The final performance which included all the members of the Silver Spiders ensemble

The final performance of the Silver Spiders ensemble, which included all seven members (photo by Alejandro Chellet)

I first encountered the Silver Spiders in the rain. They were swirling around an open face, two-story barn on the property of Jill McDermid-Hokanson and Erik Hokanson in Kingston, New York. The barn is located at Rosekill, an outdoor performance venue run by the couple who also runs the Grace Exhibition Space for International Performance Art in Brooklyn and that recently hosted a week-long lab titled “Transcendence, Action Art and Gender.” The location of Rosekill is rural: dirt roads, ponds covered with duckweed, watermeal, or algae, a wooden gate one has to swing open in order to enter or exit. I had come to see the lab’s culminating performance with the Silver Spiders — the spiders being actually women, all of them longtime artists within the performance art scene: Linda Mary Montano (USA), Johanna Householder (Canada), Nancy Gewolb Mayanz (Chile), Inari Virmakoski (Finland), Veronica Artagaveytia (Uruguay), Elizabeth Ross (Mexico), and Maria Eugenia Chellet (Mexico). All the women are 60 or older, and all clearly held the respect of the small audience of 20 to 30 people that had gathered to see them perform on a rainy night in July.

Maria Eugenia Chellet 2 Photo by Alejandro Chellet

Maria Eugenia Chellet (photo by Alejandro Chellet)

Talking with the women after their performances that night was more of a pleasure for me than the actual performances. At dinner, I spoke with Virmakoski, Elizabeth Ross, Nancy Gewolb Mayanz, and in each conversation I found a forthrightness and confidence about what they were doing — the theme of which was, according to a follow-up conversation I had with one of the curators, Chellet, “old age, creativity, and gender in performance art.” The artists seemed to operate from a place of clarity and self-possession, which I gathered came from having worked on their practices for several years. However, the work mostly fell flat for me.

Veronica Artagaveitya Photo by Sarah Berkley

Veronica Artagaveitya (photo by Sarah Berkley) (click to enlarge)

In the first performance I happened on, I witnessed Chellet climb up onto the second story of a barn. Dressed as the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in a long, dark purple skirt, a faux flower headdress, and the tell-tale eyebrows penciled in, she threw down colored paper while speaking in a mix of Spanish and English in a slightly plaintive voice, saying things like, “Diego my mom, Diego my father, Diego my son, Diego my lover, Diego my husband, Diego universe.” I found out later that her performance was based on a letter that Kahlo had written to her lover Diego Rivera, expressing her profound desire for him. The bits of tinted paper floated down like errant prayers, to end up on the wet ground. Chellet slathered what looked like honey on herself and then affixed green feathers to her arms as if possessed by an avian spirit. She ended her piece by crying out in Spanish “Where are you, big belly?.” I must admit to being rather indifferent to the piece, because, like most of the ones that followed, it was neither here nor there for me: not funny or intriguing, surprising or provocative. It added little to the story of Frida Kahlo which I was already familiar with, and it failed to bring her to life. More, Chellet’s energy was passively mournful and the most uninteresting way to play a character who is melancholy is by being resolutely melancholy.

Linda Montano with Jill Mcdermid (Photo by Ventiko)

Linda Montano with Jill Mcdermid (photo by Ventiko)

The other performers displayed work impelled by the idea of ritual. The most interesting to me was Veronica Artagaveytia’s work, which consisted of her wearing a kind of small cape that widened out like bat wings as she raised her arms. She played with the cape, making whooping sounds like a wild creature while swooping in between hung sheets of white fabric that served as screens for projections of abstract objects. Since this took place after the sun had gone down, against the backdrop of nightfall, the creature she became during the performance seemed otherworldly in moments.

Inari Virmakoski Photo by Sarah Berkley

Inari Virmakoski (photo by Sarah Berkley)

Virmakoski, with her long white hair, painted face, and long, crimson robe, danced with a pole that held a dress she had made herself 25 or 30 years ago. The dress ended up in the bonfire that had been built earlier, and while the destruction of it seemed freeing for the artist, this end felt expected.

I had been looking forward to Linda Montano’s work, but disappointingly, it consisted of her sitting on a couch with McDermid-Hokanson, placing a “sacred” balm that looked like white paste on both of them before interviewing her. Mostly with her eyes closed, Montano posed questions about how the curator and performer came to performance art and what her education and training had been. Their conversation was humdrum and McDermid-Hokanson conveyed her story in conventional chronology. As a performance piece this was neither visually or aurally compelling. At the end there was an awkwardly choreographed performance that included all the women sitting at a table replete with lit candles, holding small stones in their hands and stamping them on the table on prearranged signals, while one intoned what seemed like a prayer.

Ventiko_The Silver Spiders

A group portrait of the Silver Spiders (photo by Ventiko)

McDermid-Hokanson told me that she had spent a year putting the laboratory together, and while I can appreciate that labor, the ritualism of the performances felt like a kind of plodding memorial of the past, as opposed to the artists seeking out new things to say about transcendence, action art, and gender, which were the themes they were reputedly out to explore. I do believe that while these women have accomplished much, they still have more to say.

