6. What's in a Name?
Marking Sacred Naked Nature Girls
Naming the Identity
In a narrative about their company history, the Sacred Naked Nature Girls, four women artists who have formed a triracial and multiethnic ensemble in L.A., describe an incident that may endure as the mythic origin of their collaboration: “The women officially christened their group one morning at Zuma Beach, CA, when they spontaneously shed their clothes during an improvisation at the water's edge.” The artists frame the incident as the primal scene for their ensemble. Suddenly, as if bymagic, their individual bodies were reborn into one mobile, sentient, and tactile organism named Sacred Naked Nature Girls (fig. 30).
All elements in this openly embellished account of the artistic team's genesis feed into a well-designed nativity ritual. The birthing takes place in a natural surrounding—“at the water's edge,” a liminal space between water and earth, between a moist environment and the loose flesh of sand. The line that tortuously delineates “the edge” stretches like an umbilical cord. The throes of reproductive labor assume a dramatic ease; they are pleasures from improvised movements. The artists who are at once their own mothers and daughters select a most “spontaneous” costume for their collective body: “Naked Came I Out of My Mother's Womb.” After birth comes the christening: the
The four artists who name themselves Sacred Naked Nature Girls (SNNG) come from diverse ethnic and artistic backgrounds: Danielle Brazell, an ex-Catholic, third-generation Irish Polish American artist who is the artistic director at Highways and teaches performance workshops for women there; Laura Meyers, a Polish Catholic/Russian Jewish American body artist who has studied with Leo Shapiro and John Malpede and has collaborated with dancer/choreographer Oguri's company Renzoku; Akilah Oliver, an African American poet, teacher, and performance artist who at one time worked with the Los Angeles Poverty Department led by Malpede; and Denise Uyehara, a Japanese American solo performer and writer whose play Hiro has been produced by various regional theaters. The artists' cultural diversity is further compounded by their diverse sexualities (homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual). The four performing together thus amass the interests of intersecting audience communities. Their usual spectators include artists, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, HIV-positive people, Caucasian American, Asian American, and African American men and women. Some women'sgroups have strongly supported their work; some men have attended their performances for reasons other than artistic interest.
The Sacred Naked Nature Girls internationally toured their first piece, Un titled Flesh, an all-nude performance, initially presented in Boulder, Colorado, in April 1994. Their second piece, Home. The Last Place I Ran to Just about Killed Me, premiered at Highways in August 1996. SNNG presented its third piece, The Party —which the ensemble cocreated with an outside director, Elia Arce—for five evenings in October 1997, also at Highways.
Although the three pieces deal with different issues of sexuality, ethnicity, identity, and culture, they share a common feminist foundation. The first two feature the multifaceted experiences of women in society as their themes. The third is autobiographical, built on SNNG members' relationships as artists and women working together in an ensemble for five years. Infused with a selfreflexive honesty, this piece exposes many of the difficulties confronting the women as artistic colleagues, and it heralded their joint decision for SNNG to go into hiatus, so members could pursue their individual goals. With all three pieces, the company designated at least one show during each tour exclusively for an audience of women. SNNG also offered workshops that included women from diverse social, ethnic, and economic strata. This commitment to empowering women demonstrates the ensemble's proactive feminism.
If gender politics has motivated SNNG's company praxis, then racial politics embodied by the collective's multicultural makeup inspires its most conscientious experiment. A dialectic tension between unity and diversity characterizes the group's spirit and ethos. Both in their work and in the ways they represent their work in interviews, publicity materials, and postshow discussions, SNNG repeatedly stresses the differences and commonalities among individual members. This double emphasis on disparity and collectivity is evident in the wide range of labels they use to identify their group: they are “Sacred Naked Nature Girls,” or, in its various shortened forms, “Sacred Nature Girls,” “Sacred Girls,” “Nature Girls,” and so on; they also call their company by its four-letter acronym, SNNG. As a writer, I am confronted with an interesting linguistic problem: references to the Sacred Naked Nature Girls or the Girls seem to demand a plural verb, but SNNG, the collective, calls for a singular verb. The Girls have succeeded in signifying their work's complex dialectics even in the act of naming.
In their “Company History” the Girls emphasize the interplay between unification and diversification:
The Sacred Naked Nature Girls develop their performances through intense collaboration. Each member contributes to the group's artistic vision, rehearsal process, technical and administrative production. Each brings to the group a rich background in performance, improvisation, theater, movement, and visual art. It is this range of experience that directly informs the company's evolution as an ensemble. In addition to their work with SNNG, the members work as individual artists and with other groups.
The paragraph highlights collaboration as SNNG's principal creative method, which implies the process of sharing, negotiating, and weaving together the participants' differences in order to present an integrated project. The aesthetic unity achieved through such collaboration, moreover, depends on each member's generous and more or less equivalent contributions to each aspect of an artistic production. The potential success of their collaboration, however, is strengthened, if not guaranteed, by the rich variety in their artistic training. Adding to this variety is the biographical fact that the four members are multiethnic, multi cultural, and, in experience and practice, of multiple sexualities. Finally—almost an afterthought—the paragraph introduces a detail about the company's flexi ble formation: each member also works independently and with other groups.
The apparent afterthought bears further contemplation. Though it may not have been intended as a statement defining SNNG's philosophy, it does suggest a method of organization inspired by the Girls' insistence on diver-sity. This organizational method both accounts for and corresponds to the fluidity of identities and the overlapping of community affiliations that an
To the extent that the Girls' art reflects their own time and place, the group's fluid organization responds to the contingent requirements of their artistic site. Their model of permissive sorority at once mirrors and problematizes the complexity of L.A. culture, one characterized by its aesthetic hybridity, multiple agencies, and parallel constituencies: a culture of cultures. On a microcosmic scale, SNNG offers a working method for L.A. It has made an art out of investigating how to mediate and administer its members' differences. It attempts to express rather than suppress the potential conflicts caused by its artistic citizens' irreducible variance. As a city that struggles to handle its conglomerate of distinct cultures, L.A. may do well to heed SNNG's attitude by cultivating its multiethnic citizenship as a strength.
Based in L.A., the Girls entered a laboratory of multicultural ecology hoping to cultivate a habitat for their communal vision. What was at stake was much more than the particular aesthetic appeal and political relevance of their alternative enterprise. SNNG also had to invent an economic strategy that would ensure the group's survival in a city marked by the Hollywood hegemony. Encouraging the Girls to work both within and without SNNG proved a viable strategy for the ensemble. In fact, the Girls were increasingly receiving foundation grants and critical attention when, in 1997, they ironically decided to suspend their collaboration. In any case, SNNG proved to be a significant group not only in its mining of provocative issues, but also in its management of financial and personnel resources to maintain the miners. Their art is in this respect a luminous specimen from the L.A. cultural underground.
With a specific multicultural slant, SNNG's redressive/feminist art straddles diverse aesthetic fields and cognitive modes. The Sacred Girls have deliberately placed their art in the liminal zone of porous boundaries and chimerical desires. Theirs is an aesthetic of reference, drawing freely from a globe of cultural allusions, most of which are derived from mixed sources. Their hybrid and multivalent art demonstrates a postmodern performance condition articulated by Philip Auslander, who holds that there is no longer any rarefied boundary between cultural categories. Accordingly, “differences between ‘marginal’
SNNG takes advantage of this saturated state of cultural practices and draws its artistic materials from every available source. The group adheres to a politics of eclectic multiplicity as an aesthetic cause. This all-encompassing principle sometimes serves to create performance segments rich in sensory appeal and complex in conceptual content. There are times, however, when this eclecticism could benefit from judicious editing. Occasionally, in their ardor to practice inclusiveness, they have allowed predictable episodes to stand alongside ones that actually disrupt critical inertia. Their politics, on these occasions, detracts from their artistic economy.
To me, the greatest mystery of SNNG's art circulates around the four words that evoke its members' many names: Sacred—Naked—Nature— Girls. The multiple workings of the ensemble's aesthetic modes, theoretical concerns, ideological positions, and performance methods are gingerly embodied bythe multiple linkages of their nominal signs. As the three qualifiers become variously joined to the basic subject—“Girls,” the divergent issues raised by the four artists come to overlap, complement, evade, and contradict one another, as if these symbolic signifiers have emerged as multifaceted characters in an intricate drama. This chapter tells the story of the four Girls' multiple names, emulating the theatrical grace of their performative reiterations of self-naming.
