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Lacy Some of Her Own Medicine

Author(s): Lucy R. Lippard

Source: TDR (1988-), Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring, 1988), pp. 71-76
Published by: The MIT Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1145869
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Some of Her Own Medicine

Lucy R. Lippard

I have long admired the generous and almost evangelical expansiveness

of Suzanne Lacy's work. She is one of the few performance artists who has

been able to get off the stage and into the streets without sacrificing her

experimental integrity and striking imagery. Combined with her commit-

ment to feminist issues, this has resulted in some of the most imaginative

and powerful "political" art in the last decade.1

It is also unique in the way Lacy maintains strict control over form,

outlines the content, then hands the "coloring in" process over to her

performers/collaborators. In her early pieces she symbolically and literally

gave away parts of herself and collected parts of others (sometimes in

vampire guise); then she collaborated with Asian and Black women, took

on the personae of aged and destitute women. When she began her large-

scale participatory organizational pieces in 1977, Lacy abandoned neither

the "witch" who presided over those first years, nor her efforts to charm

and control. She turned, however, to the beneficent and outreaching aspect

of her collective persona. In a 1976 artist's book-Falling Apart-she told

stories of physical damage recalled from childhood; to enter the book, one

has to unwind and unwind an ace bandage that serves as its cover (or its

swaddling clothes, or its shroud). If Lacy's dark side offered personal

exorcism, the light side offers an overtly healing power to the women's

community. Her long-standing preoccupation with her elders can be seen

as a quest for personal growth and maturity.

Lacy remarked several years ago how much feminist art is about healing.

Creativity and the arts are often cited as healing powers in psychic litera-

ture, as well as in native and ancient religious experience. Performance art,

however, has more often provided an audience with a passive than an

active collective experience. What distinguishes Lacy's work is the months,

even years, of preparation with the participants-a crucial element in the

process of empowerment that ensues.

Some comments made by audience members and performers when I

interviewed them after The Crystal Quilt:

As an almost older woman myself, life is changing for us so much,

and I expect to be part of these changes.

These are very important times for older women. I still work, and

play singles tennis. This-what happened today-is what I am look-

ing forward to as I approach 65. I want to be a part of it.


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72 Lucy R. Lippard

1. As each group was seated

they folded back the black

table cover, revealing red or

yellow cloths. Miriam Scha-


piro's Crystal Quilt (1987)



design was realized by Jean-

nie Spears and members of

the Minnesota Quilters As-

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sociation. (Photo by Terry


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We could just feel the energy when we had our hands on the table.

Many women don't see themselves as leaders or heroines, even when

they are. So to have other people recognize their lives is very im-


Aging with beauty and dignity is not only necessary, it's possible.

I am definitely going to keep on with the group, move around the

state, beyond our own little nutshells.

I hate hearing all this war and death and shootings and all that crap; I

want to encourage young people to be positive.

And some comments from Susan Stone's sound collage that accom-

panied the performance:

Now that I'm 70, I'm developing a new career.

All our lives have been preparation for the stage we're in now.

As you approach your exit, I think your response to stimuli is

intensified and your life gets richer.

I feel like I need to live about two years more to bring in my crop

before the frost, as I call it. I've got three books to finish . . . but

that's a patriarchal statement too. Women don't finish things.

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Suzanne Lacy 73

Lacy has not usually been perceived as a "spiritual" feminist because she

has not explicitly resorted to "ancient" imagery. Because of the social form

and focus of her art, prevailing dualisms within the art market have

categorized her as "political" as though political and spiritual were mutu-

ally exclusive. Her imagery rarely refers to "nature" in the environmental

sense; she has never made a case for the female identity with and of the

earth. Yet her deep and consistent concern for the lives and spirits of

women in (and on the peripheries of) this society implicitly involves a

respect for the mythical levels of her subjects. And it would be impossible

to deal with transformation-which is her primary goal-without ac-

knowledging the psyche. Lacy works, dangerously, with anger and love,

violence and empowerment. Like a shaman, as an artist she is trained in the

cultivation of mental imagery; but like a shaman and unlike most contem-

porary artists, she has taken on the additional task of rendering "the visions

themselves into culturally utilizable form" (Michael Harner in Doore

1987:9) for the good of the larger community rather than for personal

enlightenment alone.

