation (begetting an/other self). Through such doubleness, Swimming rewrites maternity as the autogenesis of Lacy's artistic subjectivity. Aside from such joyous feminist affirmation, the image of a disemboweled corpus is a forceful reminder of the violence endured by this mortal body. The always imminent presence of death thus reveals its eruptive persistence even with the very signing of one's birth certificate.
The bodyworks enacted and photographed for The Anatomy Lessons revisit Kaprow's thesis of art/life blending by including quotidian behaviors (such as eating) alongside more displaced art actions (such as simulating a grotesque gut-birth/death). Contrary to Kaprow's preference for un-arting, however, Lacy studiously constructs her own artistic subjectivity as a woman artist, while framing her body art practice as an inquiry into her gender identity. Her feminism lies in this insistence on foregrounding her own gender specificity as the rationale and focus of her art. Although Lacy takes her gender identity as a given, she does not automatically accept the preexisting sociocultural restrictions placed on this gender; rather, she strives to transgress its limits, redefine its possibilities, and enrich its lived reality. Her feminist art amounts to a transgressive redefinition of the female gender assignation.
As I observed earlier, Lacy uses her own body as both a specifically gendered material property and a universal sample of human physiology. This insistence on both the particularity (that which belongs to her individually) and the universality (that which belongs to the human collective) of her female body provocatively reverses the hegemonic norm. Whereas the patriarchy traditionally values universality over particularity, Lacy's feminist art rejects that assumption to use the artist'sgender identity as an enabling grounding. The hegemonic standard may raise her gender particularity to disqualify her claim to a universal knowledge about the human body. Subverting this androcentric ideology, Lacy demonstrates her corporeal universality despite her gender. Further, by foregrounding her body's innate corporeal otherness, she poses her own universal humanness as the very material limit that compromises her comprehension of the body/subject. Unlike the traditional authoritative male subject, Lacy cites her corporeal universality as a self-critical qualifier rather than a proof of her aptness in knowing her male others. In fine, she flips the dominant value hierarchy: her anatomical particularity confirms her gender identity as female and her self-identity as a feminist artist, while her physiological universality exposes her lack of full access to and coherent control over her body/self.
Through The Anatomy Lessons, which plays off the dynamic of self/other dynamics within the artist's individual body, Lacy both delineates the sphere of competence and responsibility for her feminist art and admits to the elusive otherness within her selfhood. Thus, she marks her artistic agency more in terms of devotion and accountability than absolute authority.
In her subsequent feminist bodyworks, Lacy poses her gender identity as the gauge by which she measures other transgendered corporeal experiences. Her redressive performances focus especially on issues of aging, which is both a physiological and a sociocultural factor that tends to intensify an individual'sperception of otherness. Lacy expands her corporeal encounter with otherness
12 Suzanne Lacy, Inevitable Associations, 1976. Photo: Susan Mogul. Courtesy of Suzanne Lacy.
In Inevitable Associations (1976), a Hollywood makeup artist transforms Lacy into the image of an old woman while she sits in a red chair for three hours in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. (fig. 12). Ten older women then greet the made-old Lacy by clothing her in a black dress, similar to what they are wearing. Lacy returns to the Biltmore the next day to direct the second part of the piece, in which three elderly women, dressed as themselves, talk about their experiences of aging within three big circles of spectators, who are mostly younger women and men.
Inevitable Associations joins together different entities by their thematic or
Lacy completes her cycle of self-aging performances with several other pieces. In1976 Lacy stages Edna, May Victor, Maryand Me: An All Night Bene diction in a private room in L.A.'s Hilton Hotel during the College Art Association conference. The all-night performance is transmitted live to all hotel rooms at the Hilton, with TV instructions that flash intermittently, recommending viewers to “sleep if you must, but please stay tuned.” During this extended vigil, Lacy, again made up to look like an old woman, sits among memorabilia from Edna, a senior friend, while listening to the taped conversations of Edna with her friends May Victor and Mary. Periodically, Lacy covers up and uncovers a large lamb carcass lying on the bed. As dawn breaks, Lacy trades places with the lamb. In The Lady and the Lamb (1978), performed at Mills College in Oakland, Lacy appears as an old woman, wearing a hat and gloves and clutching a handbag. She moves clumsily while cradling a lamb's bandaged carcass in her arms.
If Inevitable Associations enables Lacy to demonstrate her solidarity with older women and to test how the public interacts with her differently when her appearance ages, then Edna turns this demonstration inward, binding the artist in a meditative state for a prolonged duration. The piece's subtitle indicates that Lacy regards this experiment as a benediction, a blessing by the voices and memories of her older friends. The act of simulating an aged physiognomy allows the artists to measure the affective changes that might take place within her body/self and to taste prematurely the “mystery” of being old. Lacy further intensifies her experience's visual, tactile, and visceral im-pacts by incorporating a lamb carcass. In both Edna and Lady, the lamb functions as an other to Lacy and an imagistic double for her self.
The lamb carcass, a recurrent imagery in Lacy's bodyworks, was first introduced in Lamb Construction (1973) performed at the Woman's Building. The use of a lamb carcass and other animal blood and entrails in her early works, as Lacy once mentioned, expressed her interest in “the macabre, the underbelly of society, the dark side of life.” Apart from her private fascination, the symbolism of the lamb of course has a strong Christian resonance. In the Book of Isaiah, the person anointed by the Lord to carry the mortal grief and bear the wounds of human transgressions is compared to a lamb, humble and meek:
… he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him… and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
… All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)
Lacy's use of the animal imagery, having revised the universal male gender in the biblical text, turns the lamb into a multivalent symbol of collective sacrifice (one brought to the slaughter), mute victim (she who opens not her mouth), and abject creature (she who is desired and esteemed by none). In Learn Where the Meat Comes From, the lamb carcass is edible dead meat; in both Edna and Lady, the lamb carcass symbolizes the vulnerability, loneliness, subjection, and confinement that an old woman might experience when she confronts the effects of aging and the prospect of death. In contrast to the skinless lamb or its mummified carcass, Lacy wears the visible characteristics of aging, taking on—as it were—an old woman's excess skin. She voluntarily bears the inscriptions of a mortal being's ultimate Other, Time, not to repel its constant assault, but to prognosticate its cumulative impressions upon her future body/self.