Voice and Sight
Naming as an act of explication offers a theoretical angle with which to view SNNG's work. Yet even more crucial is the generative function that it serves for the group. I return to the “primal scene” constructed by the Sacred Girls as the ceremony that both celebrates their union and defines their collaboration. My reading posits that the artists are reborn in their union into one flesh and their collaboration formally begins with the birth of their ensemble name. The scene therefore involves a double birth. The initial birth envisions the artists' intent to collaborate as one body/unit when they disrobe in front of one another, symbolically ripping off the boundaries that prevent their union. Witnessed byone another and bythe surrounding landscape, their union now exists as a novel sight—an assemblage of figures made of many colors—but the sight remains anonymous. Without a name that declares their emotional and spatial relationships to one another and to the world, the sight of their union yields no special meaning; it is ontologically indistinguishable from any other sight, whether of animate or inanimate objects, that happens to occupy
Naming as a performative action coordinates SNNG's self-enacted memory of its own advent; it is a performance that consists of giving voice to a hitherto silent sight. The artists represent their self-naming as a christening ceremony, yet they baptize themselves solely by the sanctity of their joint agency. Their rite of naming appropriates and modifies both pagan and Christian motifs, simulating the hallowed gesture of creativity in a setting brimming over with hints of animistic spirits. They evoke the vision of a coven of witches, partaking of sacraments in high tides, holding communion with the teeming cosmos. SNNG, their newly found body/identity, emerges like a many-headed Hydra who has evolved the ability to split its monstrous body into four separate bodies that move in adjacent, contiguous, or intersecting spheres. The moving bodies, when they so desire, re-merge into one. An anachronistic tonality of earnestness characterizes these pantheistic visions. As if dancing a tango between floating and plunging, the artists seem to have de-gravitated away from the weight of fin-de-siècle cynicism but simultaneously remained rooted against the levity of postmodernist parody.
Just as earnestness is defined by the agreement between surface and interior, the Sacred Girls approach the Christian thematics they mis/quote with a similar level of piety that sustains belief. SNNG's modulation of the Christian theology centers around the power of naming. The Christian God enunciates Himself as the Word in the Image of the Trinity, thereby linking the (speech) act of naming with creating. His word renders visible the myriad sights that populate the earth; His voice coincides with the created sight. As a wellestablished, almighty Subject, the Christian God owns the font of originality, buttressed by His scripturally ordained omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. Read against this context, the performative naming employed by the Sacred Girls is strictly an act of re-creation. Their union first registers as a sight—as it were—on the tablet of Nature, before they find words to name it. Their voice articulates the significance of their collectivebeing as sight: their voice reinforces the sight, but it neither precedes nor coincides with the sight. Regarded as marginalized, hence anomalous subjects within the Judeo Christian patriarchal structure, the Sacred Girls cannot possibly claim “the font of originality” reserved for the long-standing authoritative Father. What
So goes SNNG's performance score: Sight. Voice. Text. Then perhaps the harvesting of anticipated yields: Recognition. Power. History. The force of such a score is primarily self-confirmed, validated by a community of viewers who temporarily congregate because of shared beliefs. The Sacred Girls are sacred first of all to one another; they constitute their own basic witnessing community. Their community has the potential to expand as they offer performances to other spectators, who may or may not experience the gracious violence of conversion. The spectators who gather to form nomadic communities for the Sacred Girls could extend or withhold their beliefs in the performance, contingent upon the degree to which they respond to the promise of the SNNG “salvation.”
As they borrow the magic of naming as a point of inception for their ensemble, so the Sacred Girls assume the biblical model for spiritual efficacy in conceptualizing their potential public appeal. What I've extracted from their self-witnessed ritual of naming as their performance score and anticipated yields follows the theological design for religious conversion and confirmation of faith/belief: manifestation of miracles (sight), dissemination of gospel (voice/text), bearing witness (recognition), holding communion with fellow believers (power), reiterated affirmation of believed “Truth” (history). The artists nevertheless depart radically from the orthodox code of conduct that governs both sight and voice in the Bible. They critique the theological formation of Christianity by exercising a feminist exegesis of Scripture. Their exegesis proceeds with two interpretive strategies: literalization of metaphors and inversion of values. They take to task, in particular, the gender-specific metaphors the Bible uses to convey heavenly/spiritual matters in worldly/sexual terms.
The Christian Scripture narrativizes the relationship between God and man as that between man and woman; the metaphors of sexual difference establish a hierarchy of spiritual difference. A parable from the Book of Ezekiel expresses this sexual/spiritual hierarchy in no uncertain terms. The parable compares Jerusalem to an exposed infant girl. The Lord takes pity on her, washes off her blood, raises her up to become a jewel. As her breasts are formed and her hair grows, the Lord sees that she is “old enough for love” (Ezekiel 16.8). He covers her nakedness with His garment and makes her His wife. But, prideful of her own beauty, the wife willingly becomes “a prostitute,” sharing her body promiscuously with other lovers. The Lord condemns His adulterous wife:
Therefore, you prostitute, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Because you poured out your wealth and exposed your nakedness
The naked female body is the pivotal image in this parable. The thematic connotations of this image, like the scarlet letter “A” dangling from Hester Prynne'sneck in Hawthorne'snovel, change through time and circumstances. The deserted baby girl's nakedness indicates vulnerability; it bears the sign of parental neglect and social disdain. The nakedness of a woman “old enough for love” might suggest the maturity and allure of her virgin body, the proof of her eligibility for matrimony and for biblical knowledge. Made wife, the woman takes pleasure at her own body and shares her naked beauty with other lovers; she violates her vow to be in eternal possession by the one Lord who was first her adopted Father, then her true/legitimate Husband. Her “sin” of adultery arises from her re -possession of her naked body as her own. Consequently, the Lord punishes her by turning her nakedness into her shame, a sign of her dis -possession: she is stripped bare and stripped of all the rewards for her gratitude and fidelity to the Lord.
The woman, almost identical to her naked body, is perceived by the Lord as an object or a sign throughout the parable. Her image remains visible to her Watcher, but her voice is not heard. Incontrast, the Lord shields His body in “garment” and exerts His presence primarily as a narrative voice. The woman, a sight without a voice, is under constant surveillance by the narrative voice. The narrative voice establishes its power not only by representing the Author, but also byits freedom from being watched; its authority increases when it pronounces the Author's jealous will to punish His adulterous subordinate. But how does the woman begin to sin? She “sins” the minute she collapses her subjective will with her own body object; she decides to “become a prostitute,” exposing her nakedness in promiscuity. In the eyes of the Lord, the woman has sinned because she has infused the sight of her body with her own determination. The invisible markings of the woman's will on her own body animate her in erotic actions. Her actions, be they motivated by pride or pleasure, are then the physical manifestations of her voice. She has given a voice to her naked body as sight.
Inverting the terms of this parable brings us back to the moment when
What most fascinates me about the Girls' naked actions is that they are performed in a collective of women of diverse racial and ethnic origins and multiple sexual orientations. In other words, I perceive their bodies as uncompromisingly different from one another because of both visible and in visible markings. No matter how partial and deceptive my perceptions are, I discern their divergences as both skin-deep and hidden in libidinal compulsions barred from my sight. The Sacred Nature Girls' performances consciously take stock of their acknowledged differences, making the dynamics between their unityand disparity a conceptual and performative issue. Tome, SNNG's collective art, at least during the duration of the performance, presents the actual image of a utopian dream, a glimpse of a possible global ethos advocating forbearance for differences. Their feminist, multicultural coalition promises me—an anomalous subject myself, a foreign-born Asian female immigrant—a politics of marginality, aforce of anomalous identification that may disrupt the Anglo-American, phallocentric status quo.
Notably, the politics of marginality exercised bySNNG is invested in what Peggy Phelan terms “an ideology of the visible,” tackling a question raised by Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson in their anthology Performing the Body/Performing the Text: whether becoming (in)visible in performance can lead to liberation. I shall bracket this question for the moment to consider the most obvious effect of women self-producing “promiscuous” sights and sounds in front of a congregated crowd.
From the media-milked case of Karen Finley, whose 1989 piece We Keep Our Victims Ready was involved in the National Endowment of the Arts censorship furor, we know that a solitary woman'sdisrobed figure engaged in public
31 Sacred Naked Nature Girls, Survey Untitled Flesh, 1996. Photo: Sushi Performance and Visual Arts Gallery. Courtesy of SNNG.