Lacy confronts power with power. The "power of positive thinking" is

not the invention of mealy-mouthed popular religions that ignore eco-

nomic and political reality, but is a belief system that connects to ancient

means of combating evil and encouraging good. For some 20,000 years at

least, the gifted people in most cultures have set great store by the strength

of consciousness itself.

One individual is more important than you have ever dreamed,

however, for the intensity and intent are important. One person pas-

sionately willing good or evil can overbalance literally a hundred

people ("Seth" in Roberts 1987:279). Only when you operate from

your own stance can you help others to the best of your ability. To

anticipate danger, or to imaginatively take on the troubles of others

robs you of the very energy with which you could help them. I am

not saying, therefore, to turn your eyes from the unfortunate condi-

tions of the world. Practical help is needed in all areas of human life.

Yet it is far better, and more practical ultimately, to concentrate

upon the beneficial elements of civilization-far better to organize

your thoughts in areas of accomplishment than to make mental lists

of man's deficiencies and lacks ("Seth" in Roberts 1977:214).

One of the ways Lacy connects body and personal experience to broader

social experience is by utilizing, more or less unselfconsciously, the

significant ritual process of eating. At the same time that she and Leslie

Labowitz were producing their impressive public media campaigns aimed

at the heart of the dominant culture, Lacy began to use the large, but

private dinner party as a feminist organizing vehicle. (This choice was an

oblique homage to her mentor, Judy Chicago, and also harked back to the

days when sharing food was incorporated into political meetings and quilt-

ing parties-another metaphor adopted and expanded by feminist artists.)

The potentially edible lamb carcass (coincidentally a Christ symbol)

haunted Lacy's early work; sometimes the concept of pars pro toto-the part

standing for the whole-applies to her use of animal viscera and her own

"blood and guts," a means of turning herself inside out.

The potluck dinner format is a classically feminist collage. It brings

together a highly disparate group of women and their culinary "offerings."

In pieces like River Meeting, or Immigrants and Survivors, Lacy created a

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74 Lucy R. Lippard

ritual ambience in a very contemporary manner, leaving her frame open

enough so that like the pot itself it can hold whatever ingredients the

women bring to it. Women who would never come to a meeting because

they feel they "have nothing to contribute" will bring food to a potluck.

Women traditionally allow the rest of the world to feed off their own

bodies and lives, as epitomized by a Tlingit potlatch trough (owned by the

Denver Museum of Natural History) in the form of a huge, disemboweled

female body. Embraced by the healing framework of Lacy's art, women

"make sacrifices" only to each other, and for the good of the female com-


Lacy the artist, however, is also greedy. Individual appetite is also satis-

fied, especially the need to see her vision made concrete. She partakes of

these multiplicitous meals to expand the self, giving on one hand and

taking on the other. Unable to understand or encompass the experiences of

all women-from different races, classes, ages, and temperaments-she

has consumed them in symbolic bites. Her childhood vampire dreams and

the early pieces in which she sported a pair of fangs are not inapplicable to

this assimilation of other women's power as they "help themselves" to (or

with) her power.

The two "Whisper Projects"- Whisper, the Waves, the Wind (1984) in La

Jolla and the Whisper Minnesota Project/The Crystal Quilt (1987)-were

abstracted from the dinner party form. The women still sat at tables to-

gether, but the food was for thought. In San Diego, potluck became nature

itself as the white-clad women sat at ease in the elements; in Minneapolis,

2. A choreographed "laying potluck became patchwork as the black-clad women brought "home" to

on of hands" altered the an impersonal corporate environment. Revealing red and yellow geomet-

Crystal Quilt pattern.

