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Johanna Went, the “Hyena of Performance Art”

Messy, anarchic, and sexualized, Went’s performances around Los Angeles from the late 1970s through the ’80s refused to be reduced to a single thing.

Johanna Went, Passion Container (detail) at the Box, Los Angeles, January 25–March 14, 2020. (photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio, image courtesy the artist and the Box, LA)

LOS ANGELES — Halfway through a video of Johanna Went’s 1988 performance Passion Container, a masked, horned, enrobed figure holds up a red container that resembles an oversized organ. Blood pours from it, reddening the figure, now dancing to a No Wave beat. As the dance escalates into an ecstatic bounce, blood drenches the robe.

The trancelike dance and allusions to sacrifice recall the quasi-ritualistic performances that characterized Viennese Actionism in the 1960s, but the overall aesthetic is comically macabre. Still, Went’s over-the-top scene is riveting. Few artists would combine the symbols of ritual with noise- and dance music, fake blood, and homemade costumes, and perhaps only Johanna Went would animate it all with humor.

Passion Container is one of around 200 shows Went performed from 1977 through the ’80s in Los Angeles. Performances at venues such as Franklin Furnace (1987) and the Lincoln Center (1991) in New York and Track 16 Gallery (2007) in LA show Went’s more formal side, but it’s the club shows — in which she quick-changes costumes, gyrates, grunts and howls, and smears and swallows viscous ooze — that established her as a cult figure in the annals of LA art and punk, and gave her the nickname “hyena of performance art.”

Johanna Went, Passion Container (detail) at the Box, Los Angeles, January 25–March 14, 2020. (photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio, image courtesy the artist and the Box, LA)

Went began performing in 1975 with improvisational theater troupes Para-Troupe and the World’s Greatest Theater Company. Following a move to Los Angeles in 1977, she started performing solo, adding live music after meeting sound artist and percussionist Z’EV and composer Mark Wheaton, who would become her collaborator for the next four decades.

It’s no surprise that Went’s boundary-pushing performances drew eyes from the experimental LA club scene. Consider another moment in Passion Container, in which she wears a bulbous mask with an anus-like mouth, and a nun character shovels gruel into a larger anus-mouth. Signifiers are shifting — mouth, anus, eye, sun. Later, her face emerges from the massive vagina of a larger-than-life puppet as two sewage-green demons fling a huge, pillowy three-eyed head into the audience. The show associates the feminine and maternal with the earth, both threatened by monstrous masculinity (reified in a giant phallus). But Went’s frenzied performance is too fast and chaotic to be contemplated; it’s experienced.

Johanna Went, video in Passion Container at the Box, Los Angeles, January 25–March 14, 2020. (photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio, image courtesy the artist and the Box, LA)
Johanna Went, video in Passion Container at the Box, Los Angeles, January 25–March 14, 2020. (photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio, image courtesy the artist and the Box, LA)

In an article on Went for 4Columns, author Geeta Dayal writes: “When Lady Gaga debuted her meat dress in 2010, I had a flashback: it sounded like something Went would have done in 1982. In a just world, Johanna Went would be as much of a household name as Lady Gaga.”

Went continued to perform into the 1990s and, less frequently, the 2000s. (She stopped performing after Ablutions Of A Nefarious Nature at Track 16 in 2007 due to an ankle injury and arthritis.) She has received some of her due in 2020, with a limited-edition reissue of her 1982 debut record Hyena (on red vinyl) and recent retrospective, Passion Container, at the Box in Los Angeles. The exhibition (which closed March 28), displayed photos, ephemera, art, and costumes drawn from Went’s personal archive, alongside screenings of her performances (available to view online).

Johanna Went, Passion Container at the Box, Los Angeles, January 25–March 14, 2020. (photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio, image courtesy the artist and the Box, LA)

The costumes, which Went constructed mostly from discards found on streets and in dumpsters, combine craft with invention. Symbols of traditional women’s roles — baby dolls, high-heeled shoes, a nun’s habit — are integrated into colorful agglomerations of unruly femininity. In one eye-catching example, figures and symbols are painted on a metallic pink robe with a grotesque pink mask. Jarring juxtapositions of stuffed animals and dolls, skulls, and dildos exaggerate the creepy side of the visual extravaganza. Along with demented Muppet-like soft sculptures (including the aforementioned three-eyed head and a giant vagina spewing red fabric), they underscore Went’s ingenuity as a maker as well as a performer.

Johanna Went, Passion Container (detail) at the Box, Los Angeles, January 25–March 14, 2020. (photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio, image courtesy the artist and the Box, LA)

More recently, Went (who still lives in Los Angeles) has been working on drawings for new costumes and writing and performing spoken word pieces, while organizing, editing, and preserving her audio, video, and photographic archives with Wheaton.

Her exhibition at the Box has made her “seriously consider the possibility of working with younger able bodied dancers and performers,” she said by email. “Those options have occurred to me before, but the public’s response to the Box exhibit was far greater than I had expected and reacquainted me with my audience.”

While Went’s transgression of categories is part of her work’s fascination, it has presented challenges to audiences. For instance, an Artforum reviewer in 1983 criticized her work as a “parody of transgression.” Implicit in this criticism, and its implication that parody and transgression are mutually exclusive, is the discomfort that unclassifiable things cause us as a culture. Went transgressed not only genre but also bodily and symbolic boundaries. Her performances have addressed feminine tropes, such as the mother and virgin, and faux-sacrificial blood is conflated with menstrual blood; in Passion Container and other performances she volleyed giant, soiled tampons back and forth with the crowd. These gestures recall Julia Kristeva’s designation, in Powers of Horror, of polluting objects as either excremental or menstrual, the former threatening the ego from without, the latter from within, both ultimately endangering what anthropologist Mary Douglas calls our “cherished classifications.”

Went’s outré spectacles — intermingling horror and hilarity — incorporated both. Messy, anarchic, sexualized, they engaged fluidity and flux, refusing to be reduced to a single thing.

Johanna Went, video in Passion Container at the Box, Los Angeles, January 25–March 14, 2020. (photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio, image courtesy the artist and the Box, LA)
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