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Book Review: Suzanne Lacy, Leaving Art

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Fig. 61, (p. 285). Inside the prison the collaborative team poses during an opening for their three car sculptures, which explored gripping personal stories of domestic violence and rape: Doing Time, Suzanne Lacy, Charlotte Watson, Virginia Cotts, Sharon Smolick, and Thea Dubow, Bedford Hills Maximum Security Facility, Bedford Hills, new York, 1993.
Photo by Lacy. Courtesy, Suzanne Lacy.

 

Book Review: Suzanne Lacy, Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics and Publics
Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics and Publics
Suzanne Lacy
2010, Duke University Press
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4569-5, 424pp

 

One vivid memory stands out from my few months as an international exchange student at the Cooper Union art school in New York. The venerable art critic and political activist Dore Ashton taught the History of Art course at Cooper and she presented us, at the beginning of the first class, with Xeroxed readings complete with scratchy, almost-illegible black and white illustrations. The reason for the hopeless visuals, she announced, was to provoke us to seek out as many works of art as we could in the flesh. The course was on early twentieth-century modernist sculpture and painting with all of the resources of New York at hand. Therefore, though this task was not without its practical and ideological challenges, it was concretely possible.

The image situation would have been quite different had we been discussing Tristan Tzara’s theatre, for example, or post-minimalist performance art. For live art is transient, often without traceable physical residue. It relies upon lens-based, audio and textual records that are subject to manipulation, interpretation and other historical filtering processes in a rather different way than are robustly physical works of art installed in a museum.

 


Fig. 48, (p. 211). For seven days Lacy held intimate conversations with patients and hospital staff and displayed resulting drawings in an empty hospital room:
Cancer Notes: 7 Day Genesis, Suzanne Lacy, Art Park at Roswell Park Memorial Cancer Center, Buffalo, New York, 1991.
Photo by David Katsive. Courtesy, the artist and the photographer.

 

Public artist Suzanne Lacy’s collection of writings, documents and images published over the last thirty years is provocatively titled Leaving Art. Amongst other purposes, it houses an articulate and careful attempt to address the problem of live and participatory art’s ephemerality. In the book’s preface, Lacy assigns a tripartite meaning to her phrase “leaving art”, the first aspect relating directly to the ephemeral: “what is left behind with transient and public practices” (p. xiii). For Lacy, the term “leaving art” also relates to the uses of “sources outside of art history” to add critical nuance, or to assist in explaining, public practice; thirdly, like many post-minimalist practitioners with a political bent, Lacy positions herself within “the art/life continuum”, rather than merely in the specialised world of contemporary art (p. xiii).

Crucially, Lacy’s mix of conventional writings, documentary photographs, text-based experiments and photo essays operate on the knife-edge of this “art/life continuum”. Indeed, more often than not, Lacy chooses to interrogate the most painful of personal and social scenarios in her collisions of art and life. Sexual violence, terminal illness and prostitution are three early subjects; as Lacy comments, “the threat of physical violence” inspires both large-scale activist works and intimate “performances as vulnerability” (p. 3). Two of Lacy’s “meditations” (p. 211) on these subjects, “Prostitution Notes”, 1974, and “Cancer Notes”, 1995, are worth exploring in a little more detail for the ways in which they sensitively (and successfully) confront both their difficult subject matter and the problem of communicating about live art after the event.

“Prostitution Notes” is constructed as a diaristic, chronological narrative of Lacy’s attempts to research, through performance and interviews in seedy cafes with sex workers, pimps and hangers on, the subjective and social implications of the business. Cutting into the main text, in bold, centred type, are questions that might be self-directed or addressed towards the feminist reader. The questions begin innocently enough in parallel with Lacy’s somewhat naïve position at the project’s start: “Do you know on which corners you can always find a hooker?” (p. 6). However, they rapidly grow more searching as she begins to identify with the men and woman that she meets: “Have you ever bought a gift, hoping for sex in return” (p. 8); before long, fear is registered: “Has your boyfriend picked up a hooker when you weren’t in town?” (p. 12). Photographic documentation of outdoor performances and scrawled text/image pieces are also interspersed throughout. The essay draws together these fragments, or leftovers, so that each act of reading and looking produces a new performance – a period of heightened personal and political reflection. In this way, Lacy demonstrates her awareness of the time-based limitations of ephemeral practice, but also manages, to some extent, to bypass them.

 


Fig 13, (p. 17). In a performance that extended over several months, Lacy recorded the internal and external geography of her research on prostitution in Los Angeles:
Prostitution Notes, Suzanne Lacy, Los Angeles, 1974.
Photo Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

 

“Cancer Notes” has a similar function, though it shows a more visual, less journalistic, approach to text (designed by Leslie Barker). In the original public artwork, Lacy conducted a series of one-hour interviews with medical professionals and patients at the Roswell Park Cancer Center. She recorded their accounts in subjective, drawn diagrams on large sheets of paper, which were displayed in a grid format within the hospital. In Leaving Art, a documentary photo of the original installation heads the essay, but its main body transforms the hand-sketched diagrams into printed, composed pages. Again, rather than attempting to reproduce the original display or experience, the book format is utilised to produce a new work of art to be navigated differently by each viewer. The document becomes participatory too, negating the idea that the live work is the definitive piece.

Several of Lacy’s works and texts infuse their hardcore subject matter and conceptual sophistication with a strange sense of ethical mystery, even spirituality. For example, in “Cancer Notes”, Lacy quotes artist and critic Suzi Gablik on enchanted alternatives to modernism, explaining the motivations behind the project, alongside the words of doctors and patients: “Seeing with the heart, rather than with the disembodied eye, leads inevitably to a different kind of art – one that is more empathic and interactive and comes from a more gentle, diffused mode of listening” (p. 214). In “Having it Good: Reflections on Engaged Art and Engaged Buddhism”, 2006, Lacy’s discusses her Buddhist practice in order to make sense of this spiritual or philosophical tendency in the context of contemporary art, that most materialist of domains. As promised in the book's preface, by drawing upon Buddhist thought, as well as from experiences of low-paid manual labour, popular television and anthropology, she convincingly challenges and enriches the often closed art world with sources from "outside" (p. xiii).

To conclude, the book includes a short memorial essay on the performance artist and activist Allan Kaprow, Lacy’s teacher during her early years as an art practitioner and teacher. One of the more traditional documents in Leaving Art it was first published in Artforum, 2006, alongside other reminiscences on Kaprow. Lacy uses the text to make a case for Kaprow’s formative influence on feminist art, and hence to reinforce feminism’s importance to post-minimalist performance. Because this essay is placed last in the collection, it also functions as a kind of summation of the book’s thesis. Significantly, she notes that “art making was the function of a reflective life, not a skill set” (p. 321) for Kaprow. Reflection in and on the present moment – rather than a concern for prestige or posterity – defines and sets apart Lacy’s experimental documents as in some way “live” themselves, making Leaving Art a strong resource for public and live artists working now.

 


Fig. 69, (p. 323). Allan Kaprow discusses his contribution to this complex collaborative performance in Finland as Lacy listens;
other artists invited by Lacy included Judy Baca, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Susan Leibovitz Steinman, and writer Moira Roth:
Road of Poems and Borders, Suzanne Lacy, Arthur Strimling, et al., Performers and Artists for Nuclear Disarmament International Festival, Joensuu, Finland, 1990.
Photo by Tuula Tavi. Courtesy, the artists and the photographer.

Becky Hunter


Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.
rebeccalouisehunter(at)yahoo.co.uk
www.beckyhunter.co.uk

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