Lacy'sself-aging performances turn her body/subject into the corporeal receiver and filter through which pass different affective and cognitive stimuli provoked by her impersonation. These bodily acquired lessons then become dispersed and lodged in her self as intuitive knowledge about the other she embodies. By immersing her body/self in an/other flesh environment, Lacy pursues an underlying premise that amounts to a perceptual/conceptual syllogism: through (self) experience comes an understanding of the other; through this newly gained (self) understanding comes an empathy with the other; through such altruistic but also self-informed empathy comes responsibility toward the other. All told, her self's embodied experience of otherness
Body, Female, Essential Strategy
While her dedication to feminism is admirable, Lacy's emphasis on her body as a means of probing her gender identity triggers a contentious issue in the essentialism debate. According to Naomi Schor, “an essentialist in the context of feminism is one who, instead of carefully holding apart the poles of sex and gender, maps the feminine onto femaleness, one for whom the body, the female body that is, remains, in however complex and problematic a way, the rock of feminism.” Lacy's self-aging trilogy, which enlists her body as a vehicle to experience other women's predicaments, places a heavy weight on the female body as an instrument for feminism. She seemingly desires to read her own body like a piece of writing, rearranging the “syntactic” structures (wearing makeup to look aged) on her surface body in order to detect any “semantic” changes (sensations of aging) from her visceral and psychic body. She also affirms her affinity with other women—across age, class, race, or other differences—by resorting to the anatomical similarities of their female bodies. In short, Lacy understands femaleness or femininity, along with (the nongender-specific) mortality, by deciphering her own body as a text. In this respect, her corporeal methodology tampers with essentialism.
As Ellen Rooney maintains, “The body is of course essentialism'sgreat text: to read in its form the essence of Woman is certainly one of phallocentrism's strategies; to insist that the body too is materially woven into social (con)texts is anti-essentialism's reply.” Rooney agrees with Schor on the role of the female body in essentialism. Yet I find her argument misleading to the extent that she links essentialism with phallocentrism, which implies that anti-essentialism, as a theoretical repudiation of essentialism/phallocentrism, emerges to contest the latter's reduction of women to their female-sexed bodies. I counter that, as Lacy exemplifies, there are feminists who oppose phallocentrism but maintain certain essentialist positions to base gender identity and coalition politics on a specifically sexed body. Similarly, there are anti-essentialists who fundamentally question the cause of feminism.
To retain Rooney's insight, I would rephrase her useful summation: Essentialism tends to locate the essence of a woman in her female-sexed body and to read from this body's anatomy, morphology, erotic, and reproductive properties the significance and consequence of her womanhood. These cor-poreally invested knowledges about the female body are then construed to be the foundation for a gender-based coalition, which helps women confront
I understand how myopic it is to reduce a multiplicitous and complex movement like feminism to a single position—essentialist or not. For the sake of argument, I focus on some particular feminist presuppositions to which Lacy's art is akin, without asserting that these presuppositions are shared by all feminists. Lacy's emphasis on the inevitable associations among women suggests that she perceives women's sexual difference and their generally lesser physical stature as (unjust) causes for malicious treatment. Her feminist art strives to emancipate those assigned to the female gender and those unfairly persecuted due to their different bodies. Insofar as she identifies certain persistent qualities from these oppressed bodies, Lacy's feminism may be considered a type of essentialism. For a typical anti-essentialist position holds that neither gender nor such an ostensibly materialist entity as a sexed (or raced) body exists beyond the fabrication/construction of a particular sociocultural system in a given historical period.
A strong version of anti-essentialist critique, for example, appears in Michel Foucault's theory of sexuality, which radically questions the category of “sex” and the binary restriction on gender. Following Judith Butler's illuminating explication, we know that Foucault understands the category of “sex” and sexual difference as “regulative” systems produced by the hegemonic power/ knowledge regime: “To be sexed, for Foucault, is to be subjected to a set of social regulations, to have the law that directs those regulations reside both as the formative principle of one's sex, gender, pleasures, and desires and as the hermeneutic principle of self-interpretation.” To expose that sex is not a physical certainty but a political construction, Foucault proposes “sexuality” as “an open and complex historical system of discourse and power that produces the misnomer of ‘sex’ as part of a strategy to conceal and, hence, to perpetuate power-relations.” I find Foucault's theory of sexuality ingenious and persuasive. Most important, Foucault's nullification of sex as a category and his substitution of that regulative system with an amorphous nonidentity called sexuality have the effect of uncovering the existing sexual heterogeneity that has been unduly suppressed by the binary sex/gender assignation. But, I contend, his theory of sexuality must be understood not as the “truth” about the falsity of sexual categorization or gender identity but as an other historically specific discourse that serves his own implicit political purpose:
Whether essentialist or not, Lacy'sbodyworks cannot be separated from her political investment as an other/feminist subject. To me, her feminist body art functions as a conceptual inversion of the hegemonic binarism that has polarized men and women, self and other, mind and body, spirit and flesh, art and life, aesthetics and politics, theory and practice, reasoning and experience— with cultural privilege regularly given to the former entity in each pairing. Lacy's strategy of displaying her body caught in an equivocal tension between its anatomical specificity and corporeal generality aims not to reclaim the latter entities in the binary as superior, but to expose that these dichotomized entities are inextricably connected. What I call her “conceptual inversion” lies in her decision to associate with the subjugated entities and to take them as her comprehensive signifiers for the new totality.
