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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.