The multiethnic and transgendered particularities among the Girls create a distinct chemistry and a tangle of conundrums that bring home a thorny dilemma confronting the United States: namely, the struggles of disenfranchised subjects to reach “moral solidarity” and obtain intellectual, political, and economic equality. While maintaining feminism as their united front, the Girls identify that “thorny dilemma” as “multiculturalism.” As the artists
Marked and Heard
In an attempt to “revalue a belief in subjectivity and identity which is not visibly representable,” Peggy Phelan launches a brilliant critique against “the ideology of the visible” in her 1993 book Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. Phelan interrogates the ironically similar assumption held byprogressives and conservatives alike concerning the equation between representational visibility and political efficacy. Because of a mistaken judgment about “the relation between the real and the representational,” Phelan diagnoses, both groups believe that “greater visibility of the hitherto under-represented leads to enhanced political power.” Thus, progressives promote a greater circulation of visibility for the racial, ethnic, and sexual others in the representational economy, whereas conservatives dedicate themselves to defaming or censoring such a circulation. Phelan maintains that the tactics used by both groups reflect insufficient understanding “of the relationship between visibility, power, identity, and liberation.” “If representational visibility equals power,” Phelan comments wryly, “then almost-naked young white women should be running Western culture. The ubiquity of their image, however, has hardly brought them political or economic power.”
Phelan expresses a strong suspicion of the purported political benefits of increased representational visibility, as illustrated humorously by her example of scantily dressed young white women. Casting her vote for the “real power in remaining unmarked,” Phelan'schallenge to the ideology of the visible consists in reversing what she calls “the binary between the power of visibility
Phelan's caution against an overinvestment in the merits of obtaining visibility is highly compelling. As the parable from the Book of Ezekiel demonstrates, the woman is quite visible as an image, but she enjoys neither freedom nor power. Instead, she is confined by the constant vigil of her Keeper. Conversely, the Lord's almighty power is hardly abated by affirming his presence primarily as a voice. Voice, rather than sight, then, is the key element in defining who has the real power in this parable. Voice conveys the ability to empower and authenticate the truth effects of sight. This crucial linkage between voice and sight indicates a limit to Phelan'sconception of the unmarked, “a configuration of subjectivity” that secures the subject's power and freedom by evading being sighted. The problem with Phelan's politics of invisibility is that there is often no distinction between her tactic of “active vanishing” and the actual result expressed by the truism: out of sight, out of mind. It is also hard to distinguish the subliminal policy of invisibility administered by the dominant culture to absent its “abnormal” members from the invisibility politics adopted bythe “abnormal” members to induce the implosion of the dominant culture. It is unfortunate but likely that the ideology of the invisible will result in the erasure of “abnormality”from the privileged norm. As a sight unseen and a voice unheard, the abnormal/anomalous subject will then become a negligible deposit conveniently kept on the margin as a lost memory, lost to the norm—out of seeing, out of hearing, out of mind!
I suggest that presence (defined as representational visibility and audibility) still offers more possibility than absence (secured by representational invisibility) for the subject to achieve momentary liberation and to exercise individual will. As other subjects, we must reclaim the corporeal attributes of presence. Michele Wallace observes in Invisibility Blues that “black women are more often visualized in mainstream American culture—most prominently as fashion models or as performers in music videos—than they are allowed to speak their own words.” Hence, black women suffer from the problem of “high visibility, ” a problem aggravated bytheir “total lack of voice. ” Put otherwise, black women are unable to make their presence felt because their existence in vision does not ensure the coexistence of their voice. The best way for these
While there is no direct connection between representational visibility and political power, there is at best a dubious correlation between invisibility and freedom; the link is even more precarious between invisibility and power. Visibility may be turned into a surveillance mechanism by the Establishment to enforce control over anomalous subjects, who are “undesirable elements” in relation to mainstream culture. Allowing oneself to be watched indeed subjects one to the disadvantage of being scrutinized, co-opted, and misread. But these drawbacks might be the price that disenfranchised subjects have to pay in order to contest, even to upend, the norm of their invisibility. From the perspective of the always already invisible, the risks entailed by the exposure under the light might offer more room for self-determination than the freedom of movement in the dark; privacy publicized is a sacrifice to a projected and desired, if uncertain, end. This is the reasoning that makes the sight of four nude women of different skin colors, body sizes, and physiognomic features moving and talking together on stage such a liberating presence to my eyes and ears. As an interpreter who consumes SNNG's art for my textual performance, I have named, framed, and transfixed as if on a memorywall SNNG's naming rite as the ensemble's discursive genesis. To name is to mark; to be named is to be remarked; to name again is to ensure—if provisionally—that the originary naming is heard. The Sacred Naked Nature Girls have named themselves in order to mark their new presence. I exert the verbal violence of renaming their name in the service of my performing words, but I do so also to extend a paper stage for their name to live, sing, and dance. Have I empowered myself as critic or empowered the subject of my critical gaze and hearing? Or perhaps I and my artists and you, our reader, have simply consented to our imaginary conspiracy so as to mark the exchange of our representational currencies.
There is admittedly an uncertain correspondence between the power of self-generated naming and publicly elected political power; the former is performative while the latter is legislative. But I question whether such incommensurability between performative and political power is adifference in kind or in degree. Performative power lasts for the duration of its witnessed enactment. It may or may not have a lasting impact on the performer and the spectator. But does political power last forever? I suspect great uncertainty even for spiritual power's hold on eternity, although spiritual engagement allegedly occupies a deeper space—the event horizon—in the human psyche: the Law of the Father may be challenged or grow infirm yet.
Consider the opening tableau from Untitled Flesh. In the beginning there are random sounds in the dark. The sounds progress gradually in accelerated
A woman cries out a varied motif: “She said, ‘I'm falling. Will you catch me?’ ” The cry leads to a chorus of catechism that tests the boundary of unconditional love, confirmed by the voice, “Yes, I'll catch you.” The reassurances seem to urge the falling woman not to stop falling. The velocity of her falls is matched only by the degree of her physical abandon and the certainty of her being caught in midair by some woman's bosom as their naked bodies clash. This performance segment ends, ironically, when the spinning body crashes to the floor: a heavy date with gravity. Does it suggest abandonment, accident, or death?
The ambiguity of this last suspense, however, cannot neutralize the tremendous tenderness released in the segment. Significantly, the Girls have chosen this paradigmatic scene to announce their emotional engagements as women in their first public appearance. Their acrobatics of love therefore establishes the basic tone of their performance, mapping out an autonomous realm of female desire independent of male presence.
“Sexuality,” as Jill Dolan observes, “is a tangible currency in the representational exchange.” Sexuality in its manifold manifestations, especially when it involves female bodies, is a priority in SNNG's representational system, the top item on its performance to-do list. “While it is crucial not to conflate sexuality with gender,” Dolan continues, “expressions of sexuality further illustrate the operation of gender codes and constructs in the representation of the female body.” SNNG extends Dolan's insight to embody the complex interplay between sexualities and gender roles with their all-nude but plainly different female bodies. The Girls show off their fleshy, colored torsos, adorned with birthing scars, stretch marks, some tattoos, and traces of aging. By simply exposing themselves, the artists make no comment on the “constructedness” associated with popular images of the “female body.” The sight of their corporeal peculiarities, however, constructs more possibilities for the inventory of gender and sexual representations. For they exhibit sights and voices of women that subvert the norms produced, endorsed, and commodified bycommercial idealization. Their nude performance controverts the
It is worth noting that the Girls engage in this task of diversifying the representations of “femaleness” by interacting among themselves as diverse females. They propose “sexuality” or “eroticism” as an important aspect of female relationships, but they want also to include other possibilities. The Girls posit their unconditional trust for one another—demonstrated by the image of a woman's unconstrained falling and the choral refrains, “I'll catch you”— as the principal support of their artistic union. By extension, their collaborative art pursues an all-embracing sisterhood. The amorous tension ignited by flesh contact, nonetheless, complicates and diversifies what Susan Gubar has analyzed as “the monolithic ideal of sisterhood.” Instead, the scene casts a wide net of female liaisons that espouse lesbian sexuality without precluding other permutations of bonding among women.
Marked, Remarked, but Untitled
Although Phelan is “carefully blind” to the limitations of invisibility and to the inadequacy of any dualistic schema (visibility vs. invisibility), her privileging of the force of the unmarked in identity formation is seductive. Phelan's argument persuades because it highlights the negatives in our self-produced films of subjectivity. For in the terrain where my identity forms, the invisible conditions the visible. The invisible engine of my psyche propels me to tilt my head when I think without my knowing why. Fragments of my subjectivity might have coalesced into a namable mass from the angle of my tilted head without me ever noticing such etiologic episodes. Oras Phelan expresses it, “Identity emerges in the failure of the body to express being fully and the failure of the signifier to convey meaning exactly.” Phelan cites Adrian Piper's performance of the problematics of “race” to exemplify the arbitrary relation between the body's visible markings and the self's choice of identity. A visual artist and philosopher, Piper identifies herself as an African American, but she has pale skin and could “pass as white.” In her 1989 performance piece Cor nered, Piper proposes her individual “racial” situation as a common scenario for her spectators, given the history of enforced or voluntary miscegenation resulting from the trauma of slavery in the United States. Piper unmoors the fixity of racial identification from the visible signifier of skin color. She asks her “white” spectators who happen to carry ancestral “black” genes if they would identify themselves as “black” or “white.”
