Artist Suzanne Lacy has spent the last 50 years trying to heal the world around her. Queens Museum surveys her career of politically charged, socially engaged art performances/community immersions in Suzanne Lacy: The Medium Is Not the Only Message.
If you’ve been helplessly scrolling through the tragedies of our era — racial injustice, policing, immigration, the penal system, violence against women, war, the food supply — and wondering what you could do, Lacy has more than a few ideas to get you started. She’s dealt with all these issues already in her work. Each of her projects tackles an intractable problem through long-term community engagement and something called art; she investigates, networks, questions, confronts, and ultimately aims to offer a push at least in the right direction.
Her works are object lessons on how to get things done. They are also not for the faint of heart.
Consider Lacy’s 1993-94 Auto Body. Here Lacy worked with women imprisoned at Bedford Maximum Security Correctional Facility in upstate New York. In a video on display, the women tell their personal stories, in particular the gender-based violence in their pasts. One woman recalls watching a certain man beat her mother bloody, and not for the first time, and “seeing her head split open ….” Another comments, “It’s not safe to be a woman in this society.”
Lacy arranged for the women to create sculptures out of old cars that she had transported to the prison. In the video, the women smash the cars with massive machinery and otherwise alter them by installing foreign objects not normally found in car interiors or writing on them; “Hand held on hot stove” is painted on one car. A vitrine in the exhibition contains relics of the action, including a rearview mirror with the words “Are the bruises covered up?” It’s all desperately sad, and sadly still familiar.
These disclosures emerged in Lacy’s practice through a year-long series of planned engagements, a testament to her sincere commitment to understand their lives and if possible help these women.
The Queens Museum show includes one of Lacy’s earliest large-scale, community-based works, Prostitution Notes (1973), about street prostitution in LA. Lacy immersed herself in the community, not by posing as a prostitute, but through networking and research. Hand-drawn maps in the exhibition show how she tracked the people and activities involved in this subculture. In a documentary video, a provocative question appears on the screen: “Has your boyfriend picked up a hooker when you were out of town?”
Lacy floods the viewer with information, unafraid of using language as direct and dry as that in a police write-up or a sociological field report to detail observations of behavior and label things clearly so she can talk about them substantively. What is visible in the museum memorializes a series of actions, open discussions within a troubled community, steps undertaken toward reconciliation, and plans for change, the proverbial iceberg tip of the engagement with a locality and its citizens on an issue of great importance to that community.
Lacy may be less known on the East Coast, though she has long been a fixture on the LA scene, both as an artist and as a professor (currently at the University of Southern California), and she has worked and exhibited internationally. SFMoMA and the Yerba Buena Arts Center, both in San Francisco, hosted a career retrospective of her work in 2019. In 2013, under the title Silver Action, Tate Modern commissioned her to conduct several interlinked programs to foster intergenerational discourse on political activism. She has written and published extensively, as in her 2010 collection Leaving Art.
The Queens Museum retrospective includes a fantastic six-channel video installation, De tu puño y letra (By Your Own Hand, 2014), in which Ecuadoran men, simply dressed in white shirts and standing in a bullfighting ring, read brief statements that women have written to chronicle their abuse by men. The men’s delivery is unemotional, despite the devastating facts recited, such as gang rape. After reciting the woman’s story, each man holds for a while, staring into the camera; it’s more than a little uncomfortable to watch. Fortunately, in addition to horrific accounts of violence and sexual assault, there’s a section of the video called “Leaving,” stories of women who have managed to escape manipulation and domination. This hardly erases the inhuman cruelty that forced them out, but it does point to a bit of hope, that people can find a way to a better world, however difficult that may be.
Indeed, If Lacy’s work has some overriding message, perhaps it is in finding the strength to keep fighting and to know that sometimes, somewhere, a little progress is made toward decreasing suffering and building a supportive community for everyone.
Suzanne Lacy: The Medium Is Not the Only Message continues at the Queens Museum (New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens) through August 14. The exhibition was curated by Sophia Marisa Lucas, adjunct curator.