Whom do you admire?
I often ask clients this question when we can’t come up with obvious mentors or role models. It doesn’t have to be anyone you know, personally, I tell them. It can be a public or historical figure.
A better question might be, whom do you emulate? What do you value and how do you want to manifest that in your work?
Last week I attended a Tracking Wonder workshop at the magnificent Mohonk Mountain Resort. During one of the sessions, we were asked to form groups and share something we appreciated about ourselves, something we admired about another person in the group, and someone we admired outside of the workshop. My answer to the last question has been the same for the past thirty years: women performance artists of the 1960s and 1970s, who stood up with everything they had–body, mind, politics, and personal experience.
These women brought their physical, intellectual, and emotional selves into the arena of art, face to face with audience or viewer.
Here are a few examples:
1) Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, in which she sat silently on the stage of a performance hall, placed a pair of scissors in front of her, and invited audience members to snip pieces off pieces of her expensive suit. (She performed it first in 1964 at Yamaichi Concert Hall in Kyoto, then in 1965 at Carnegie Hall, and recently during a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.) One by one, audience members approached, first cutting small patches and then larger and larger pieces, the tension mounting as Ono was further exposed.
Ono drew inspiration for Cut Piece from the story of the Buddha she heard as a child, in which he renounced his position to go out into the world and give whatever was requested of him. Ono gave herself fully to the audience, stayed silent, alert, and present, allowing the issues of violence, female subordination, and aggression to be played out and questioned.
2_Linda Montano’s video performance, Mitchell’s Death, in which she appeared before the camera, face pierced with acupuncture needles, chanting the details of the death of her ex-husband. Shot in black in white, the only option in 1975, Montano’s pale face looms from the dark background, her eyes cast downward. The chanting is rhythmic, haunting, and dark.
I love this piece because it puts you face to face with the unfathomable and everyday occurrence of death and heavy grief.
3) Hannah Wilke’s,Starification Object Series (S.O.S.) — Hannah Wilke twenty-five times in twenty-five pose, with hands on her hips and her head thrown back, with her nipples round and hard, with her jeans unzipped, with her shirt unbuttoned, with no shirt at all. Straddling a chair, taking off her shirt, pinching her breast, wearing a tie over her naked torso. And all over her body, chewing gum folded into tiny vaginas, like scars, splayed across her chest, spotting her face, and covering her fingernails.
Interior wounds made manifest on an otherwise beautiful body.
Hannah Wilke said that when she stood up for herself in her work, she stood up for every woman. That is one reason I admire her and so many women of her generation. Their willingness to stand up with their strength and their vulnerability, with everything they had, including their bare or semi-bare bodies.
The following are lyrics to Wilke’s song, Stand Up:
Stand up for what you want to do
standup there’s no one telling you
how to stand up, stand up, how to stand up.
Stand up when people put you down
stand up and dance above the ground
you’ve got to stand up, stand up
you’ve got to stand up.
Disposable products, society
consumer reports life’s absurdity
exposing the truth is like nudity
so stand up, why don’t you stand up.
Whom do you emulate? What are you willing to stand up for? How much truth are you willing to bring in your work?