One needs only look at the city’s demolition of East River Park, which officially began on November 1st, to be reminded that activist efforts against ecocide are often spearheaded by artists. Long before social engagement became trendy, artists working outside of institutional structures understood that environmental destruction primarily affects communities of lesser means, communities that experience the preciousness of nature as a free space for gathering, creating, and meditating — as opposed to those who hide away on their manicured rooftop terraces and floating parks.
After a prolific decade of public performances in New York City and abroad, addressing gender inequality and violence against women, Betsy Damon decided that her energy would be better spent on water stewardship, and retreated from the artworld in the late 1980s. In 1991, Damon founded Keepers of the Water, a nonprofit organization dedicated to projects that bridge art and science, and contribute to the remediation of living water systems. Since then, she has been known primarily as an ecological activist, and largely forgotten by the artworld.
Curated by Monika Fabijanska, Betsy Damon —Passages: Rites and Rituals pulls Damon’s performance practice out from oblivion. Comprised of framed photographs, videos, and archival materials, the exhibition provides a comprehensive overview of eight performances that Damon executed between 1977–1986, as well as a series of intimate photographs, titled “Body Masks” (1976), that have never been exhibited before. Selected by Fabijanska from slides found in Damon’s personal archive, all of the framed prints on view were developed especially for the exhibition — a detail that speaks to the curatorial rigor of this show. Fabijanska first became aware of Damon when she was putting together her ecofeminism(s) exhibition, which took place at Thomas Erben gallery in Spring 2020. One of the highlights in this show was Damon’s large sculptural piece “The Memory of Clean Water”(1985), a 250-feet paper-pulp cast of a dried-up riverbed in Utah. It was this work, a literal portrait of our violence against nature, that triggered Damon’s transition away from the art world and into environmental activism.
I first became familiar with Damon through the 1977 “Lesbian Art & Artists” issue of the feminist journal Heresies, which she co-edited. The issue featured a photograph documenting Damon’s “7,000 Year Old Woman”(1977–78), a performance that entailed attaching 420 small pouches filled with flour to her naked body, and subsequently cutting them open. Though Damon recalls that nobody ever bothered to ask her what she was doing, the gesture signified cutting off oppression. Deeply informed by the feminist movement of the 1970s, Damon’s performance explored the weight of navigating public space as a lesbian woman. In the photographs on view at La MaMa, the crowds of men surrounding Damon — on Wall street in particular — highlight the constantly looming threat of patriarchy.
While Fabijanska’s voice was prominent in the ecofeminism(s) show, the curator decided that this time she would remove herself as much as possible to let Damon’s own accounts of her performances speak for themselves, accompanied by those of artists she collaborated with and was surrounded by, such as Su Friedrich, Amy Sillman, and Harmony Hammond.
On October 27, the artist re-staged “Listen Respect Revere”(1986), performing for the first time since 1986. In an effort to situate the performance in the present, Damon slightly updated the text around which the piece is centered, and chose different performers (two young people of color) than in the original. While Damon’s presence and reading radiated a palpable energy, the live performance did not speak to me as poignantly as the documentation of the historical pieces. The two performers, dressed as swans, moved rather awkwardly through the space as Damon read her text out loud, their silent choreography exuding little expression. Another performer produced a drumbeat assisted by stones and shells, and the reading switched between Damon and an additional reader, who recited Webster’s Dictionary terms. I tried to imagine myself in 1986, but was brought back into the present by the updates Damon had made, ultimately having to conclude that the performance simply didn’t hold up in 2021 — at least, not for me. Nonetheless, the exhibition is an impressive historical record of an artist whose work exposed that the exploitation of women and the exploitation of nature are done through the same structures. Ultimately, Damon’s feminist performance practice lay the groundwork for a greater goal: environmental activism.
Betsy Damon — Passages: Rites and Rituals continues at La MaMa Galleria (47 Great Jones Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) until November 21. It was curated by Monika Fabijanska.
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