In Phelan'sanalysis, Cornered demonstrates the unreliability of visible body features in grounding one's choice and perceptions of self-identity. For Phelan, Piper's question to her spectators exposes the relativity of racial designations: “The same physical features of a person's body may be read as ‘black’ in England, ‘white’ in Haiti, ‘colored’ in South Africa, and ‘mulatto’ in Brazil.” Since the link is entirely artificial between the signifier for racial identification (that is, physical markings) and its signified cross-culturally, Phelan deconstructs the myth of skin color intrinsic to the dominant ideology of race. As she states, “Race-identity involves recognizing something other than skin and physical inscriptions. One cannot simply ‘read’ race as skin-color.”
I am in sympathy with Phelan's analysis; nevertheless, I find an aporia in her rejection of the probable, if partial, visual foundation that informs racial identification and rationalizes the ideology of race. The aporia comes from the basis of Phelan'scritique against racialization: Adrian Piper's Cornered. The major crisis of meaning established by Piper's performance of identity involves a corporeal detail particular to the artist herself: Piper can “pass as white.” That is to say, Piper has barely discernible skin pigment (and physiognomic features) that would mark her as nonwhite; this visual factor contributes to her particular dilemma and to the privilege that she explores as her performance theme. Therefore, it is actually a superficial physiological trait—the skin color nearwhite or white—that enables Piper and, for that matter, Phelan to begin contemplating the artificiality of racial designation. Although I join Phelan and Piper in their protest against the simplistic equation between race and skin color, I wish to stress that skin color does register as visual information and carries social and psychic consequences. As the color white is naturalized to be the norm in this society, Piper is “liberated” by her pale skin color to become unmarked, thereby enjoying the freedom to intervene from within her ostensible position of privilege. If she wants to, Piper can choose “to pass as white.”
I ask, then, what kind of freedom or self-agency can I enjoy if, in contrast to Piper, I happen to have a visibly nonwhite skin color? What questions should I raise if I take pride in an opposite privilege from Piper's: a beautiful and readily discernible nonwhite skin color? To ask these questions is not to deny the insights of Phelan's critique or of Piper's performance, but to refocus our attention on the corporeal sources of social constructions. For social constructions such as race and gender acquire their truth effects precisely because they enlist our body's external features as evidence and grounding. Our admittedly incomplete perceptions of the body serve to reinforce the plausibility of those constructed ideas that regulate human typologies. If we desire to induce an implosion of the status quo so as to emancipate the oppressed values and the eclipsed human resources, we would do better not to dismiss the solidity of the Establishment, but to reconceptualize the anima and corpus of that solidity.
In my own partially blind view, there is a perceptible animus working in the solid body of dominant ideologies: the logic of the visible and the abhorrence of incongruous sights. The visual anomalies become harder to digest but also harder to overlook when they are paired with incredible voices. We must, then, acknowledge that, just as the invisible conditions the visible, the visible also guides and thus constricts the invisible. There is, in Michele Wallace's phrase, “a ‘Harlem’ of the mind.” We could of course pronounce both Harlem and the mind to be fabrications. But we also have the option to join in the fabrication assembly line and to manufacture our own discursive and imagistic cartographies of “Harlem” and “the mind.” Let us note the potential power of the visible as it exists in a continuum with the aural and the textual. To mark the norms, we have to remark and begin remarking on the surface—the plainly to be seen—taking Oscar Wilde's witty remark about the profundity of surface earnestly.
An all-nude performance enacted by four distinct bodies, SNNG's Unti tled Flesh provides me with a paragon to examine the surfaces of various softtissue containers. But the work's contribution to my book's pet ideology— the politics of marginality—does not end with the visible. Untitled Flesh begins with the exposure of the plainly to be seen—the naked skin; the performers frankly champion a return to the body as an art material, brushing elbows with Michelangelo's paint-dripped sleeves. In their visible diversity, however, the performing women disturb the blank but unified tranquillity of the vanishing point and multiply the ideal Renaissance body into “promiscuous” female bodies. Bythe principle of inclusive multiplicity, absorbing both the positive and negative values, the “promiscuous” artists insist that there is more to the “eye/I”—borrowing from Phelan's conflation. The Girls' project of investigating “multiple layers of nakedness” implies that they approach naked ness in various ways: as physiological materiality, historicized nudity, and internalized nakedness. Finding performative expressions for these multiple layers is SNNG's self-assigned task. The Girls have to scan the visible and render both visible and audible the anatomy of the unheard and invisible.
Archaeology of the Visible
A subsequent scene from Untitled Flesh: Four naked women walk freely on a largely bare floor occupied by multiple sites of symbolic and functional objects. There is a wooden ladder on one side, erected upright from a circle of stones and withered leaves. On another side stands an altar covered in black, some barely discernible personal mementos piled on top. Toward the back is a raised area shielded by wire mesh, like a cage. This is an environment subdued in coloration, minimal in its architectural arrangement. Conversely, the
Nudity without History
What are the “multiple layers of nakedness” posed by the Girls as a manifesto for SNNG? The first layer of nakedness is nuditywithout history, nudity without shame. While posing this thesis, I am keenly aware of the wary reactions against public exposure of female bodies raised by some feminist critics. Dolan, for example, disputes the notion that “stripping people to their nude bodies will also strip away the layered cultural constructions of both sexuality and gender.” She identifies “cultural feminism” as the ideological camp that promulgates such a notion and warns against its tendency to universalize the nude female body as an ahistoricized and asexualized specimen of sexual difference. Dolan further points out the similarities between “cultural feminist performance art”and the magazine Eidos, a pornographic vehicle aiming at “heterosexual women readers” in their oversights regarding the codedness of visual representations.
I agree with Dolan's caution to note the difficulty in securing the return of the innocent body. I wish, however, to adjust the perspective in her critique. To me, what makes the difference between naive assumption and deliberate reclamation is the women artists' own attitudes toward the use of their unclothed bodies. They can see their bodies as nude, thereby alluding to and commenting on the hallowed Western tradition of employing and appropriating the nude female body in male art. This is the tactic adopted by such body artists as Hannah Wilke and Carolee Schneemann, both criticized by Dolan. It is against the grand patriarchal tradition that Wilke's and Schneemann's interventions become significant. By flaunting their own eroticized nude bodies in performances, as artists and women, Wilke and Schneemann radically confront the expectations of male erotic art. Their feminist projects make no attempt to elide the ideological codings, which have marked their nude bodies as desirable or deplorable. Rather, they affirm their subjectivity from the simultaneous assertion of feminist self-determination and artistic autonomy. Inmy view, to judge whether Schneemann and Wilke have “beautiful bodies” in order to legitimize their exposure really misses the point of
As an alternative, the performance artists could see their uncovered bodies as naked, sharing the strategies devised by the Naked Girls. It might be impossible for the Girls to claim that, when stripped, their bodies are seen naked and only naked. They have, however, insisted that there are more than one layers to “nakedness.” With a focus on multiplicity, SNNG's project is one of reclamation and excavation. Their performing naked is tantamount to a reclamation of their rights as women artists to be seen without clothing in a theatrical context. Such reclamation is concurrently a confrontation with the many problems and controversies aroused by their naked situation, provoking the performers to excavate deeper and deeper layers of their own nakedness.
By unveiling their bodies, the Girls make them both stronger and more vulnerable. The strength comes from the subjective wills of the artists, who render their bodies artistic by virtue of their presence as matter in performance. Disrobing entirely takes away the mystique: Yes, they are naked. Sowhat? The initial shock provoked by stimulated sights wears off quickly; the strong women are recognized as the strong naked women, and their show goes on. The vulnerability comes from the dangers of uncontrollable audience responses. The naked women have no protection against spectators who could attack their nakedness for fun or for morality. But the women are subject to such danger even when they are not naked—simply performing or simply walking on the streets. The point is not, then, to avoid danger by not exposing the flesh but to take measures against uninvited sexual violence. Indeed, to contemplate how to design such measures is an assignment that the Girls have to contend with when they decide to perform naked. To question why that they need to take on such an assignment just because they were born female is the main purpose of their naked performance.
