PORTLAND, Oregon — Performances that have become durably embedded in the contemporary art narrative have mostly been extreme, such as those of Vienna Aktionismus, Karen Finley, and Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy, and have frequently involved pain or risk, like Chris Burden, having himself shot in the arm, Philippe Petit wire-walking between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, Petr Pavlensky, nailing his scrotum to the ground in Red Square. No surprises here, ultra-dark being a seductive hue, and highly mediagenic.
That considered, Ungodly: The Spiritual Medium, the series of performance art events curated by Justin Hoover now underway at Portland’s Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, could seem counterintuitive. You have to dial back to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 Bed-Ins for Peace in Amsterdam and Montreal for the gush of relentlessly positive energy that greets you at Disjecta.
Hoover welcomes that reference. “I agree,” he said. “You do have to go back to the ‘60s.” Hoover’s parents ran Northern California’s biggest production and post-production video facility. “So I grew up within the area of defining what is media art,” he says. “What is video, what is production? Underneath it all is the relationship to time. And that cannot be separated from the experience of living in the body.” In early 2000, he started an alternative space in his garage in Pacific Heights and moved on to curatorial work with various cultural institutions before setting out on his own.
“I’m finding artists working with time,” Hoover said. “And time-based media in general. I’m looking at artists who use the body within a framework of spirituality.” Hence the Disjecta project. “Right in the center of this exhibition series is this idea of what does it take for us as a society to rebuild the structures that give us meaning and construct the values of a better society.”
We are now a third of the way into the series, which began in December with Punkdeism by Coco Dolle, who runs Legacy Fatale, a New York-based troupe that debuted at the Deitch Projects Art Parade in 2008. Dolle’s project at Disjecta began with an open call for woman dancers, “woman” being a matter of choice, as is the new normal. Dolle rehearsed them and they morphed into a troupe. “My work doesn’t deal with personal trauma or self-inflicted pain,” Dolle says. In addition to the performance, the show consists of an installation, including painting and photographs, and a video of the performance.
“Coco’s work is incredibly inclusive,” Hoover said. “Her Legacy Fatale series is all about bringing people together regardless of their trained competence. She’s not trying to create a performance troupe to rival the Bolshoi theater. She is creating a performance troupe that is saying you have been disenfranchised for some reason. Maybe because you’re a woman or in an era when, unless you have been consecrated by some sort of institution, then you don’t have value. And she is saying because you are an individual and curious, you have a space here in this dance troupe. And she is creating these performative structures which are largely participatory. And I find that fascinating.”
Coco Dolle has now concluded her performance. Edgar Fabian Frias presented two pieces that opened on February 2. The first was a divination ceremony “tied into native American spiritual practices around the concept of ethereal bodies,” says Hoover, that “use specific physical tools. Such as sacred stones, like obsidian.” The stone has been polished into what is called a “scrying mirror,” which is considered a psychic portal. Frias also uses other “performative tools, like his body, his voice and movement to channel his ancestors as well.” And it will involve the audience.
“He will have a circle of chairs available for people to sit in. And they can participate in his ritual with their presence and with their voices as well. I’m not sure if they will be invited to move. But I don’t think so.
The second exercise involved asking the audience to focus its energy on a water vessel that also has within it charged crystals. “He has different crystals that he uses,” Hoover says. “Crystals are known to vibrate at different frequencies at a subatomic electromagnetic level. So he chooses different crystals for different purposes. He [also uses] plants which have been chosen for symbolic and medicinal purposes and are used to make essential oils or similar substances. This new concoction is also in the vessel and further charges the water.”
The product, then, is be energy?
“The product [is] an installation element, an object that [is] the shared energy of all the audience members that are participating and includes the attributes of the plants.
The Edgar Frias performances will conclude on March 8 and will be followed by the third element, Dimensions of the Sacred. “That is an exhibition which I am not curating in the traditional sense of selecting an artist who has proven skills. Instead I am opening it up to anybody in the world who has an object or a photograph or a performance or a score to bring to the gallery. It’s important that they physically bring it. At which point they will deliver it to our team for installation. And simultaneously inscribe on an identification card why this object is a tool of their spiritual practice.
“And so it’s exhibiting a broadly democratic survey of the objects of veneration. How is it that we imbue an object with such power that we can venerate it? Or what does it embody? I suspect that there will be some conventional objects that are sacred.”
Many people, me included, keep special objects they have found or been given. Doesn’t everybody feel that these objects have spiritual qualities?
“I agree. And that’s the challenge. And that’s what I’m asking people to do, is to contemplate the things of our lives, and to think, what is sacredness? It’s not necessarily having to look to another religion or institution to define “sacred” for you. We’re taking a more Thoreau-like position, it’s more animistic – looking at a scholar’s rock and saying you know what? This is something that I believe in and that I venerate.
“[Everyone has] things like scholar’s rocks on our shelves, something that they forgot, or something that their father gave to them, then he died — something that symbolizes them, [like] their uniform from the military. How do we redefine what is sacred in the world? Many people who are Native American create what is sacred with natural objects — feathers, masks [and] with New Zealand folks I have worked with it’s a type of tattoo. There’s a tattoo artist I know, an Inuit, who will give anyone a tattoo but there are certain patterns she reserves for other people who are Inuits.
“For many people the sacrament is sacred. But other people have their own forms of the sacrament. Every year they do this thing at Christmas that brings their whole family together. So I’m asking people to paint with a broad brush. Really it’s a social practice angle. This exhibition is a social practice exhibition. We are looking to share stories. And I am trying to solicit from people stories on what it means to have something to venerate.”
Hoover has been thinking hard about making his own contribution.
“I’m thinking of making a lingam. As a symbol of fertility and virility and power.”
That’s a phallus?
“Yes. It’s male, it’s not the yoni. I’ll have a sculptor work with native American stone and sculpt me one. I’m not a stone carver. I’m thinking of adding that to the show. But I don’t know if I’ll do that. I don’t like to put my own work into the show. It’s not about me, it’s a social project, it doesn’t really matter, but I don’t know if I’ll do that, it’s not about me, it’s about the community.”
So back to my observation about the extreme element in so much admired performance, and my question about whether this resolutely positive series is counterintuitive. I think not. When things start truly darkening, that may be the time to turn up the light.
Ungodly: The Spiritual Medium continues at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center (8371 N Interstate Avenue, Portland, Oregon) through March 8. The series is curated by Justin Hoover.