In Lacy's formulation of this connective totality, for example, the “body” subsumes the mind: it is always a mindful body and an embodied mind—a body/(mind). In more practical terms, Lacy takes her body as “a source of information” to study her own sociocultural position, to conceptualize her kinship with other women through their biological proximity and gender identity, to analyze the historical basis of their subordination as a sexualized and gendered class, and to locate an ethical and political impetus for their collective struggle. There is no innocent extraction of a mythical womanhood— preordained, transcendent, intrinsic, and immutable—from her avowedly female-sexed body; instead, she reconstructs her gender identity so as to turn it into an embodied and strategic grounding for a feminist alliance.
If any concession to a gender identity is essentialist, then Lacy's assumption of her embodied femininity serves to locate a “nominal” essence, which is, in Teresa de Lauretis's words, “a totality of qualities, properties, and attributes” that a feminist defines, envisages, and enacts for herself in the process of relating to other women. Lacy'ssearch for a gender-based coalition is therefore “more a project” “than a description of existent reality”; she aspires to a connection among women, despite their existent diversity and contradictions. Lacy's avowal of an essential feminist identity resembles what Gaya-tri Spivak analyzes as “a strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest.” Thus, Lacy summons her ethos of feminist
Expanding Self and Communal Others
The ethos of connection that permeates Lacy's aesthetics presupposes a paradigmatic pairing between the artist and her others. This connective ethi/ thetics (ethics + aesthetics) explains why Lacy values the performance medium, whose given structure of intersubjective exchange allows her to assess the self/other paradigm. In her photographic and private self performances, the “other” is at once internalized and projected. Arrested within those solitary events' atheatrical context, Lacy contemplates the import of selfhood and discovers that the self cannot exist, become intelligible, or create meaning without the other—the self, bound by its inherent corporeal otherness, depends on the other's differentiating being to name and consolidate its self-boundary. This understanding of self-formation admits to the self's radical lack of autonomy and sufficiency, for the other both sustains and is incorporated within the self. There is then no otherless self—even the solitary self is haunted by the material presence (the otherness-within) and the phantasmic projection of the other.
Lacy herself theorizes the self/other dynamics as a feminist topos that ultimately serves to propel “the transformation of the power differential between men and women.” In view of this collective political agenda, her solitary performances seem to be rehearsals for her actual entrance into the public realm, where “others” are no longer metaphors. Lacy nevertheless states that “there were no divisions between art based on identity investigations and art that explored new relationships with its audience.” This statement implies that Lacy attributes equal significance to the art of the private body (shaped by sexual particularity and gender identity) and the art of the public body (with incarnations in various social institutions and civic communities) because she has always located her self in the manifold meshing and clashing with others. The persistent awareness of existing others compels the artist to better recognize her body/self as a vehicle that initiates, makes, and maintains the connection.
Because of her propensity toward conceptual totality, Lacy tends to discover underlying unity in divergent phenomena. Thus, she treats her introspective bodyworks as inquiry into the most vital component of the performance medium: the audience, the collective other body who perceives, validates, questions, and interacts with the artist. She also interprets her public and collaborative performances as continuing her bodyworks, regarding her other-infused body/self as an instrument and evaluator of her self/other-linking
Concurrent with her bodyworks, Lacy produced a series of collaborative public actions that redefined art-making as culture formation through the scale of involvement. These massive events demonstrated Lacy's talents as a charismatic teacher/leader, a meticulous organizer, and a resourceful social designer; they were also indebted to the cohesive feminist community in L.A. during the 1970s. As Lacy acknowledged, the effectiveness of these events “was possible only in a city where the feminist community has reached the size and coherence to support the widespread recognition of a women's culture.” These public performances illustrate various techniques developed in her selfaging events, such as site-specific associations (e.g., Hollywood image-making technology; impersonation based on analogous surfaces), public exposure (enacted in a hotel or college campus), and eye-catching visual symbolism (the lamb carcass). Most notably, these works have mobilized a great number of L.A. residents across the stratification of biocultural and socioeconomic differences to address issues of enormous urgency but with hitherto little public coverage.
Three Weeks in May (May 7–24, 1977), an activist event conceived and produced by Lacy under the auspices of the Studio Watts Workshop, the Woman's Building, and the City of Los Angeles, established a prototype for her subsequent public art projects. As the artist describes it, “the entire event structure” of this piece was “as much a model for possible action as it was an action in itself.” Lacy planned this “political art performance,” publicized as “a feminist organizational activity, designed to share information on women moving out of victimization,” as a response to the devastating record of L.A. as “Rape Capital of the Nation.” With citywide media exposure and community participation, Three Weeks in May was extensive in temporal duration, diverse in its participating personnel and audience constituencies, and multifaceted in the types of activities involved; spatially, it occupied all of L.A.