The Silver Spiders performance took place at Rosekill, Kingston, New York on July 30. 

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...

16 replies on “A Performance Evening of Uninspired Rituals”


  2. is this the worst review’d piece of performance art ever? is it ? does it win something ? or wait, most everyone hates on performative work. talk about regurgitative.

      1. Badly, I’d say. He looks to be entertained and his senses stimulated, lacking any knowledge of the medium as a historical genre.

          1. I was puzzled how he could have a PhD in Museum Studies, something he is not shy about, and know so little about art, until I realized that such a degree isn’t necessarily related to “art” museums. That’s why he can have a PhD but write like an art school freshman…

        1. Dear Judy Chicano,

          In what ways does the above review demonstrate a lack of knowledge of the medium? (I’m not sure what you mean by “as a historical genre” since all art making, performative or other is shaped by the particular historical circumstances in which it is developed). You make accusations in your comments, but don’t show examples of what you are asserting, which weakens your claims. If you want to really intellectually engage about this, then ask about my education, rather than sling allegations. In this case you are mistaken.

          1. I actually do have some things I’d like to address about your criticism. Do you have public email contact?

          2. Dear Judy,

            I suspect, since you have started off your series of comments with allegations you don’t back up and insults that a reasonable person actually acquainted with my writing would find ridiculous, that providing you with yet another avenue for dispensing the same sort of vitriol would not be wise. Here’s a better use of your energy: why not write your own review and post it publicly. If you want to champion the work of these women then just do so. If you saw the performance then make your own analysis of it.

            If there were any indications that we could engage in an honest discussion about the ideas, analysis, substance of the work presented in the above, I would be open to that, but all signs point south. You sound angry and your anger just makes you resentful, and your resentment prevents you from doing some real thinking (which is what I’m asking you to do).

      2. that is your response ? he writes about the art form with regularity ? no wonder this isn’t going anywhere … you seem to be behaving as obtusely as your critic, with no ability to alter / listen / reassess / evolve.

        1. Dear Penelope Kindred,

          So, what would my ability to alter, listen, reassess and evolve look like in practice? From what I can tell, you haven’t yet said what needs to be altered, or reassessed. This dialogue only works if you make a reasonable claim and then back it up with evidence. Then I can reassess my writing in light of such an argument.

    1. Dear Penelope Kindred,

      I’m not sure what you’re getting at. If you care to have a decent conversation about this, please make a coherent statement or pose a question. What I’ve gathered so far is that you are saying my review is “regurgitative” because “most everyone hates on performative work.” What does that have to do with what I’ve written? It just doesn’t sound like you’ve read what’s above. I don’t hate the work: I write (in detail) how it was disappointing.

      1. You miss the point again, its kind of weird ! I am not sure that continuing to converse on this will help you, because its as if we are speaking in cross purposes. You seem to be concerned with defending your sour critique – in light of critique that you’ve rec’d for writing it – rather than examining how offensive it might be to read critique of 7 artists without any reference to other artists in lineage with them, any mythos, any deep probative queries that could have accompanied your review. If you don’t recognise that it’s a very superficial crit that you make, what more can be done for you ? Also, the idea that the only critic to talk about these performances so far (identify more, if you have other info) is a male, Jamaican, ex – pat adds to the concern that you are splaining wherefrom you 1.) do not have skin in the game 2.) are not a woman artist or critic or scholar 3.) address no lineage issues, other than you had heard of one of the artists before and were excited to see what work she made. Then bc it didn’t excite you, you just left it at that. I’m not sure that women artists need to excite you as a first and foremost kind of thing. There are many more avenues to address and convey, to appreciate and ponder. You go on to talk about the only ‘pleasure’ you rec’d was talking one on one with the women after their performance, which ‘fell flat’ to you. Do women have to talk one on one with you to make you feel okay? Is that what it takes for you to feel seen? What does that say or inform to you about women’s roles ? Women exciting men, getting into schools, jobs, museums, academia because of that superficial titillation has long been a subject for discussion, and the fact that you don’t seem to be addressing these crucial aspects of the work and the world is disturbing and very tired for 2016. This is as lightly as I might put it. Other people might be truly angry that you have a platform to be so obtuse upon. i have read other comments on other social media platforms that concur that your review of the Silver Spiders show was offensive and off base. Please read more, live more before you imagine that you have the chops necessary to address 7 people’s work. We don’t need to hear you tell us ‘honey was slathered’. What does it mean, in what mythos might these images and actions live? In what lineage is the artist dwelling, calling to, evoking, making their holy try in ? Be bigger. Be broader. If you don’t see, and if Hrag doesn’t see, that your tone, reportage,
        intent seems shabby, then basta ! You will know, when you do, if ever.

        1. Dear Penelope,

          I’m sorry that you are so angry you can’t see the merits of my criticism. I’m not writing for you. Be well.

          1. I am not angry at all ! Huh ?

            I am super chirpy on this bright morning. I feel sad for you that a woman who criticizes you is imagined to be ‘angry’. By the way, when you write for the public, you are writing for me. Take the criticism of your work. It comes with the job. You be well.

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