At this juncture, the Girls are experimenting with what I've analyzed as the first and the most rudimentary layer of nakedness, shameless and without history. The naked bodies placed in performance are the artists, the paintings, and the canvases. As paintings, the artists mock the reductiveness of racial designations with the complexity of their hues. Iftheir flesh and hair of mixed tints are the truth that claims visual attention, then the black, white, brown, and yellow categories of Homo sapiens must be a myth. As canvases, the artists invite the gazing spectators to fantasize about their bodies—with wonder, lust, awe, or surreptitious conscience. But these are canvases equipped with eyes that don'thesitate to gaze back at the gazers. These are canvases that hold paintings
Voyeurism is a game tested by such revenge schemes, recalling one of the dangers of visibility identified by Phelan. Linda Williams in Hard Core defines voyeurism as “unauthorized spying, the ability to be everywhere and to see all that is forbidden, hidden.” The Girls, however, not only authorize but expose the spying. They allow no illusionistic screen to stand between the naked spectacles and their implicated watchers. As much as the Naked Girls invite fantasies with unveiled bodies, they also make the fantasizers self-conscious about their fantasy-genic spying. Between the gazers and the performers being gazed upon and gazing back, there is a two-way optical highway, rather than the (stereotypical) cul-de-sac that captures the voyeuristic object. The gazers are made to earn their vicarious pleasure or guilt in their watching by witnessing not only the women's own pleasure but also the enacted erasure of historical traces from their naked—hence untitled—flesh. Moreover, they are obligated to receive the women's countergaze. In this state of mutual surveillance, the spectators' voyeuristic license is suspended, if not revoked.
In Alice Doesn't, Teresa De Lauretis suggests that concepts such as voyeurism and fetishism “are directly implicated in a discourse which circumscribes woman in the sexual, binds her (in) sexuality, makes her the absolute representation, the phallic scenario.” Under such a patriarchal lens, “woman” is perceived bythe presumed male-identified spectator as a sign, “as scene, rather than subject, of sexuality.” She is a lustworthy object in “a drama of vision, a memory spectacle, an image of woman as beauty—desired and untouchable, desired as remembered.” According to this analysis, “woman” as a voyeuristic and fetishistic target is characterized by her lack of subjectivity, lack of selfwilled desire, and lack of material presence. A passive receptacle of the proprietary gaze, she is destined to be a sexual and beautiful spectacle rather than an aggressive spectacle-maker.
Using De Lauretis's formulation, I argue that the Naked Girls have managed to present a feminist spectacle of transgression that derides the “phallic scenario.” They withhold the colonizing force of male spectatorial desire by making the relationships among themselves their foremost performance condition. They both act and interact as eroticized female subjects. They have chosen to utilize their naked flesh as their respective and collaborative art object/substance, basking in its sensorial gratification without the shadow of social taboos. Their highly individualized bodies mock what Brazell dubs the “airbrushed model” of beauty. They have turned their theater into a moving museum, which curates their female bodies as exhibits of corporeal diversity. Since these Naked Girls do not hesitate to view one another as potential companions or sex partners, their performance boldly solicits the interests of female
32 Sacred Naked Nature Girls, “Power Play” from Untitled Flesh, 1996. Photo: Sushi Performance and Visual Arts Gallery. Courtesy of SNNG.
Back to the stage of Untitled Flesh: Four nude women wander leisurely in the space, surveying their merged territories. They have already domesticated the space with their personal altars. Now they seek to familiarize it with their touch and sight. While they make the space their home, they also search for home in one another. They appraise each other's opulent bodies with relish and delightful surprise. They laugh, flirt, salute one another, locked in embraces. One woman (Meyers) starts chasing another (Uyehara) as a game. She pursues her until both fall to the ground, their bodies contorted in a violent wrestle. The two other women cheer them on until the wrestlers freeze in a sensual pose.
Another scene: Two games of tug-of-war are played by the four Girls in a circle; their two ropes intersect each other to make a cross. They chat randomly about interracial dating and the gender-or-sex-or-race complex, while the ropes gradually pull all four of them closer to the center (fig. 32). Their wars end with a “group squeeze” and a long kiss between one of the mix-raced
These performance segments cut into another layer of nakedness: histori cized nakedness. The women's naked bodies are no longer merely materialistic. They share a nakedness marked by the eccentric rage of patriarchal culture and numbed by patronizing male tastes. What makes the situation intriguing, however, is that the Girls have simultaneously and aggressively turned this condition of nudity into a historicizing force of nakedness. While they survey the remnants of historical wounds on their bodies, they also salvage the beauty in ruins and seize the momentum to make their own history. For their performance has constructed an autonomous realm to acknowledge and accommodate the multifarious female appetites. By procreating a bright room of their own, the Girls reclaim themselves as feminist subjects who desire and are desirable, no matter their color, size, or temperament. Their collaborative actions rewrite the history that privileges male power and write new history that asserts female engagement.
One such history that gets rewritten is the tradition of female nude paintings by male artists. Compare, for example, Pablo Picasso's 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (fig. 33), depicting a bordello on Avignon Street he visited while a student in Barcelona, with a 1994 publicity photo of the Sacred Naked Nature Girls (fig. 34), which includes Bella Hui, at the time a member of the group. Both images present five female nudes—but what a century of difference between them!
LES DEMOISELLES D'AVIGNON
The prostitutes who display their auctionable bodies in Picasso's painting are isolated figures. They direct their somatic charms toward the one who views and paints them, not toward one another. The profile of the figure on the far left suggests an African mask, though a mask without the spirit to enliven it. The figure next to her has an arm bent toward her back, gesturing her compliance. Her other hand pulls up a cloth to partially cover her thigh, so as to tantalize. The next figure to the right shows even less resistance by bending both arms toward the back. The last two figures on the right have
33 Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas, 8′ × 7′8” (243.9 × 233.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York; acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest. Photograph © 1998 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2000 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
André Salmon suggests that these faces in Picasso's painting are “masks almost entirely freed from humanity”and that these figures are essentially “naked problems, white numbers on the blackboard.” With his conceptualization of Les Demoiselles, “Picasso has laid down the principle of the picture-asequation.” Based on Salmon'sobservation, then, the models/prostitutes captured
Leo Steinberg expresses well the sense of scopophiliac seduction characteristic of Les Demoiselles: “The surfacing spaces of Cubism are as irrelevant here as the perspectives of academic art. This is an interior space in compression— like the inside of pleated bellows—and the pressure is hitherward, towards the spectator, one arm's length from the proffered fruit.” Steinberg's thesis finds an echo in James R. Mellow's observation regarding the conflation of two dominant Picasso motifs in Les Demoiselles: the harem and the bordello. Put simply, the nudes in Picasso's paintings are odalisques attending to the artist's sexual fancies.
PORTRAIT FOR SNNG
The SNNG photo offers a diametrically opposed composition. Admittedly, there are intrinsic difficulties in comparing a painting with a photograph, for they are artifices in different media. Picasso's painting is predicated by its incipient cubist abstraction, as is the SNNG photo by its putative naturalism. Yet both images are products, visual representations, of a conscious authorial design. Both carry legible messages that reflect their relations to the artists and to the viewers; these are decipherable messages regardless of the particularities of their chosen media.
The publicity photo designed by SNNG looks like a snapshot for the transmuted Hydra I described earlier. It/She has a proud and luxuriant body composed of five intermingled bodies of women, who peer at the viewers from their pleasure dome. Their sensuous collision incarnates a state of “flesh jubilation,” to borrowthe felicitous phrase of Carolee Schneemann. The different ways with which these women perform their gazes, nonetheless, distinguish them from one another, marking them as individuals who can decide how to relate to their viewers. The women's respective singularities are matched by a will-full interplay among themselves as female subjects: Their bodies are volitional entities that have chosen to attach contiguously and intimately to one another. The five women both consent to and enjoy their sentient collision. Such a group portrait graphically embodies the participants'
34 Promotional photograph of Sacred Naked Nature Girls, 1994, with from top, clockwise: Denise Uyehara, Danielle Brazell, Laura Meyers, Bella Hui, and Akilah Oliver. Photo: Dianne Malley/Helen Garber. Courtesy of SNNG.
Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon falls squarely into the center of Carol Duncan's critique of the aesthetics of power at work in modern erotic art created by male painters. Duncan argues that “the primary motives of modern erotic art” appear to be “the subjugation of the female will,” an act that turns female distress and victimization into “an explicit condition of male pleasure— the artist'sand the viewer's.” She further observes that art-making itself is “analogous to the sexual domination of whores. The metaphor of the penis-aspaintbrush is a revered truth for many twentieth-century artists and art historians.” In other words, when painting the nude damsels-in-distress, Picasso's vision has actually revisited the brothel as a customer who has sought, sized, and found his gratification.