Three Weeks in May began on Sunday, May 7, 1977, with rituals of silent meditation called “Moment of Concern” in several churches throughout the city. The next three weeks saw a host of satellite events such as public forums, street performances, radio announcements, women's self-defense workshops, and personal rituals occurring around two 25-foot, yellow-painted maps of
Lacy captured the gestalt of the event in a three-part performance entitled She Who Would Fly, which took place in the Garage Gallery of Studio Watts Workshop. The performance consists of a testimonial event in which Lacy listens to women who come to share their experiences of sexual violation and attach their stories on maps of the United States that cover the room; a private preparatory ritual between the artist and four performers, Nancy Angelo, Laurel Klick, Melissa Hoffman, and Cheryl Williams, all of whom had suffered from sexual assaults; and a one-day installation/performance open to the public for three or four people at a time. The installation (fig. 13) includes a striking tripartite structure: the four performers, naked, silent, and with their skin stained bright red, squatting out of sight on a ledge above the entryway; a winged lamb cadaver hanging from the ceiling; and a poem by Deena Metzger describing a sexual assault crudely inscribed on an asphaltcovered panel.
She Who Would Fly castigates brutality against women; the figure of the lamb cadaver whose wings fail to save it from deathly violence epitomizes the pathos of women under attack. Lacy describes the four naked figures as the “bird-women,” who are “metaphors for a woman's consciousness which splits from her body as it is raped.” She also suggests that, for her, the work's most important aspect is the moment when the audience members suddenly discover that they are being watched by these bird-women. Lacy's comments point to a performative power reversal between the nude women/art objects and the viewers/spectatorial subjects. Like the suspended lamb, the four performers, who signify all rape victims in the grip of extreme hardship, are reduced to catatonia. Yet they also forge their solidarity through acommon rage. Since their elevated position affords them the privilege to stare at the audience from above, their fierce presence implicates the viewers as voyeurs of the pain of sexual victimization. Caught unprepared, the viewers are likely to experience the shock of being turned into voyeuristic objects themselves. This is the moment of theatrical reversal that the artist desires, one that symbolically
13 Suzanne Lacy, She Who Would Fly, a performance in Three Weeks in May, 1977. Photo: Raul Vega. Courtesy of Suzanne Lacy.
With its duration, locale, design, intention, scope, documentation, and media coverage, Three Weeks in May established a strong precedent of redressive performance that joins art with activism, public action with civic protest. The event brought into the open the suppressed issue of sexual violence against women. To treat such a theme within the given historical context was often to polarize the oppressor and the oppressed along the gender divide. Lacy, however, adopted a more sophisticated relationship with the powers that be, staging her performance close to the City Hall and utilizing the mass-media industry: the mainstream newspapers and radio stations, the Hollywood TV and movie studios, those very institutions that have insidiously naturalized women's oppression as a state of inconsequence. Lacy did not spurn the media technologies for being phallocentric; instead, she took advantage of their populist potential—the power to reach more people—in order to create lasting impacts on her contemporary culture. To borrow from Lucy Lippard's comment in a different context: “Lacy confronts power with power.”
In the same year that Three Weeks in May was produced, Lacy collaborated with Leslie Labowitz to present another large-scale, highly publicized event entitled In Mourning and in Rage (December 1977), which again addresses the issue of gender violence. Drawing on Lacy's experience with community organizing and Labowitz's knowledge of media techniques, In Mourning and in Rage is framed as a public memorial service designed specifically to fit the terminology of media broadcasting. The centerpiece of this performance, staged in front of City Hall, is a feminist rally to mourn for recent victims of the Hillside Strangler rape murders and to protest against the media's sensationalization of those serial killings. Nine black-clad and black-veiled performers, transformed into giant figures by their headgear, stand as a monument of accusation and lamentation. Led by a woman in a scarlet robe symbolizing rage, these mourning figures are surrounded bywomen raising a huge banner that reads “In Memory of Our Sisters, Women Fight Back.” Performance participants intermittently reiterate this message in a choral refrain, “In memory of our sisters, we fight back!” A succession of mourners step forward to issue a brief statement using the microphone; their speeches are fashioned for easy quotation by the press and their solemn postures pausing against a tableau vivant of grief and anger are made-for-camera images. The information conveyed by these media-savvy devices is extremely disturbing. By the time the memorial ends, the numbers of women being mourned increase from the 10
Lacy's Multicultural Feminism
The two public performances organized by Lacy in 1977 culminated in highly visible tableaux vivants for media dissemination. Both pieces insisted on bringing the dreaded word “rape” into the national limelight and on exposing sexual violence against women as a problem of great frequency and magnitude. Alongside these publicized events, Lacy has also practiced her ethos of connection with less visible, community-oriented service art. She maintained a long-term (1975–83) fruitful relationship with low-income and elderly women in James Woods's Watts Community Housing Corporation, conducting art workshops with these mostly African American female participants and producing collaborative exhibitions and performances. The process of art-making is utilized in the Watts project to facilitate participants' selfunderstanding and interpersonal relations.
Immigrants and Survivors (1983) explores how women perceive such issues as immigration, racism, survival, individual identity, cultural assimilation, and various socially constructed barriers to a gender-based interconnection. Lacy collaborated with sponsoring organizations such as the Asian Pacific Women's Network, City Commission on the Status of Women, Comision Femenil Mexicana de Pasadena, and Women of Watts, and developed this piece as a longterm community networking project that aimed to bring together a diverse group of L.A.-area women (close to 200) across their differences. Lacy adopted the format of potluck dinner discussions to create a cohesive force within this framework of multiplicity. As Lippard points out, the “potluck dinner format is a classically feminist collage. It brings together a highly disparate group of women and their culinary ‘offerings’ [to one another].” From the extended, half-year-long process in which participants exchanged their foods and stories emerged the metaphor that all women are immigrants to the patriarchal cultural establishment. Thus, despite the surface heterogeneity, their individual experiences all speak to the theme of women's survival.
