Quality Power: 1961-1978
by Mary Beth Edelson
from "Intermedia: Enacting the Liminal", eds. Hans Breder & Klaus-Peter Busse, Dortmunder Schrifen Zur Kunst, 2005
In my public rituals I have made use of tension as a vehicle that disrupts stability, creates uneasiness and encourages a shift in position. The building of this tension is simultaneous with easing just enough to keep the participants from withdrawing from the encounter. While indifference and nonchalant structure are often used in contemporary performance pieces and can also create tension, it is perhaps as a result of being alone in an intimate setting abandoned by self-absorbed performers and thus feeling alienated. This is the inverse of the processes that I am hoping to elicit. Instead, I am encouraging the performers and the audience to participate in connecting with each other during the brief life of the performance. Lifting individuals from their isolated body position into a supportive collective experience requires being totally in the moment. The corroborated effects of these connections can be understood in intellectual terms but if not acted out they remain in the realm of mental exercises, short circuiting the intimacy and intricateness of the experience itself.
To incline the audience to become participants in this collective experiment, trust needs to be established as well as the belief that this is a substantive experience, worthy of risking letting go. It is then, the participant's own willingness to dissolve her/his personal barriers that sets the stage for an alchemical transfers of power essential to the ritual's potency.
"For women in revolution it is imperative to create an entirely new value system, the heart of which will be a dramatic reassessment of the use of power. Rituals would not be effective if a transfer of power had not resulted. Yet it is of critical importance to note that power is rarely considered an object of possession that the group or individual may get hold of during ritual activity. What is stressed through ritual is the dynamic quality of power, the continual exchange of gifts which heightens the affirmative identity of all who participate.'" 1
With on-going questioning and evolving form, content and methods of participation it is possible to side step the ritual becoming solidified. Adopting the mind-set of "not-yet-knowing", as well as engaging the ritual as a creative metaphysical experiment keeps the process alive.
1961, Indianapolis, In. When I was pregnant with my first child I began to paint and draw images that spoke of women's power, the power of our bodies. In a very specific way, images of numinous women as the triad, the one who is in charge, emerged in my work at this time. I experienced what was happening in my (pregnant) body as holy - sacred, as a rhythm that manifested itself symbolically by my use of concentric circles.. With excelled movement the concentric circles became energized spirals that I associated with the body.
Then, as now, I never felt obligated to limit my concerns or scope. The earlier figures (in my paintings) later disappeared leaving the interior that had housed them. The interior walls painted on the canvas grew to mural size, and these interiors became a passage whose opening was occasionally blocked by repetitious wavy parallel lines that suggested a transmitting field of energy that must be penetrated before going through the passage. The floor of the passage was fluid and (I associated this fluidity with being on a journey) that corresponded to the changes I was going through, that we were all going through as we entered the seventies. 2
After 18 years, suddenly I stopped painting, because it went stale for me. I wanted more direct ways of communicating with people. I set the following plan to ensure that I would quit painting: in 1971 and 1972 I invited 22 people separately to my studio, to look at my work, discuss it with me, and then suggest a piece they would like to see me execute, (the only stipulation that I gave the participants was that they should not suggest a painting).
In addition, I was trying to communicate, in a direct way, from one center of consciousness to another, incorporating what I understood and what I felt about the collective unconscious while holding in my mind the suggestion given by the "Other", In simplest terms, to get under someone else's skin, to fuse my creative energies with another's creative energies to come up with a third energy, That energy would then hopefully inspire the concept for the art piece. 3
These communications take place informally all the time without naming them as such, but my object was to deepen and then formalize the experienceby being self-conscious with the process, The resultant exhibit, titled 22 Others at Henri Gallery, 1973, Washington D,C., was based on this ritualized collaborative process. 4
Using fire, cloth, paint, wood, clay, glass, and paper I produced sculpture, an earthwork, an environment, a bedspread, drawings, a poster, paintings (suggested regardless of the stipulation), unique books and story boxes for the 22 Others exhibition, I also made a small multiple book of the process as I have done with all my exhibitions since 1971. The exhibition titled, Woman Rising, also mounted at the Henri Gallery in 1975, had two focuses: the first was a series of 13 stylized figures, 8' tall cut from plywood with layers of paint scratched, gouged and carved into titled, The Goddess Tribe, The Tribe leaned against the wall and surrounded the viewer. Their appearance suggested whispers and chants with the aid of a barely audible sound tape of primal guttural sounds recorded during a ritual. The second part of the exhibition was a series of photographic images of my body as a stand-in for Goddess, They were private rituals performed in nature, These images were defining images - not who I was but who we are - the spirit of what liberation felt like in bodily form as mind/spirit/sexuality all in one, presented assertively, in the aggressive form that they came to me, (and they did come to me).
