Seven Cycles: Public Rituals

Introductory essay: "Fire and Stone: Politics and Ritual"

by Lucy R. Lippard

Mary Beth Edelson’s work arises from Feminism’s double strength. Like the Great Goddess to whom she has dedicated her art, she has (at least) two aspects – political rage and life-giving affirmation. The two merge in an individual identification with the collective ego: “Women exploring who ‘we are’ and not who ‘I am” as she puts it. For a decade Edelson has opened her art to the dreams, ideas, desires and responses of friends and audiences, offering a collaborative meeting place with life rare in the contemporary art scene. In 1971, she invited twenty two friends to suggest a piece they would like her to execute. The resulting exhibition – “22 Others” at the Henry Gallery in Washington D.C. – would be seen as “conceptual” but far more significantly, it was an early instance of the now familiar feminist rejection of the single image, single focus, single style imposed by the dominant mainstream arts. Edelson’s Story Gathering Boxes, also begun in 1971, are similar vehicles of exchange with her public, a welcome to diversity and a farewell to the selfish egotism of the star system. She gives visitors to the gallery or museum her art, and they respond with renewed source material from their own lives. The stories include Blood Mysteries, Sexual Fantasies, Artists’ Dreams, Mother Stories, Father Stories and Traveling Stories. The wooden boxes and their painted settings are attractive objects in themselves, but their contents are their content.

Such flexibility and sensitivity to communication was not fashionable in an art world that emphasized big names and denied audience experience and participation. Edelson helped change that. Like other feminist artists in the early 1970’s, especially those on the West Coast, she understood that women’s lives, psyches and sexualities were positively multiple, and that the release of this multiplicity was a political act. It turned out that a huge number of women artists had been doing “more than one thing at once,” but because of artworld tabus were reluctant to publicly exhibit such private variety. In the early 70’s we all struggled against to notion that an artist who couldn’t narrow herself down simply couldn’t “make up her mind,” was immature, or “to fragmented” to decide how to “penetrate” the art world effectively. Gradually we began to theorize concretely about our inclination toward “collage” impact, and to understand how natural it was for us to do so in simultaneously diverse styles and mediums. Edelson’s “22 Others” was an exemplary “fusion of consciousness” with her audience; it provided not only an amusing bridge between intention and product but also points of departure for a decade’s work, suggesting ideas and symbols that she would have arrived at far more slowly without collaboration. Feminism’s central contribution to recent art, then, has not been a single line, but a web of patterns and structures that underlie more superficial intentions. Feminist art has been describe as an art that “raises consciousness, invites dialogue and transforms culture” (Arlene Raven and Ruth Iskin); as “a political position, a set of ideas about the future of the world, which includes information about the history of women and our struggles and recognition of women as a class. It is also developing new art forms and a new sense of audience” (Suzanne Lacy). These are precisely Edelson’s goals. Like other feminist artists across the country, she has redefined the meaning of “new” to include psychological as well as formal innovation, and to disregard historical boundaries that have little to do with female experiences.

Edelson’s symbolic images, like her participatory rituals, restore forgotten feelings and ideas. Her forms and structures make then familiar to us in contemporary contexts while at the same time acknowledging the bonds that lead back to the past, down into the unconscious change in character of art in society. The tree major structures feminism has contributed to recent art have been ( in oversimplified form): ritual; collaborative/anonymous/collective methods of art-making and responding to audiences; and public media strategies designed to change the image of female experience. Edelson has worked with all three. It would be misleading to overemphasize her resurrection in Jungian Great Goddess imagery without also noting the variety of ways in which she has treated the basic issue of female power. She re-mythologizes at the same time she de-mythologizes. For instance, her poster series, beginning with Some Living Artists (women artists replacing the participants in Leonardo’s Last Supper), employs a subversive sense of humor to combat dominant ideologies. Just as she wasn’t afraid to transform Jesus into Georgia O’Keeffe, she wasn’t afraid to transform Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Nevelson into Mary Beth Edelson – in a triple photo portrait/disguise piece of 1970. The women’s movement isn’t supposed to have a sense of humor, remember? The spiritual can’t be witty, right?