On June 18, 1983, as the culminating event of Immigrants and Survivors, a multiethnic group of women in L.A. gathers to have a citywide potluck dinner/performance. Participants include Salvadoran exiles, Japanese American musicians, Native American poets, African American gospel soloists, bank executives, domestic workers, teachers, prostitutes, athletes, lesbians, housewives, battered women, women with physical disabilities, and former inmates of psychiatric wards. A visceral geography of multicultural alliance among women is visually, aurally, and emotionally mapped by the diversity of diners,
I find the spirit of this event captured in the brochure that each participant receives upon entrance: an elegant pamphlet modeled after the passport, made “official” by a colorless seal identifying the issuer as “Community of Women, Inc.” This feminist passport sports various “visa” stamps. The red oval stamp, with images of twin birds in flight, recognizes Lacy's nonprofit art organization, She Who Would Fly, as a major endorser of the project. The green triangular stamp, with aliminal figure that crosses between an elephant's head (a matriarch's profile?) and a raised fist, indicates the project's three crucial components: immigrants, survivors, and women. The purple oblong stamp, with symmetrical icons of a train and a ship, certifies the dinner participants as legal immigrants with a triumphant message: ARRIVING IN OUR OWN LAND, 18 JUN 1983.
Through Lacy's feminist lens, Immigrants and Survivors tested the possibility of multiethnic and multicultural cooperation among women of diverse colors, creeds, and backgrounds long before the term “multiculturalism” gained widespread cultural currency in L.A. The Dark Madonna (1986), the next and incidentally also the last, large-scale project that Lacy organized for this city, happened at a moment when multiculturalism was gaining momentum in media and academic debates. In its idealistic guise, multicultural consciousness in art insists on bringing to the fore the pertinence of race in individual formation and the acknowledgment of diversity in cultural representation as responses to the changing demographics and cultural patterns in the United States. In my assessment, multicultural art commonly strives for two objectives: (1) to destabilize the taken-for-granted correlation between “culture” and the aesthetic, literary, epistemic, and performative norms endorsed by the Anglo American hegemony; and (2) to reclaim the concept of culture as both ethnic heritage and a free semiotic zone ready for multiple linguistic, cognitive, and imaginative reconstructions. The general rhetoric on multiculturalism—having displaced “race” with the broader term “culture”— champions unequivocally cultural diversity and political inclusionism, if it remains complicit and reticent about the issue of race. Lacy's own ethos of connection agrees with this egalitarian spirit of multiculturalism, even though she has chosen women's issues as the focus of her art. In her attempt to reach women of different races, classes, and generations, however, Lacy's feminism has always had a multicultural dimension. What I might call Lacy's multi cultural feminism finds strong expression in The Dark Madonna, which considers the complex intersection of ethnic and sexual difference as a significant feminist agenda and frankly steps into the painful and explosive terrain of race.
The embryo for the project that would become The Dark Madonna was
Lacy conceived of The Black Madonna as a model project that would bring together various constituencies “to celebrate the historical representations and contemporary lives of ethnically diverse cultures in the City of Los Angeles” and to make “public the joint findings of community dialogue and of research in an effort to effect policies relevant to the needs and issues of ethnic minority and majority women.”The Black Madonna was renamed The Dark Madonna during the developmental process because of recommendations from Asian American and Chicana participants. The change, however, was challenged by an African American participant as a denial of the oldest known goddess, Isis, who was black and originated in Africa (Egypt). Another participant, of Scandinavian ancestry, defended the new title, suggesting that “‘dark'encompasses both white and black.” Such aconflict of divergent viewpoints, as we shall see, proved to be a recurrent feature in this ambitious academy/community/art performance.
On November 8, 1985, the first phase of this massive project opens with a two-day symposium entitled “The Dark Madonna: Women, Culture and Community Rituals,” hosted by the newly established UCLA's Center for the Study of Women. It is designed to explore, according to the brochure, “goddesses and madonnas from different times and cultures, particularly figures representing women of color … and the contemporary meanings of female icons in multi-ethnic cultures and in women's lives.” To the organizers' surprise, the symposium receives an overwhelming response from the community (600 pre-registered) and draws an extremely diverse body of attendees, most of whom probably want to hear confirmations about their own versions of the Dark Madonna such as the Hindu Kali, the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe, or the Asian Bodhisattva. The proceedings of the symposium, however, demonstrate how difficult it is to engage in multicultural negotiations.
A logogram of a Negroid-featured Madonna and child graces the symposium brochure. It seems a perfunctory homage to the conference theme, es-pecially when the symposium's opening session presents six white women whose talks pay little reference to the Dark Madonna, despite containing much
If this symposium's first act falters under the weight of unintentional ethnocentrism, the second act fulfills its promise to display a picture of diversity not only in the knowledge conveyed but also in those who convey knowledge. As a religious icon, the Black Madonna is traced to Montserrat in Spain; to the Song of Solomon, which praises the daughters of Jerusalem as “black and comely”; to the alleged Sicilian belief that the Catholic Virgin Mary is African; and to “Buddhist images of the feminine that go beyond the maternal to represent perfection, wisdom, and bliss.” The Black Madonna, nicknamed La Moreneta (the dark one) by some faithful Catalans, is worshipped in many parts of Europe (Spain, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Italy, France) as mysterious, exotic, working wonders, and endowed with the power to ensure fertility and to lessen the pain of childbirth. Some of her icons are carved in ebony; some others, scholars have argued, have been blackened by centuries of votive candle smoke. In contemporary America, the Black Madonna is celebrated among African deities and Roman Catholic saints in Brazil; a darkskinned Indian Madonna has been sanctified in 1984 in Caracas, Venezuela. The Dark Madonna appears in California as the Mexican Virgen de Guadalupe, the symbol of the “good woman,” but also as her much maligned counterpart, La Malinche, the Indian woman sold into slavery who later served as Cortes's interpreter and mistress. The Dark Madonna's suggestive force is also associated with the attempts by African American writers, such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, to redefine God in the image of the black woman.
