The Present Nature of Things: Suzanne Lacy’s Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics, 1974-2007
Duke University Press, 2010
review by Haig Aivazian
In a conversation with Lucy Lippard in 1985, Suzanne Lacy spoke of the history of women’s labor unions making use of communal activities such as pageants, dinner parties, gift exchanges and birthday celebrations as a means to build solidarity amongst women. Art and activism have a longstanding overlapping history. In the mid-80s, Suzanne Lacy began retroactively framing the large-scale performances she had been undertaking since the early 70s within the tradition of pageantry. Pageants in the early part of the 20th century were a deeply community-oriented and non-commercial form of entertainment: they were often massive productions involving a cast of hundreds of volunteers in performances of theatre, dance and music.
Leaving Art: Writing on Performance, Politics, and Publics, 1974-2007 is a collection of writings by one of the foremost and most ambitious practitioners in western feminist art of the past 50 years. Arranged by decade beginning from the 70s, Lacy’s entries map out a wide array of topics in contemporary art and function like the journal of a constantly self-questioning artist, as she works through challenges in and around her work.
The book consists of research for, or writings emerging from, Lacy’s artwork. Through the interconnected articles in the collection, the reader is able to track the evolution of Lacy’s theories on the role and definition of art and its relationship to activism, politics and organizing, as well as the role of mass media and public spaces in the production, dissemination and consumption of art.
Throughout the wide array of topics covered in the book, the female body continually functions as a warp zone of sorts, a vessel that for Lacy links all female experience: “I wondered who they were, these women whose lives were such powerful icons for my gender. How did I carry their condition inside my own head?” (5).
It is this portal that lead to Lacy’s Prostitution Notes project in 1974, an arrangement of journal entries and diagrams documenting a series of stakeouts and meetings with sex workers in Los Angeles. The diagrams end up forming a complex mapping of the locations, movements and transactions of the sex trade on the streets of the city. Lacy’s annotations also delineate a complex psychological terrain around female sexuality as it is negotiated in the shadows of prostitution.
These sorts of problematic interchangeabilities and other liberties that Lacy takes within her practice facilitate the formulation of a complex sense of solidarity. They also, however, cause a number of cringe-worthy moments, such as one where she speaks of the Church of Naturalism, an organization that she approaches during the course of her research for Prostitution Notes: “they hasten to assure me they are interested in helping not only hookers” she says, “but old people and blacks and poor people and the mentally ill among others.” (6)
This kind of tokenism had many of Lacy’s collaborators and subjects approach her with skepticism: she recounts that during her research for Bag Lady a poor street woman yelled at her to “leave the street people alone.” (55) This, however, did not prevent Lacy from continuing the work that resulted in a performance where she collected trash from around the city dressed as a homeless person. In another awkward instance, while working on The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron, a large scale performance and dialogue piece about the darker side of the history of Asian immigration to the United States, Lacy came to the realization, “in one of many hard lessons around race,” that despite her best intentions she embodied racism to the Chinese women whose help she had looked to co-opt. (63)
Despite these early slips across lines of race and class, Lacy still managed to come away with observations far exceeding in complexity the more essentialist and simplistic artistic approaches of her time. Throughout the 80s and the 90s, she tirelessly organized intricate and ambitious collaborative, interdisciplinary, immersive and public performances with large groups of artists, activists and community members.
The writings end up forming a number of important notions, not least of which is the fact that feminist endeavors are at the heart of some of the most important shifts in the ways that contemporary art is viewed and discussed today. Now-commonplace ideas of public, social and relational practices, as well as notions of art and the everyday, all stem from a feminist line of inquiry.
It is, however, worth wondering about the timing of such a publication in light of recent international interest in feminists of Lacy’s generation (she even makes note of this in the introduction to the 2000s section of the book), peaking in exhibitions such as the 2007 WACK! show at the MOCA. The retrospective accumulation of texts is perhaps an attempt by Lacy to concretize her legacy, or perhaps she feels the need to maintain a varied and nuanced dialogue in a movement that is increasingly being talked about and curated in monolithic ways.
Ultimately readers come away from the book with a clear sense of Lacy’s sizeable contribution to art as well as the various communities she has sought to engage. The texts paint an honest portrait of an artist going through considerable trial and error and ultimately posing important and productive core questions, most lingering of which may be whether art can actually be a platform for real social change and engagement.