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