As Kathleen Hendrix observes, the symposium's overall message is encapsulated by the Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen's remark: “We've been told women are a group that has no history. We are reclaiming our history. We don't have to reinvent. We have to remember and reclaim the power that is within us. It is in those real dark nights of the soul. That's when you go down
Bolen's emphases on remembrance, power, and survival echo Lacy's articulation of this project'sthemes as “ethnic heritage, strength and endurance.” While these motifs may sound too sacrosanct, this project's second phase, which proceeds through a series of community dialogues, pointedly grapples with the dark themes of racial discrimination, stereotypes, internalized oppression, shame, and life crisis. Positive notes are still accentuated: participants of this project are instructed to uncover the strengths underlying others' divulgence of their weaknesses.
The community component of The Dark Madonna, facilitated by Willow Young and Yolande Chambers Adelson, takes place among 200 participants at various L.A. locations during February and March of 1986. The plan is to collect primary materials from taped-recorded community dialogues so that the sound artist/engineer Susan Stone can create a soundtrack for the culminating performance pageant in May. The participants are first divided into basically homogeneous groups to discuss the Dark Madonna concept and its resonance with racial/ethnic issues. Conflicts emerge as the group subsequently begins to meet cross-racially. One basic problem is the location for meetings. After an African American woman from Watts, for example, travels to Pasadena for a meeting, she is concerned and angry that not one of the Pasadena women shows up at the next meeting, held in Watts. More than the city's geographic disparity, such conflict exposes L.A.'sracially and economically segregated residential communities. The woman from Watts does eventually decide to stay with the project after a meeting with the event'sorganizers in Watts. Her dissenting voice is incorporated into Stone's soundtrack.
Enter the third phase of The Dark Madonna, the performance pageant at UCLA's Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden on May 31, 1986. Inthe dusk, on the grassy slope, approximately fifty women and children, dressed all in white, display themselves as living statues on pedestals raised among permanent sculptural figures by artists like Auguste Rodin and Gaston Le Chaise (fig. 14). These female statues form a temporary museum of multiethnic and multigenerational tableaux vivants by assuming various stances and configurations that reveal their individualities. An Asian woman plays a white instrument; a Chicana, holding an infant swathed in white, sways softly in a rocking chair; an elderly Caucasian woman, with a teenager holding her arm, relaxes in a wheelchair; an African woman stands tall with her turquoisecolored lips pursed. These silent bodies, stilled for the duration of a sunset, are accompanied by prerecorded conversations among women, made into an aural collage, fluttering like overlaid whispers from the amplifiers planted in trees. Just before the last light fades, ten black-clad runners dart, zigzagging,
14 Suzanne Lacy, The Dark Madonna, 1986. Photo: Susan Mogul. Courtesy of Suzanne Lacy.
Stone's soundtrack shifts its character as the darkness ascends; whispers among women change from memories of pain, discrimination, and racism to stories about recoveryand reconciliation. Groups of six or eight women, dressed in black, emerge from all sides of the garden, shining their flashlights on the darkened paths. The black figures from the pedestals gradually join these women, who walk and sway in unison, like one body, until they reach a grassy clearing and sit together in a ring, their faces illuminated by the campfire-like flashlights. The spectators (about two thousand in number) are invited to walk closer, to audit, or even to join in the performers' discussions about their experiences with life crises, the resolutions of those crises, and survival. Lit only intermittently by the vestiges of flashlights, these attentive ears hover around the performers like silhouetted specters of forbearance, curiosity, excitement.
If Lacy's methodology is proactive, flexible, and practical, then abstraction is the order of her symbolism. In the performance pageant of The Dark Madonna, this order of abstraction appears in the three-part choreographed action sequence (from isolation, to contact, to community), in the reified attitudes assumed by the tableaux performers, in Stone's soundtrack marked by the dichotomy between strife and peace, and in the black and white color contrast of the costume design. According to Lacy, the two tableaux composed of women dressed in white and black represent for her “day and night, differences and similarities.” She also stresses that her most important task in this piece is to locate the precise moment when daylight changes into darkness in order to signal the performers to alter their costumes from white to black “so that suddenly the garden is all covered by darkness, like lightning,” Lacy says, “but I missed by about two seconds—I made the call too early.”
Lacy's search for precision in The Dark Madonna is in keeping with the level of abstraction she has brought to her artworks. It reflects a visual artist's propensity for creating an acute, frozen pictorial moment. This formalist propensity drives Lacy's desire for a clear-cut dichotomy between white and black, daylight and darkness, calamity and salvation—and, by implication, between the white plague and the dark madonna. For me, however, it is not the precise separation but the ambiguity between these states that makes The Dark Madonna a prescient piece. In a sense, The Dark Madonna actually becomes itself, a significant redressive/art performance, by inadvertently subverting the artist's self-assigned “most important” directorial task.
Because the action of The Dark Madonna happens at dusk, the contrasts just noted are reframed as transitions of experiential states rather than diametrically opposed entities. The performers' heterogeneity becomes less discernible when the realm of visibility in daylight gradually shifts to the realm of aurality and tactility in the dark. Predicated by the performance sequence, a picture of diversity first emerges, when the multiethnic living statues freeze in postures that crystallize their identities, taking up what Bertolt Brecht would call their “gestus”—the “gist and gestures” typical of their personal/gender/ ethnic/class modalities. These divergent identity-postures that memorialize the performers' particularities diminish in gradation as the night falls and the statues dismount from isolated pedestals to become a fraction in a chain of anonymous but communicating bodies.
