AN OPEN LETTER ON THE SUBJECT OF RITUALby Kara L. Rooney
HAPPENINGS: 1958 – 1963
THE PACE GALLERY | FEBRUARY 10 – MARCH 17, 2012
When we speak of ritual, what exactly is it that we are speaking of? Is ritual something, an action or a thought, that we come to of our own volition? Or is it something forced upon us—a deep-seated template for engaging with the world, embedded within the psyche via a multitude of childhood experiences and repeated social conditionings—something that we as adults have internalized to the point of sublimation? Do we have control over ritual or are we its captives? Which leads me to my next question: Is it possible to call oneself an artist (or a writer, for that matter) without the presence and practice of ritual? Can ritual, in contrast with its inherent status as a purveyor of order, also be realized as a form of rebellion?
Allan Kaprow, is this what you had in mind when you created the score for your seminal “18 Happenings in 6 Parts” (1959/2008)? With your hundreds of pages of scripted text, hand-built stage set of false rooms, individually cued index cards, and the melodious clang of a bell to denote shifts in the performance, from an outsider’s perspective, your work may have seemed about the meticulous reconstruction of order (and banality) in everyday life; however, that the performers were allowed to execute said actions according to their own internal timetable—that they were not cognizant of the exploit assigned to them that was to follow—opened up the possibility of chance, and in it the form of rebellion I identify as being paramount to your conceptual ideals. Or Claes Oldenberg, with your systematic, visceral messes, such as those performed at the Judson Church in 1960, all transgression, primitiveness, and vice: How were these examples of organized chaos and repetition located for you in the male conscience? Were your motivations and comprehensions different from those of your female counterparts, as in Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy (1964) or her Newspaper Event (1963)? With only a handful of photographs and video, recently on display at Pace Gallery, remaining to document these events (coupled with photography’s notoriously slippery mode of truth telling), we may never know—yet I can’t help but ruminate further on the topic, particularly in regards to the ostensibly gender-based group dynamics of the Happenings movement (a majority of the exhibition at Pace documents a predominantly male contingent as having comprised Happenings’ main players) versus the solitary actions of female performance artists of the 1970s who were to follow.
Marina Abramović, for example, can you tell me more about your staunch integration of ritual—physical, violent, and brutal in its actions? Do the acts themselves hold cathartic sway over your aesthetic intentions, released via an exorcism of pain? Or Ana Mendieta, in your Santería-inflected sequences such as Untitled (Death of a Chicken), from 1972? What portion of these performances are located in your history and identification with being a woman and where, if a notion such as this can be separated at all, does your sense of awareness as an artist first begin? What about you, Laurie Anderson, and your street performances of the early ’70s, in which you brought the men of N.Y.C.’s Lower East Side to account for their lewd commentary via the lens of your ever wielded Nikon? How did such ritualistic acts affect your comprehension of artmaking, particularly in terms of language and the personalized texts that accompanied the work?
Can ritual also be something beautiful and unplanned, as in the free flow of color in a Helen Frankenthaler painting or the gestural whimsy of a Pollock? Is anything truly ever given over to chance, the genuinely spontaneous act, or is there always some aspect of ritual involved, unavoidable, like a forgotten memory or patterned affect that, no matter how hard we may try, inevitably informs the outcome?
Happenings, I have to conclude, cannot happen outside of the presence of this dialectical doppelgänger. As actions, Happenings only emerge through the act of resistance—resistance against time, organization, objecthood—but they are simultaneously ritualized in their performative, and even magical, appeal. They are the magician’s practiced sleight-of-hand, the raw dress rehearsal, the bedlam behind the curtain. We as the audience can only experience such events, or even the documentation of said events, as theater—as theatergoers who, like ticket-holders to a Broadway production, anxiously await the unfolding of a narrative. Denouement aside, even when such actions defy the linearity of conventional storytelling, there remains a beginning, middle, and end to the works. The ritual of narrative (arguably the most powerful ritual of all) is embedded within the structure of the event itself. In art, as in life, we cannot escape it. It is always there, omnipresent in its command, lurking amidst even our most valiant attempts at spontaneity and discord.
Kara L. Rooney