If I accept that my body is where I live, then it is the home of my spirit and my intellect, and a site for my investigations, Taking risks with my body by exposing not only its naked sexual form, but exposing its psyche to other forces like the potency of meditation and the convergence of growth in unprocessed nature - depends on my ability, at that time, to assimilate the resulting intensity to produce the ecstatic rapture of trance.
When I moved back to New York City in 1975, I was obsessive about telling people where I had been, (who I was as an artist). My first solo show, presented at A.I.R. (Artists in Residence) Gallery, was titled Giving Myself a 5 Year Retrospective this format allowed me to expose a cross section of my recent directions. The following seminal pieces were exhibited: Blood Mysteries, Inward/Outward, Sexual Fantasies, and the mural-sized drawing Old Myths/ New Myths, all with accompanying story boxes and tables. A circular fire piece and the story boxes with accompanying drawings titled Collective Unconscious, Shell Stories and Great Mother had already been shown two years earlier in 1973 at A.I.R.
Feminist art historian, Arlene Raven invited me to produce an exhibition at U.C.S.D. at La Jolla, California for the Mandeville Gallery in early spring of 1977. This gallery installation titled Your 5,000 Years Are Up, was the site of my first public ritual performance, Mourning Our Lost Herstory.
The following fall, on Halloween night again at A.I.R., my second public ritual was performed within the installation of that exhibit titled Proposals for: Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era.
Iowa University-Fall 1978
The multi-media center and Corroboree performance and gallery space at The University of Iowa, under the creative direction of Hans Breder, hosted Fire Flights in Deep Space, an installation, earthwork and ritual performance. For the installation I prepared a 12' x 10' sculptural tent made of painted dark gray canvas with a metal armature. Installed as a corner piece the tent leaned back, without touching the walls as if to contemplate levitation. The room is dark except for the diffused orange light, behind the mound shaped tent, which articulates the perimeters of the tent and also emits light from a thin slit in the lower center of the structure. The tent refers to the biblical story (a rewrite of more ancient goddess myths) of Sahara who became pregnant for the first time at an advanced age. When she conceived her tent began to glow in the desert and other barren women also became fertile. To enter the room that houses Sahara's Tent you must pass through another tent that provided a passage to and from the outside world. The adjacent room exhibited photographic rituals of my body wrapped in a shroud (which echoes the shape of the tent) engaged in ritual. This series of photographs taken with a time release set at slow speed capture my movement as well as the movement of fire in space.
In addition to the installation, with the help of Iowa multi-media students we went into the country and cut down rows of cornstalks - placing them on the ground in a cleared field we bound the stalks into three separate 200 'rows about 2' thick. When the binding was completed, eight people, in each of the three rows, then hoisted the bound stalks onto their shoulders and interlaced each of the three rows together by weaving their body in and out in a braiding pattern.
This finished; we rested, and at sunset placed the braided cornstalk on a sloping hill in the shape of a spiral and burnt it. The fire and the smoke echoed the shape of the spiral both on the ground and in the air. Some participants sat within the cornstalk spiral while it was burning. The next day eight students, again wearing (shrouded) coats, performed fire rituals in the Corroboree performance space that related to expanding consciousness through extending yourself to others. With fire torches they repeated varying patterns of arches, infinity signs, spirals and finally came together in a circle of fire. The ritual ended with performers and audience emptying out of the theater to again burn a cornstalk spiral in the circular parking area adjacent to the Corroboree.
A Do it Yourself Religion? Contemporary Ritual and Myth Making
The impetus for creating contemporary ritual first came to me as a personal rite, performed originally with my children and later photographed in the early 1970's. Setting aside a special time I was saying to them, "This activity is out of the ordinary; we are going to act out our gestures, ritualize our behavior, while documenting the process with photographs. The ritual itself is short lived, but the after images can be a lasting totem to hold in the mind to recall later. The photographs stand as a record of the singleness and wonder that we experience." I was trying to provide them with a direct physical experience of being one with their environment.