At this juncture, I must admit that Lacy's choice of making the darkness her symbol of totality/unity has at least perceptual validity, because a communal rather than an isolated atmosphere is promoted by the reduction of the performers' visible differences and physical distance in the dark. The par-ticipants are joined in an environment conducive to fostering their affinities, for their bodies are literally, emotionally, and physically engaged by the common
The Dark Madonna demonstrates several distinctive features of Lacy'slargescale feminist/redressive performances, including (1) close attention to pressing public issues in a particular (urban) site; (2) an extended period of planning and execution; (3) a process of networking, community mobilizing, and institutional negotiations; (4) an effective media strategy to publicize the project; (5) a multilevel pool of participants and targeted spectators; (6) balanced manipulation of both form and content, aesthetic vessel and sociocultural messages; and (7) striking conceptual and visual symbolism. The success of the first five features depends on Lacy's competence as a social designer, her ability to assemble a massive production team, and her willingness to allocate a large portion of her work to others. Her sense of control as a director is likely to decrease in direct proportion to the increase of the project's scope, duration, and number of participants. All these factors subject Lacy to a decentering process as far as her artistic subjectivity goes, a process she endorses.
Lacy has stressed that her role resembles that of a facilitator more than that of a singular author: “The reason I'm doing [The Dark Madonna] is not because I'm Suzanne Lacy, artist, but because I really care about a collective voice.” While Lacy eagerly acknowledges her core collaborators—the production director Anne Bray and the community dialogue coordinators Yolanda Chambers Adelson, Willow Young, and Carol Hegshe—her signature as an artist is unmistakable in The Dark Madonna. I regard this signature as Lacy's claim to her artistic centricity in an inevitable and voluntary decentering process required by her project, for she never relinquishes control over the last two features on my list. Her artistic centricity is expressed in devising the three-phase performative frame to supply knowledge, stimulate dialogues, and ferment imagination concerning the multivalent concept/symbol of the Dark Madonna, which she also selects as the project's center to cohere disparate elements. The Dark Madonna is then the carrier of Lacy's
The Affective Anatomy of Performance Art
Underlying the awesome performance technology exemplified by my checklist is Lacy's persistent fascination with the self/other dynamics and her ethi/thetics of connection. As a single self, she extends her artistic subjectivity to encompass and interact with more and more others. This expansive orientation entails an intersubjective exchange between the artist's self and her participatory others: Lacy's self becomes reiterated, fragmented, multiplied, and transformed by these others, while these others both take over parts of her self and are temporarily subsumed under her nominal self, the cooperative project that has mobilized them all.
The extended process of preparing and executing a large-scale project binds Lacy with her collaborators and participants. All of them have to devote certain periods of their lives to the gestation and procreation of their communal project. Since Lacy has always chosen to work with participants who are to some extent subjugated, misrepresented, or even victimized, the interactive process of carrying out a serial collaborative action may have potential healing effects. It enables the participants to break out of their habitual isolation and feeling of impotence—to do something and to be seen and known for doing it. The significance of such a project is then measurable in a concrete sense by its scale, which indicates the artwork's capacity to affect the lives of many others by bringing them closer to themselves and to others. Through the open and prolonged process of approaching a common destination, the artist's participatory others are able to claim their own ownership of the path and experience the power of initiative agency. They become, in a functional sense, Lacy's surrogate selves, her other/selves. Or, as Lippard describes it incisively, “for all [the] dispersal, or radiation [involved in a large-scale project], Lacy'sindividual vision remains central. She takes her chosen diversity and forms a new hybrid: a multiple self. Thus she gets to be one woman and all-women: the maid, the bride, and the hag; the light and the dark madonna.”
In an unpublished manuscript entitled “Women in Transition: Artand Public Policy,” Lacy suggests that she takes on enormous community art projects because she believes that artists should take “a responsive, rather than reflex-ive, position of leadership in community life.” Her effort to assume such a responsibility (read responsive-ability) is revealed in a major theme that characterizes
For Lacy, this “other-directed empathy” translates into the desire to understand and connect with the audience, her immediate others in a performance context. Thus, in a later article, “Debated Territory: Toward a Critical Language for Public Art,” she emphasizes reconceptualizing the role of the audience as an analytical tool for new genre public art. Since many new genre public performances are situated in “the space between artist and audience,” Lacy theorizes, the process of interaction is often the only art product and the artwork itself becomes “a metaphor for relationship.” This “relationship” exists not only between the artist and audience but also between the audience and the art-making process: “Of interest is not simply the makeup or identity of the audience but to what degree audience participation forms and informs the work—howit functions as integral to the work's structure.” Stated in my lingo, how does the audience voluntarily become, to varying degrees, the artist's participatory other/selves?
It goes without saying that Lacy's conception of the audience is much broader than the conventional positioning of the audience as consumers of cultural commodities. Disregarding the line between the artist/self and the audience/other, she takes “the audience” to be her signifier for a motley and flexible pool of potential collaborators. In “Debated Territory” she compares the audience to “a series of concentric circles with permeable membranes that allow continual movement back and forth,” radiating out from the central artistic core in a rippling effect. For me, the insight of this model lies in Lacy's designation of “responsibility” as the force that propels the vacillating movement among these circles. “Genesis and responsibility are paired in this model, the center equaling the creative impetus. From this center, the basis of which varies from artwork to artwork, emerge images and structures (though not necessarily the meaning—that is completed by the audience).”