(Photo by Peter Latner)

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3. The audience joined the

ric patterns on black tables, then adding the "human element" by altering

Crystal Quilt performers in

those patterns through a choreographed "laying on of hands," they created

mutual applause. (Photo by

a visual accompaniment, or sign language, to the soundtrack of their lives:

Peter Latner)

Susan Stone's audiotape with its loons crying, church bells ringing, and

older women speaking boldly for themselves.

The difficult part-perhaps the impossible part for art as we know it

today, even at its most inspired-is to discover how to move from symbol

to effect. Most artists abdicate the latter from the start. Activist artists like

Lacy have resisted the notion that art stops at the gallery/museum/

magazine door, while acknowledging that its effectiveness is neither sepa-

rate from nor the same as political effectiveness. Within the debates around

these issues lie the conflicts many artists feel between individual and mass

consciousness, or "self indulgence" and "social responsibility." Lacy's

background in psychology and community organizing prepared her better

than most to respect art's function in the social realm, to assume a directo-

rial or editorial role in order to release the suppressed energies of others.

These multiple energies don't just disappear into the ether. Lacy herself is

recipient of the power generated as much as her participants and audiences.

Emile Durkheim's view that only the intensity of collective life can awaken

individuals to new achievements, that society itself is a creative power, led

him to write some 70 years ago: "the idea of society is the soul of religion"


Yet for all its dispersal, or radiation, Lacy's individual vision remains

central. She takes her chosen diversity and forms a new hybrid: a multiple

self. Thus she gets to be one woman and all-women: the maid, the bride,

and the hag; the light and the dark madonna.

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76 Lucy R. Lippard

As Roth points out in her article in this issue, the last time Lacy used her

animal totem-the lamb's carcass-was in Las Vegas in a piece with the

suggestive title There Are Voices in the Desert (1978). Like its predecessor-

She Who Would Fly (1977) (another "shamanic" title)-that performance

was an exorcism in which women released their own painful stories about

rape. In the first, the central image was the flayed lamb in midair, spread-

ing great, white, feathered wings; in the second the carcass sported feath-

ered plumes. Mircea Eliade wrote: "The mythology and rites of magical

flight peculiar to shamans and sorcerers confirm and proclaim their tran-

scendence in respect to the human condition" (in Furst 1973:45). Lacy's

own metaphors of flight and freedom, like most feminist art in its broadest

sense, are attempts to transcend the female human condition, and in the

process to heal the wounds of history.

The ultimate image: when everyone had left after The Crystal Quilt (in

which some participants were in wheelchairs and one was "plugged in" to

a sustaining device), there remained on one of the tables a set of teeth.


i. It's thanks to Moira Roth's generosity that this article is seeing the light. Al-

though, curiously, we arrived independently at the shaman parallel, it was hear-

ing about and then reading a rough draft of her ideas that gave some form to the

"multiple self" ideas I still hope to fully explore.


Doore, Gary

1987 "The Ancient Wisdom in Shamanic Cultures." In Shamanism, com-

piled by Shirley Nicholson. Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Pub-

lishing House.

Durkheim, Emile

1965 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: The Free Press.

Furst, Peter T.

1973 "The Roots and Continuities of Shamanism." Artscanada nos. 184-

187 (December 1973-January 1974):50-5I.

Lacy, Suzanne

1976 Falling Apart. Los Angeles: Self-published.

Roberts, Jane

1977 Psyche: Its Human Expression. New York: Prentice-Hall.

1987 Dreams and Projections of Consciousness. Walpole, NH: Stillpoint Pub-


Lucy R. Lippard is a writer and activist who has published one novel and thirteen

books on contemporary art. She is a cofounder of Heresies, Printed Matter,

PADD, and Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America.

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