In fact, Edelson insists on her use of ancient matriarchal imagery and myth primarily as fertile visual sources for a highly contemporary esthetic. Because her content is so moving and so unavoidably physical, formalists sometimes have trouble seeing her forms. This only proves how effective she is in a context where the usual critical exercise is exactly the reverse – to see nothing but form and to ignore the content. Edelson has actually been accused of “ making the invisible visible” – every artist’s dream. It takes guts to challenge the tabu that calls any art with political content “sloganeering,” any moving art “ sentimental,” and so forth. Edelson clearly enjoys the risks.

Is it typical of our times that we are so alienated from other than self-generated energies that we cannot recognize the Other when we are confronted with it. In the case of Edelson’s work, the Other is woman and nature – or the culture of nature seen through female eyes, for a change. I happen to share her emotional a visceral response to natural forms, texture, spaces and phenomena, and her need to identify with them. I refuse to let my political commitment to socialist feminism exclude my “cultural feminist” desire to be a cave, a rounded hill, a pod, a blossom, a water-pitted rock, a wave, a moon, a furrowed field, a path through the woods, a valley, a ravine, or an incoming tide. Along with notions of shared power, wealth and resources, these are the fragments that make me whole. I won’t be parted from them. One reason Edelson’s work means so much to so many women is because she so overtly confirms these convictions.

By reaching out to the stone skeletons, Edelson insists on what is there – and here. In this sense she is the opposite of a “spiritual” artist, if spiritual is banally perceived as “ethereal” and “wishywashy.” Her art and her outreach are both specific and tactile. In a very female way she works with touch, sensation and immediate experience rather than with imposed theology and analysis. Yet she believes, and belief itself in these alienated times tends to be instantly labeled “fanaticism’;’ or “naiveté” by the oversophisticated. There is, in fact, a healthy and profound element innocence and enthusiasm in Edelson’s art, most appropriately in the rituals: “As contemporary women, with a brand new culture developing, with our shiny new consciousness, and our eager hearts and excited minds,” she has said, “ naturally some of us are going to create our own rituals.” It’s part of a message she’s been getting across for years: “Your 5,000 Years are Up.”

Stone and fire are at the heart of rebirth myths from all times and places. Edelson’s researches have led her to these prime materials, and to their “technical” counterparts – photography and the warmth of human interaction. Both are the vehicles for ritual, private and public. The private pieces she performs alone in some meaningful place, using the time lapse photography to release the timeless images that express her sense of the landscape. In Yugoslavia, Iceland and elsewhere, she has gravitated to sites where collective energies have been important in the past. She seeks out spectacular places to work the way traditional landscapists do, in order to make her connections with them tangible to those who are not there. Sometimes she brings back relics and makes them into books – more intimate places in which to read the messages she has received. Sometimes she disappears into the place, becoming a stone pillar, painting her body, taking from an ancient grinding stone the energies she need as a modern woman, becoming a female shaped blur wielding a line of light, a ghostly entity crossing barriers.

In the public rituals, her task is more difficult. Although the word ritual is used very loosely these days as a form rather than as a container, it still implies a value system. There is a distinction between a ritual and a spectacle or a festival. When a ritual doesn’t work it is a self-conscious act that isolates the performer as an exclusive object of attention. When it does work, the form’s importance diminishes to become only one element in a communal impulse connecting all the participants and all the times this action has been performed in the past or will be performed in the future. A true ritual not only fulfills a need but generates the need to fulfill it again and again. (I seem to be describing addiction; perhaps a better term is stability. Much contemporary art seems to be looking for a way back through the passages to a time and place when art had meaning to many people.) Edelson’s most recent ritual is called The Nature of Balancing and is about our lives, especially in relation to nature. Like her other work it is concerned with “timelessness,” incorporating past, present and future rather than looking nostalgically (and dangerously) backwards. And it balances again between the two “sides” of feminism.

The warm but fearful colors of flames. The cool but reassuring colors of earth and stone. Edelson’s formal ability is best expressed in lights and darks – the light inside the cave, the light contained by little rough clay-covered lamps hanging before her photo pieces in the last A.I.R show. I am reminded of the ancient marks carved into stones the world over, into stone pillars, stone walls, stone circles and stone passage tombs – marks of circle within circles, of spirals and swastikas and horn and axes and crescents – all bringing light and energy into the Petra Genetrix, the mother stone, to create an alchemical transformation. This is Edelson’s immodest goals as well. In the process, she is unwilling to separate social change from spiritual change, affirmative action from affirmative passion.

-Lucy R. Lippard