If Lacy uses “genesis” to signify the creative energy that emanates from the artistic subject/self, then wemay take her “responsibility”to indicate the self's ability to interact with the projected task and with others involved in the same task. By pairing genesis with responsibility, Lacy simultaneously neutralizes the artist's privilege as the creative genius and compels the artist to maintain, or even to earn, her/his authorship by remaining responsive to vicissitudes.
Since the targeted performance in her analysis is a large-scale and community-based piece, such as The Dark Madonna, Lacy proposes a complex, fluid, and multilevel model for reconceptualizing the audience. Her model begins with the center around which the gravity of responsibility pivots, radiating out to six concentric circles: (1) “The center of the circle are those without whom the work could not exist.” This circle may include the artist alone as the author/performer of one or an ensemble of artists who initiate the project. (2) “The next circle out from the center includes the collaborators or codevelopers, shareholders who have invested time, energy, and identity in the work and who partake deeply in its ownership.” This group represents the true believers, who become engaged with the work after its point of origin. (3) “The next level of participation would be the volunteers and performers, those about, for, and with whom the work is created.” This constituency is often located in the community to which the performance is addressed. (4) “Another ring of the circle consists of those who have a direct experience of the artwork”—the group weusually recognizeas the live audience. (5) The next ring consists of what Lacy calls the “media audience”—“the audience that experiences the work through reports, documentation, or representation. This audience includes people who read about the artwork in newspapers, watch it on television, or attend subsequent documentary exhibition.” (6) Beyond this ring exists “the audience of myth and memory,” an audience of posterity that carries the artwork over time as a cultural heritage or, in Lacy's words, “a commonly held possibility.”
In elucidating her multiple audienceships, Lacy manages to chart what I like to call the affective anatomy of performance art, revealing her understanding of performance as a transmuted genre of conceptual art. Here I propose simplifying Lacy's model to elucidate the essential tripartite anatomy of a single-authored performance, which comprises the creative center, the immediate witnesses, and the tertiary others—without attaching hierarchical value to privilege “original” center or “authentic” account over “tertiary”imagination. In this performance anatomy, the concentric circles represent different
Just as Lacy has stressed that her model is nonhierarchical in intention, so my simplified version does not evaluate the merit of audience responses based on the respondent's actual or virtual experience with the originary performance. A person who reads about a performance, for example, may feel more affected by this virtual encounter than a person who sees it live. Since an artwork's impact on society tends to be subliminal, syncopated, and deferred, I contend that it depends to a great degree on the existence of a tertiary, virtual audience. It takes time and people for a performance to become a memory, a rumor, a myth, a commonly held possibility, an inspiring cultural deposit. I believe this is why most conceptual art-based performance emphasizes documentation of the project, almost to the point of compromising its ephemeral premise. For only through documentation can a performance reach a virtual audience. Hence, Lacy's question: “Is an actualized work more effective than a proposal?” Ultimately, I contend, it is the person who becomes compelled to respond to a performance, even a proposed performance—by thinking and writing about it, by creating another performance, or by starting a community outreach project—who claims cultural ownership of the originary performance. Myargument questions the conventional weight given to the “authorial intention,” “actual experience,” “immediate impact,” “unmediated encounter,” and “verifiable proceeding” of a performance project, but radically validates a tertiary audience/respondent's subsequent conceptual appropriation of the performance as an affective model and a cultural legacy.
The conceptual economy circulating in performance'saffective anatomy that I have just sketched yields a different interpretation of Lacy's large-scale feminist/redressive performances. While these works attack pressing social issues and seek to empower disenfranchised participants by joining them in a temporary community for a common artistic cause, they still exist at best as heuristic models that bridge aesthetic and social occupations. These performances, as we've seen, exercise an ethos of connection, exert immediate influences on the artist's and participants' lives for a certain period, urge positive social change, and instigate appropriate legislative modification in policy-making. It would be harder to claim, however, that these performances are therefore
The Dark Madonna, for example, may have exposed multicultural and interracial tensions among women in L.A. before the problem became coopted by media saturation into just another topical issue. Under the auspices of diverse community organizations, the project may have brought a large sampling of these women together to interact with one another. The year-long process behind the project and the presentation of the final performance pageant may have emphatically demonstrated that such cross-cultural and multiethnic communication is necessary and possible. Nevertheless, the project can neither be held responsible for the persistent racism that plagues L.A. nor be exempt from critical evaluation of its multifaceted expressions as a public artwork, an extended performance, and a cultural product. As Lacy comments, “It is possible that process-oriented public art is at its most powerful when, as with most visual art forms, it operates as a symbol.”The Dark Madonna, in this final analysis, survives as an affective and provocative symbol for Lacy's contribution to L.A.'s performance culture.
During her nearly two-decade tenure in L.A., Lacy engaged in agynocentric investigation of corporeal existence, embodied other-directed empathy, and attacked violence against women. She interrogated inherited barriers to interracial understanding among women, idealistically affirmed the strength, diversity, and beauty of ordinary women, and exhibited their record of survival. Lacy has remapped the artist's self as committed, malleable, effervescent, and vast. Her art denies the antinomy between self and other as predetermined, for she is able to turn the material and psychic borders that guard her artistic subjectivity into the limina that binds her with others. Her largescale feminist/multicultural performances envision the union of multiple others as an expansive communal self. Lacy's legacy in L.A. is one that demonstrates the possibility of performance as a birthing event that connects the self to the world. Her feminist art has engendered other/selves, even just for the duration of a sunset.
15 Elia Arce, pre-performance installation for I Have So Many Stitches That Some times I Dream That I'm Sick, 1993. Photo: Martin Cox. Courtesy of Elia Arce.