Duncan's feminist reading concurs with Steinberg's nonfeminist analysis of Les Demoiselles. Steinberg locates the revolutionary contribution of Picasso's painting in its break from “the triple spell of tradition—idealization, emotional distance, and fixed-focus perspective—the tradition of high-craft illusionism which conducts the spectator-voyeur unobserved to his privileged seat.” Without idealistic detachment, Les Demoiselles does not profess an “erotic disinterest,” hence making no distinction between “engaged prurience and the contemplation of formal beauty whereby the erotic will to possess was assumed into admiration.” Picasso'spainting is, then, made explicitly for its implied male viewer—as Steinberg phrases it, “The observer's presence, any man's presence, is understood without any man being painted in. Everybody can see that the ladies are having company.”
The ladies in the SNNG photo also have company; they are mainly one another's company. Their bodies layered on top of one another enjoy the sensual stimuli of touch. Their blissful union of tactile surfaces resists their viewers' colonizing intent, even as the picture seduces the viewers to join the artists on Cloud Nine. Their hedonism illustrates Luce Irigaray's exclamation, “But woman has sex organs more or less everywhere. She finds pleasure almost anywhere.” While Picasso'sviewer is historically understood as heterosexual, European, and male or male-identified, the viewer solicited bythe SNNG photo is no longer identified as only male or only Caucasian. The way the Sacred Girls strive to include female spectators and their viewing pleasures in their performance finds an echo in the representational strategy of this publicity photo. As the women shown in the photo have artistic power at their disposal, the female viewers are empowered to fantasize about the artists' and their own sensual delights. The male viewers, on the other hand, can do whatever they desire with the photo. Their actions will have no practical effects on the nude artists who are in control of their photographic demonstration. Indeed, the ultimate distinction between the painting and the photo lies in the artists' control over their artwork: Picasso'sladies are his art objects; the SNNG ladies choose to be their own art objects.
LES DEMOISELLES D/L.A.
A vast difference exists between Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and “Les Demoiselles d/L.A.,” if I may coin a caption—with an ungrammatical slash—for the SNNG publicity photo, simultaneously doubling it as a subtitle for Un titled Flesh. “Les Demoiselles d/L.A.,” a promotional mechanism consciously framed to represent the multicultural ensemble, declares the Girls' entry into the art world as feminist subjects. Although they blatantly seduce the viewers with their flowing contours, they also displace the seduction by foregrounding their own will and joy. Oliver has shrewdly observed that the Naked
From a different angle, Meyers affirms Oliver's remark and comments on how they deal with flesh exposure onstage: “I think the vulnerability has given us, as a group, the responsibility to figure out how to take care of ourselves on stage and, in turn, also how to take care of the audience.” Meyers's notion of “responsibility” provides a key to unlock the transparent door stuck between “erotica and pornography,” which is one of SNNG's theoretical concerns. In essence, I suggest, both erotica and pornography exert bodily expenses: vulnerability; sexual labors incurred by fantasy, masturbation, or intercourse; threats of venereal disease; and so on. Erotica, however, differs from pornography in its ability to yield higher psychophysiological returns to the body. Erotica privileges the pleasures of the flesh, whereas pornography demands the flesh to make pleasures without necessarily honoring the contract of mutual determination. Erotica recognizes the responsibility to take care of the body's interests. On this score, pornography inevitably pales. Pornography therefore contrasts with erotica, both in quality and in quantity, by giving fewer pleasures to the one who serves than to the one being served.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon has the erotic potential only for those viewers who stand outside the frame, looking in. “Les Demoiselle d/L.A.,” conversely, evades the pornographic trap bysecuring first and foremost the “sex” workers' own profits, witnessed both by the women's self-love and by their communal love. Naked Nature Girls have redefined “nature”in this context as unabashed declaration of their sexualities, of their instincts for self-preservation, and of their compassion for transgendered kindred spirits.
Memorials to the Invisible
While the danger and pleasure of representational visibility constitute a major area of the Nature Girls' investigation, their performance also cuts deeper into the flesh to explore “nakedness” in its invisible dimensions.
Jump-cut to a brief scene in Untitled Flesh: A rope lies on the floor. A single naked Asian American woman (Uyehara) walks on it, shakily balancing herself with outstretched arms as if walking a tightrope. An African American woman (Oliver), also naked, cautions her from the side, “I don't know. I wouldn't walk on that thing.” “With people of African roots,” derides the tightrope walker, “there are certain things you can't share.” She proceeds with her action.
Darkness follows for eighty seconds.
A bluish spot light now illuminates the elevated wire-mesh cage upstage. A woman (Brazell) faces us frontally, her exposed body sheltered by the cage. Another spotlight reveals the erstwhile tightrope walker standing with her back toward us. The caged woman starts telling a story about one fine day—the sky is blue, birds are singing, and she is walking, childlike, on a beach. With a few seconds' hesitation, the tightrope walker who hides her face from us also starts telling, in syncopation, her own beach story—of her relaxation and her sensual play with the waves.
The two characters' casually juxtaposed narratives become synchronized when they are both confronted byintruders. The caged woman grabs her own throat violently, yelling out curses in her rapist's voice. Meanwhile, the other woman describes how she conspires with her surprise visitor to succumb to the flesh. The woman under brutal attack is pushed to the ground, driven eventually to a semi-mute state: “Mom, mom …,” she cries. “It was a beautiful day. And I just wanted to go to the fucking beach.” At the same moment, the other woman turns around to address her audience: “Come on, look at me. I just want to have sex.”
This incredibly visceral scene treads the minefield of gender stereotypes. Both characterizations refer to the catalog of female roles circulating in mainstream culture: Brazell's “woman as victim” (when she doesn't want to have sex) versus Uyehara's “woman as vamp” (when she does want to have sex). Brazell and Uyehara allude to those manufactured images of “feminine” behaviors without ironic modifications. In their “straight” performance they seem to have compromised their positions as adversarial feminist commentators on popular culture. Tripling the scene's explosiveness is the fact that both women have literalized the “fates” of those stereotypical roles by performing them live. Brazell's “victim” actually experiences the violation when she enacts the rapist's vengeance by hitting herself on the chest and throwing her body on the floor. Uyehara's “vamp,” on the other hand, simulates the intercourse by gesturing masturbation. Intheir overlaid theater of traumas, they pull no curtains to cover their shames.
The two performers' challenge to the preexisting stereotypes lies in the jux taposition of their parallel actions. The helplessness of Brazell'stableau of pain is countered by the freedom of Uyehara's sudden pageant of pleasure. In this arrangement, we witness the concurrent unfolding of familiar synopses related
In more specific terms, Brazell's “victim” might be recognized as a stereotype, but this recognition would neither protect the woman from being victimized nor prevent similar rapes. The fact that women are usually associated with victimization reflects the horror and frequency of such possibilities. Victimization is, verylikely, a woman'sexperience. The important thing is to stress that it is far from being the only woman's experience. (Nor is it, of course, only women's experience.)
Brazell's stereotype is reframed as only a partial truth by the synchronized staging of another reductive truth: Uyehara's beach seduction scene. Recalling her self-conscious foreshadowing, Uyehara is indeed walking a tightrope in her rape fantasy episode. When she chooses to perform a lustful woman, by virtue of her racial designation, Uyehara cannot but confront the double stereotype of the “vamp” and the “dragon lady.” She seeks liberation from this convoluted sexist-ethnic myth by adopting a deliberate performative strategy. Uyehara performs the episode chiefly with her back toward the audience. The iconographic effects of this spatial design enable her to assert an antagonistic position. In plain sight she ignores, dismisses, and literally turns her back on the audience, which has become, by default, the surrogate propagator of this gender-and-race, vamp-and-dragon-lady stereotype. Then, provocatively, she stretches the limit of this stereotype by embracing it for the benefits of her own sexuality. If she wants “sex,” then sex she will have—the audience be damned. Even so, her voyeuristic spectators are not easily off the hook. She turns around and questions their capacity for tolerance when they themselves become the joke of the moment.
The disturbing performance segments enacted by Brazell and Uyehara inspect a deeper layer of nakedness: internalized nakedness. Their dramas comment on the state of nudity as an inverted psychological condition when their naked selves are caught unprepared, seized without consent. While the invading others cut so swiftly and relentlessly to their cores, their flesh is exposed, stripped of the skin. Brazell's character reveals the “natural” vulnera-bility of women because of their—statistically—lesser and weaker physiques.
Another section in Untitled Flesh consists of numerous collaged independent actions. A nude brunette (Brazell) crawls slowly on the floor, spitting out obscenities interlaced with biblical phrases. Her crawling is occasionally intercepted by an African American dominatrix (Oliver), who belts out recollected horrors from the history of slavery while hitting the floor with a whip. The brunette climbs up to the cage and becomes an exotic dancer, her torso bathed under an eerie red light. Another nude (Meyers) poses as a bodybuilder, flexing her muscles.
