Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory

Lucy Lippard --- 1983

Pantheon Books

The American artist most deeply immersed in the study of the Great Goddess, resurrected from prehistory as a medium between nature and humanity, is Mary Beth Edelson. For over a decade she has combined a multiplicity of ingredients—Jungian psychology, feminism, dreams, fantasies, the collective unconscious, politics, and collaborative artmaking—into a body of work that spans many mediums and millennia. Her disregard for historical boundaries imposed by the patriarchy has led her to a belief system expressed in ancient images that hold their own unique power today. Her utterly serious 9and equally humorous) battle cry has been “Your 5,000 Years Are Up!”

Edelson’s prime form is ritual, which I will talk about in Chapter V, but she has also developed static forms that convey much of the falvor of her collective pieces. Using time0-lapse photography, she documents her own private rituals in timeless landscapes by drawing paths of light in the air. Her gallery installations incorporate the personal hopes and fears of her audience. In ana ongoing series of Story Gathering Boxes, begun in 1972, she invites her audience to contribute to her own tablets of “Old Myths/New Myths.” “Goddess Dreams,” and “Blood Power Stories.” Among the public contributions to the “Stone Stories” are: “When I was little I held stones up to my crotch to feel the coldness;” “In order to move mountains you’ve got to know what stones are about.”

One entered Edelson’s 1977 show at A.I.R In New York through a “Gate of Horn,” toward an actually flaming ladder. The gate was a frame of photographs of different women’s hands making the horned finger gestures (mano cornuta) and the “fig of triumph” (mano en fica). Edelson was combining power and sexuality as a memorial to the “9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era.” On Halloween, adopted as the Woman’s New Year, a public ritual took place in the gallery and then in the streets. In a 1980 show, Toothless (a black sheela-na-gig or vagina-non-dentata sculpture) doubled as a cave and throne, both for the viewers’ imagination and for performers.

Edelson’s esthetic talismans are stone and fire—the cool but reassuring colors of earth and stone, the warm but fearful colors of flames—echoed in the greys of photography and the warmth of human ritual interaction. Stone and fire are at the heart to the Great Goddess myths that she is adapting to contemporary needs. “Women need images to relate to that are strong and positive,” she has said. “When I was active in the civil rights movement, I remember the power of the slogan ‘Black is Beautiful,’ understanding what that reassurance meant for people who had grown up without mainstream positive images of themselves. It is the same for women now. We need to overstate to realize our full confidence… Naturally some of us are going to create our own symbols, our own myths, our own stories, our own rituals.”

By collecting everywoman’s tales, Edelson is accumulating the fragments of a “new history.” She wants her art to generate power as a consciousness-raiser and as a rallying point for women with many different experiences. Unwilling to separate social change from spiritual change, affirmative action from affirmative passion, she generally avoids the isolationism of artists who look to the past but forget to look around their present. In the process she and others offer open, developing ways of using ancient imagery to revivify rather than embalm contemporary culture.

Mary Beth Edelson’s theme of restoring “a living mythology that cuts across many areas”—political and spiritual—takes a Jungian approach to this central agrarian myth. Private and public ritual performances are her prime vehicles. The private pieces she performs alone in some meaningful place, using time-lapse photography to release the images the express her sense of the timeless 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—isolated caves, ruins, beaches, and barrens—the way traditional landscapists do, in order to make her connections to them tangible to those who are not there. Sometimes she disappears into the place, becoming a stone pillar, painting her body, becoming a female-shaped blur wielding a line of light, a ghostly entity crossing barriers. She often deanthropomorphizes herself in order to become part of a broader image of nature. In these photographic pieces, the viewer can identify, but nor participate—an appropriate response to any strong emotion in the television age.

In her workshops and public, participatory rituals, however, Edelson insists on a more challenging collaboration. These works take place indoors and out. She has burned spirals in the cornfields of Iowa, read from Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature: the Roaring Inside Her while enthroned in a vaginal cave-sculpture (Toothless), invoked the spirits of past and future through the personal experiences of her audience/collaborators. She uses stone and fire, light and dark, as her basic elements, and amorphous black robes which, when worn by women in rapid movement, take on lives of their own. Edelson is gradually evolving a communal vocabulary of gesture and image based on the symbolic treasury of matriarchal myth: egg, shell, spiral, moon, horns, mandala, mound, and uroboros—the tail-eating snake. Her works insist on the function of art as a generator of emotions, ideas, and actions, though not without a leaven of humor that intentionally undermines the potential pretentiousness of her serious goals.

The myth that is central to Edelson’s rituals is that of Demeter and Persephone, commemorated by the Eleusian mysteries which, like her art, were “mimetic of a journey to the other world to claim back from death the daughter of the Grain Mother Demeter, whose sorrow for her lost maiden could be assuaged only through the mystery of rebirth.” It is particularly meaningful to Edelson because she was denied custody of her young daughter after a divorce and spent years thereafter trying to confront and transcend her loss. In doing so, she discovered (and is still discovering) the complexities of the Demeter/Persephone and Divine Son myths, which she has applied to private rituals with her children.

Persephone and Demeter probably originated as parts of the same whole—the maiden and the mother/hag, three aspects of the original Earth Goddess who conceived her son in a “thrice-plowed field.” Until they were smothered by Christianity in the fourth century A.D., the Eleusinian mysteries took place in September, at autumn sowing. At their height, up to 30,000 initiates would prepare for six months and then take the pilgrimage along the Sacred Road form Athens to Eleusis; its landmarks included a grove, a bridge over the “other world” (where masked men obscenely insulted the pilgrims), to the fertile plain where barley (the first cultivated grain) was grown, to the Maiden’s Well, or Well of Flowers, and then to the temple in which the mysteries took place. The defamation of nature by “culture” is grotesquely illustrated by Eleusis today, its ruins trapped in the industrial wasteland that has replaced the fertile plain.

Lucy R. Lippard is a writer and activist, author of thirteen books including Ad Reinhardt, Eva Hesse, Changing: Essays in Art Criticism, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art, Get the Message? A Decade ofArt for Social Change, and a novel, I SeelYou Mean. Born in New York City, she received her B.A. from Smith College, her M.A. from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Moore College of Art in Philadelphia. She has also received a Guggenheim fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts grants for criticism, and the College Art Association's Mather Award. She is a contributing editor to the magazine Art in America, and writes a monthly column for the Village Voice. Co-founder of Heresies, Printed Matter, and P.A.D.D. (Political Art Documentation/Distribution), she has curated and organized over thirty exhibits in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Latin America. Lucy Lippard lives in New York City.