Touching we lay on the ground, feeling a part of each other and a part of the earth. Turning over, with our bodies aligned we felt the connection with both the earth and sky - merging for a moment mother and child became one again. 5
During my early probing for relevant symbols and myths that I could conceptualize for my art practice, I was frustrated by knowing that we did not have a collective non-patriarchal coding (neither language nor signs), to convey a common understanding, (even with foot notes). I remained pushed against the question, "What will stand for the thing I have in mind and how can I then communicate it to others, without becoming pedantic?" Prior to the feminist movement Jungian structured symbology appeared, to me, to be a possible candidate, but after careful study that structure also revealed itself as limited to a male biased lens- even if a somewhat wider one. Adopting images other than those from my own culture seemed presumptuous, and I found myself looking suspiciously at those artists seduced by the romance of American Indians and Eastern religions while convincing themselves that they were fair game for their art making. Not only was I uneasy about stepping on those cultural toes, but I also had misgivings about how women where treated in their cultures.
In addition denying my own western heritage felt self-depreciating and claiming a superior position at the same time by implying that if it comes from my culture (me) it can not be as spiritually pristine because we are too removed from our primitive natures, (but 'they' aren't). The search needed to start with who I am, and where in my feminist western culture I could create primal spiritual connections.
I found myself continually wondering what today's myths are as if I could actually figure this out for and by myself as if the answer were available through unscrambling a riddle. This introspection brought me to seek clues directly from contemporary culture. In 1972, I began by asking people attending my exhibitions to participate in this research by telling their personal stories and writing them in the story-gathering boxes. These (first) stories were written on cards and left in the boxes under the titles of:
Story of your life
Philosophy of your life
Blood power stories
Sexual fantasies stories
"I hoped these boxes would be on-going repositories of living myths from our time written by people who were not journalists or contriving to tell a particular story form a preconceived vantage point, but simply the spontaneous real life stories of a people." 6
Some Final Notes on Ritual
Let me say, as strongly as I can, that in speaking of contemporary ritual or mythology I am not speaking of a traditional, repetitious, security-infested static structure or a dried-up mummified story, rite, or sign leftover and warmed up from the past. Nor am I interested in building a present day Matriarchy based on ancient rites. The idea of seriously pursuing such a revistation seems to me to be an absurdly regressive gesture, (even if it might be fun).
While building our new feminist culture it is imperative to also research our past to know our women's history. The history that has been destroyed, lost, appropriated, or never written down, we can intuit through collective investigation: that is, speculation, theorizing, and inference. An example of this process is witnessed in both films and TV programs as detectives, lawyers, and psychologist piece together what likely happened given the circumstances.
This process could potentially not only place our contemporary psyches in touch with what might have been, but present an instrumentality for internalizing a past, present, and projected future understanding of a timeless wisdom that we might name the Long Body.
The non-linearity of meditation, guided imagery, and trance are also useful tools for seeing again with a fresh eye and mind. Regardless of our (received) history these imaginings are useful investigations that stand on their own, for conceptualizing truth not as infallible historical facts, but as the inherent truenesses in our own collective stories.
Note: Some references have been clarified in this essay that relied too heavily on knowing the shared context of the '70s feminist art movement –Edelson 2002.
pp. 165-171, “Intermedia: Enacting the Liminal", eds. Hans Breder & Klaus Peter Busse, Dortmunder Schriften Zur Kunst, 2005.
1.Kay Turner, from an unpublished chain letter of on-going dialogues, 1977
2.Charlene Spretnak, The Power of Women's Spirituality, Anchor! Doubleday, 1982, p.312.
3.From a lecture given at Corcoran Gallery of Art in the fall of 1974, reprinted the first time in Womansphere, under the title of Speaking For Myself, April 197S. (Note from MBE; sometimes this “fusing of creative energies” process actually worked.)
4.“Mary Beth Edelson's Great Goddess”, Jack Burnham, Arts Magazine, Nov. 1975
5.Note from MBE: I would like to mention that my daughter was legally kidnapped from me in the early 1970's which brought gut wrenching necessity to these rituals with my children.
6.Seven Cycles: Public Rituals, self-published, Mary Beth Edelson, 1980.