The performance configurations gradually shift in tone. The exotic dancer, now wasted, squats in a stupor. The bodybuilder repeatedly throws her torso against the floor. To the side, a mixed-race lesbian couple (Uyehara and Oliver) is engaged in a sadomasochistic ritual: the African American dominatrix is chased by her kneeling Asian American partner, who spanks her with a whip and pursues her up a ladder raised from a circle of stones and withered leaves. The image presents a distorted amalgam of biblical parables: a mock crucifixion by “Jacob's ladder.” The defiant martyr portrayed by Oliver does not call upon her Father for mercy; rather, she chants her own apotheosis: “I decide to call myself Jezebel. I decide to change my name. I call myself Jezebel Pussy.”
With the overlaid presentations of various probable scenarios, the cacophonous quartet challenges the totalizing force of stereotypes. The interactive S/M drama and the two solo actions encompass an array of emotional ramifications concerning women's experiences. The episodes are vaguely related to one another, creating a sense of disorder similar to Michel Foucault's analysis of the disturbing “heterotopias” as “the disorder in which alarge number of possible orders glitter separately, in the lawless and uncharted dimension of the heteroclite; and that word should be taken in its most literal etymological sense; in such a state, things are ‘laid,’ ‘placed,’ ‘arranged’ in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a common place beneath them all.” The “common place” lost in the disparate episodes of Untitled Flesh is the sanctified “universal truth” about female sexuality. The manifested disorder coming out of these coexisting incompatible scenes
Thematically, these collaged actions tackle the multifarious structures of relations that women have with their internal and external worlds. Such feminist themes, combined with the method of juxtaposition, allude to a particular strain of 1970s feminist/redressive performance in L.A. Ablutions (1972), for example, was also created collectively by four women artists. It likewise included a duet, with a woman methodically winding gauze around another's body, and two solos—a woman nailing beef kidneys on the rear wall; another taking a bath in three tubs filled consecutively with egg yoke, blood, and clay. Inthe meantime, the soundtrack was a recording of women'stestimonies about being raped. Toward the end of their heterogeneous actions, the performers were bound by a mess of ropes into immobility (see fig. 5 in Chapter 1).
Despite the similarities in their performance methods, what distinguishes SNNG's work from its feminist predecessors is its aspiration to diversity. SNNG's heterogeneity is biographically reflected by its members' divergent sexual identities. SNNG has further complicated its feminist politics to incorporate diverse ideological positions. In Ablutions the women are united by their joined protests against victimization; their possible differences are downplayed. The raw beef kidneys, the blood-drenched female body, and the cocooned figure all condemn patriarchal society's abusive sexism—the vicious violence of rape. There is no such clear-cut alliance by victimization in Un titled Flesh.
The sadomasochistic ritual played out between Oliver and Uyehara most overtly transgresses the preexisting mode of feminist collective art. The two women, divided by their ethnicities and sexual roles, adopt the prey/predator dynamics in their sexual games, consciously alternating between aggressive and passive positions. Although their erotic ritual might not be endorsed by all, theirs is a carnal partnership sanctified by individual resolve and mutual contract. Given our present social circumstances, however, such personal sanctity can be tolerated only as long as the practitioners keep their erotic roleplaying within the private realm. Once the S/M act appears in public, the intimation of perversity immediately scandalizes the occasion, making it a public health or ethics hazard. By representing an S/M rite in performance, the Sacred Naked Girls deliberately provoke the audience's reactions. The spectators who witness the rite may feel the urge to judge. Their moral judgments can go at least three ways: to understand, to reserve disapproval, or to condemn. But they cannot remain sedated.
Through the “outrageous” ritual enacted by a mixed-race minority cou-ple, Untitled Flesh forces open a space of ambivalence unavailable to a piece like Ablutions. Ablutions demands social justice as an appropriate response to
The performance segments under discussion examine yet another interior layer of nakedness: nakedness as cultural memory or, in Oliver's insightful term, as “flesh memory,” a concept she invented during her former association with LAPD. Observing LAPD rehearsals, Oliver noticed that, though most members did not write down their scripts, they would usually repeat similar lines and physical movements in similar improvised situations. Our bodies, Oliver suggestes, absorb our own histories and trajectories as “flesh memories”:
There is a text, a language, a mythology, a truth, a reality, an invented reality as well as a literal translation of everything that we've ever experienced and known, whether we know it directly or know it through some type of genetic memory, whether through osmosis or our environment. Our body holds its own truth and its own reality that may or may not correspond directly with what actually transpired in any given situation. We are trying to tap into the multiplicity of languages and realities that our flesh holds.
This definition of “flesh memory” is informed by an inclusive philosophy. For Oliver, “flesh” refers to the body as an open receptor of all experiences— “the multiplicity of languages and realities”—that pass through its sensory field. As she identifies these experiences with “memory,” she places them in an elusive realm permeable by factual and fictitious information, cerebral and somatic knowledge. She packs the two words together and coins a term, “flesh memory.” The neologism conflates the conventional distinctions between “flesh” as a physical property and “memory” as a mental attribute.
“Flesh memory” is a major concept for SNNG's work. It also provides the ensemble with an improvisational method. SNNG's discipline, then, lies in sensitizing the artists' “imaginary bodies,” to borrow an illuminating notion from Moira Gatens. Through rehearsals and performances, the Sacred Naked Girls strive to heighten the elastic capacities of the mind-flesh-body-heart that remembers, ad-libs, alludes, appropriates, and freely associates.
Oliver'sreferences to “genetic memory,” “osmosis,” and “environment” are ideas culled from natural science disciplines such as biology, chemistry, and ecology. Her statement sketches out a conceptual framework supported by metaphors, loose analogies, and the theme-oriented accumulation of ideas. Her eclectic methodology enthralls me because of the assertion that she can
This sequence of reasoning becomes especially poignant considering that Oliver is African American. Her claim to ownership by participation pointedly evokes the history of African Americans' enslavement. Her ability to assume intellectual authority contrasts with the lack of freedom suffered by her ancestors who, being “American residents” forcefully imported from Africa, were not even allowed to own literacy. Within this context, the hegemonic intent implied by Oliver's act of universal appropriation becomes a strategy of resistance against the Anglo-American cultural hegemony. When she performs the S/M ritual, her theorization explodes with the rage of direct accusation. As Marianne Dresser points out, “the erotics of bondage and domination” treated in the scene quickly “transmute[s] into an examination of the historical roots of S/M paraphernalia in chattel slavery.” Oliver has clinched the two references by spewing memories of slavery with a whip in her hand.
Both the site and source of flesh memory, the naked bodies enlisted by performance generate their own creative energies. Oliver explains further: “Flesh memory is more than just memory, it's the way we re-invent scenarios and worlds and languages and images to transcribe what we see, what we feel, what wethink. It'salanguage that'sactivated in our bodies.” Flesh memory implies, then, an active agent who selects cultural experiences and programs them into art, as opposed to a passive receptacle of inert information. The body where flesh memories lodge digests experiential data to fabricate story-truth, if not true stories. Inthis light, the notion of flesh memory echoes what Antonin Artaud has proposed as the “sempiternal” self: “that is, a self that moves and creates itself at every instant.” The Girls' choice of improvisations in their training and performance suggests more than a stylistic preference; it is a methodology that—ideally—compels them to evolve “sempiternally” during every collaborative encounter.
In one aspect, the “sacredness” conjured up by the Sacred Naked Girls' untitled flesh arises from this very desire for instantaneous creativity embodied by their sempiternal being. In another aspect, their sacredness comes from self-affirmation. A striking example of the latter is what I've described as Oliver's“mock crucifixion by Jacob'sladder.” Oliver conducts her martyrdomcum-apotheosis by chanting a litany that both condemns the misogyny of Christian theology and renames herself. Up on that phallic ladder, she expe-riences the passion induced by the ongoing S/M rite. Oliver's Passion, then, springs from carnal sensations made spiritual by the “sacred” situation. There
Through storytelling, chanting, and body-painting ritual, the last movement of Untitled Flesh treats the theme of sacredness by self-affirmation, a motif that echoes Oliver's ladder rhapsody. The Sacred Nature Girls roll out an oblong carpet on the floor. They move various objects on it: flowers, bowls of fruits, stones—all products from Nature. They kneel on the carpet and pour little piles of colored mud-paints among the flowers and the stones. Applying the paint to their face and bodies, they chant in unison, “I'm sacred. I'm sacred. I'm sacred because I'm aging. I'm sacred because I really like to eat. I'm sacred because I cry… ” The refrains about individual sanctity gradually involve the audience: “You're sacred. You're sacred. You're sacred…” By the act of naming, the Girls attempt to reach a holy fellowship with the audience.
With streaks of paint on their flesh, the Sacred Nature Girls align themselves on the carpet. They tell the audience a story about a sacred place for women where residents all have scars on their bodies: they all lack a tongue, an arm, a breast, or an ovary. “Some of them have incredible colors,” joke the Girls, “with matching-color fruits.” These legendary matriarchs are surrounded by flowers, plants, and anything that grows, so that they “won't ever forget how beautiful they are.” The Girls stand up, salute one another, admiring the paint marks that have scarred their bodies. They mingle with spectators, offering them flowers and fruits, and praise everyone: “You are beautiful.” “They realize that they are warriors,” the Girls continue, “and that they are beautiful.”
This fervent symphony of utopian affirmation pays homage to a mosaic of myths/histories from ancient Greece to the United States of the 1970s. SNNG's storyland floats between the island of Lesbos, where the poet Sappho once lived, and the kingdom of the Amazons, whose warriors each traded one breast for greater archery skill. The Girls' body-painting and scarification echo two groundbreaking performances in New Yorkin 1975: Carolee Schneemann's Interior Scroll, in which the artist applied paint-marks to her nude body and extracted a winding parchment from her vagina, and Hannah Wilke's Starification Object Series (S.O.S.), in which the artist scarred her nude body with vagina-shaped chewing-gum remains. Inaddition, what the Sacred Nature Girls term their collective “body journeys” recall two other modes of feminist
THE L.A. HERITAGE
I've compared SNNG's performance to Ablutions, a well-known piece from the region's feminist performance tradition. Untitled Flesh also bears resemblance to another performance from the 1970s: She Who Would Fly (1977), a tripartite installation created by Suzanne Lacy as part of her extended largescale performance event Three Weeks in May (see fig. 13 in Chapter 3). Both pieces feature four nude women with body paintings aligning themselves together; both deal with the mutilation of women's bodies. The two works nevertheless differ in their attitudes toward such mutilation. Lacy's piece condemns rapacious brutality against women. In the grip of extreme hardships, the four women who represent all rape victims are reduced to a catatonic state; their solidarity is one forged bycommon suffering. Untitled Flesh, on the other hand, shifts the focus from protest to recovery, from the ordeal of bearing physical and emotional distress to the possibilities of healing. She Who Would Fly censures the disgrace of female subjugation; Untitled Flesh depicts the multiplicities of female desire. Through the retelling of their feminist legends, the Girls turn the evidence of women's scarification into a testimony of their endurance. Their protest against violence against women consists in their refusal to succumb to despair and their insistence on the flesh's tenacity. While both pieces convey powerful political statements, Untitled Flesh, a 1990s feminist performance, highlights both self-resolution and community interaction as the means against oppression.
As the Sacred Nature Girls assert, victimization is only a temporary state from which the injured party must recover in order to carry on living. They encourage women to perceive their bodies in terms of “Nature,” which is tender and cruel, vigorous and annihilating at various moments. Their messages have both ethical and pragmatic overtones, urging women to recognize that even if they do suffer from physical and social disadvantages, their lives are far from being determined by their biology. Just as birth guarantees the prospects of decay, disease, and death, so tribulations are life's given. The experience of pain must not invalidate the body's curative capabilities: its flexibility, resilience, and recuperability. Like nature, the body restores itself with time; any revival is possible before death. There is “a strength in vulnerability,” maintains Brazell, “a strength in the wounds and the scars,” for they are “like medals of valor” to honor women's survival. With this accent on survival rather than on the violent deed, SNNG identifies the appropriation and transcendence of pain with triumph.
A sense of public responsibility fuels the stubborn optimism of SNNG's
THE GODDESS TRADITION
The Girls' construction of the sacred links their efforts with the feminist foremothers whose performances of the late 1970s featured Great Goddess archetypes. According to Gloria Orenstein, artists such as Schneemann, Mary Beth Edelson, Ana Mendieta, and Betsy Damon regarded the use of Goddess motifs in their works as the catalyst for a rebirth of women's culture: “In its modern transformed meaning, it is about the mysteries of woman's rebirth from the womb of historical darkness, in which her powers were so long enshrined, into a new era where a culture of her own making will come about as a result of a new Earth Alchemy.” The means of reaching this “Earth Alchemy” include the assumption of a “holistic mind-body totality” that reflects Goddess consciousness, “the repossession of the female visionary faculties” through “intuitive body-knowledge,” the restoration of “the spirit already inherent in the natural world,” and the “exaltation of natural energies” as the power of the Goddess. The female body and Nature are the two recurrent themes emerging from Orenstein's analysis, which is echoed by SNNG's practice of “flesh memory.” Between the Girls and their “sacred” precursors, we see a common emphasis on female body art. These artists have chosen to make their bodies an indispensable artistic component, reflecting the holistic flesh/consciousness model of corporeality explicated by Orenstein. Their common feminist purpose lies in repudiating the “cultural dominance of the masculine archetype, characterized by a mind-body duality.”
The Goddess-archetype practitioners adopt a literal understanding of “Nature,” taking it to be the embodiment of Earth Goddess. In their exuberant celebration of Mother Nature's sacred beauty, they have contributed to what Fritjof Capra has promulgated as the new paradigm of perception, “a holistic worldview” that he terms “deep ecology”: “Deep ecological awareness recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena and the fact that, as individuals and societies, we are all embedded in (and ultimately dependent on) the cyclical processes of nature.” The artists who perform Goddess rituals consider themselves an element of nature, attempting to retrieve natural splendors with their art. Their efforts have shed light on an ecological awareness leading to contemporary environmental concerns.
The Sacred Nature Girls' performance quilt of feminist legends pays tribute
The Girls have expanded the corpus of “Nature” by the same principle with which they have multiplied every other concept: “Naked”—“Girls”—[playing in]—“Nature”—[and acting/being]—“Sacred.” The Girls' interpretation of Nature appears to have swallowed up the slash between Nature/Culture, together with the body of Culture itself. They have managed to elide the feminist debates about essentialism by refusing to acknowledge that a dichotomy exists between nature and culture. Their refusal to identify a female essence with a single ideological front has in effect nullified the anti-essentialist critique. In its approach to the tremulous explosion of desire, to the internalized bruises of history, and to the capacities of the flesh/consciousness to remember and rejuvenate, SNNG has marked Culture as the scars of Nature.
The above chain of signifying sequences leads us to the culmination of the Girls' pilgrimage to the sacred. As Oliver states, “I like to try to marry the sacred and the profane. What I call the profane is life with its ugliness, scars, all of that. There is a sacredness in the profane, a spirit in material, and they intermarry, they don't separate from one another.” SNNG's methodological rigor lies in its insistence on “intermarrying” radically varied concepts. It is a rigor earned by the Girls' consistent repudiation of monolithic uniformity and by their advocacy of the beneficial unification of differences. To phrase it in a more “culturally scarred” terminology, to intermarry is to perform the act of miscegenation. SNNG's social vision, in this sense, proposes a literal writing of multiculturalism on the natural body of contemporary culture. My reading suggests that the multiethnic constitution of SNNG has a more embodied (imbued in flesh) reason than the superficial (only skin-deep) pursuit of the fashion called L.A. multiculturalism. They perform the invisible from the visible and journey deeper into the invisible to section multiple terrains from surface to core.
For this feminist quartet, “sacredness” initially comes with the ceremony of intermarrying among its triracial and multiethnic members. The health of SNNG as a collaborative unit, then, depends on its partners' continuous emotional and physical commitments to their artistic miscegenation. It requires constant effort to sustain the original sacredness. Meyers has emphasized the interpersonal engagement among the Girls as the cohesive force: We “learn to trust, that's where our magic comes from and that's what's most sacred.”
At this moment, however, since the Girls have decided unanimously to
The last action in Untitled Flesh adds a physical footnote to Meyers's statement. It also demonstrates performatively what I've called the many-headed, newly evolved Hydra/SNNG. The Sacred Naked Nature Girls stand in various corners of their performance field. Disorienting lights flash in darkness, illuminating parts of the women's bodies alternately and intermittently. The frequency of the flashes creates an optical illusion that these women are more than four bodies; they are a multitude. They chant the opening refrain, “Will you catch me?” Their increasingly intense polyphony of overlapping monologic calls creates an auditory illusion that they are really of one giant body. There is a seamless coextension between the air, the light and darkness, the edges of their personal altars, and the fluent skin of their flesh.
The sacredness of unifying diverse multitudes arises from the balance between intersubjectivity and composite subjectivity. Such balance, nevertheless, subsists tenuously and fleetingly, in a state of transport, manifested as a mutable, performative utopia.