Barbara T. Smith dialogue, The Box, January 16, 2010

Barbara T. Smith, left, in dialogue with
Mara McCarthy at The Box

For those interested in gaining a historical perspective on the evolution of feminism and performance art in California, as well as insight into an important and interesting artist, the exhibition currently on view at The Box in Chinatown should not be missed. Barbara T. Smith: Old Shoes: Performance Relics 1968–1975 closes January 23, so this week is your last chance to see it.

Last Saturday afternoon, The Box hosted a very engaging dialogue between Smith and Mara McCarthy, the gallery’s director, followed by an open discussion with audience members. The audience and speakers all sat in a circle facing one another, which gave the event a familial feel. Smith spoke very much from her own personal experience and history, while at the same time, the discussion ranged through many of the classic ideas associated with feminism and early performance art—the primacy of the body, actions outside of the museum, ordinary materials as art, the activation of women’s stories, the power of the feminine and of the communal ritual. The result was that I felt like I was watching a really good art history textbook come to vivid life.

The 1968 performance Ritual Meal was a dinner party in which guests were attired in surgical garb and given surgical tools with which to consume a meal, while footage of nature and an open-heart surgery were projected on the walls around them. The experience gave the illusion of consuming a human body, while evoking a greater connection with the cosmos. Some of the guests had very strong physical reactions, and were not able to eat meat for days afterwards. Smith remarked that while she had no formal theatrical training, she did, as a housewife, know how to put together the various elements of a successful dinner party, and so she used these familiar skills to create her art works.

Many of Smith’s works from this period made reference to her sheltered, middle-class, Catholic upbringing. Mass Meal (1969) set participants loose in an intense sensory environment, where they descended into primitive behavior and completely violated the space. In orchestrating this piece, Smith was simultaneously replicating and defying the spiritual sacrament of Catholic Mass. Plots (1970), in which Smith planted succulents from a nursery into fields of weeds, expressed her fear that she would not survive her new career as an artist, having acquired no street or marketable skills in her life to date. Both of these performances were part of a triptych, which again was a reference to Christian religious imagery.

While male performance art was often physically dangerous (Chris Burden’s early pieces are an obvious example), female performance art tended to be more emotionally or psychologically dangerous (think of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece or Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0). After her iconic Feed Me (1973) performance, which was heavily interactive and extremely draining, Smith needed to rebalance her energy by doing Pure Food (1973), in which she sat all day in a field in Costa Mesa and simply received the healing rays of the sun. She thus thinks of these two pieces as supporting one another.

Barbara T. Smith, documentation of
Pure Food, 1973 (left) and Feed Me, 1973

In response to the remark about physical vs. emotional danger, an audience member brought up a late-1970s performance in which Smith and fellow artist Nancy Buchanan donned karate uniforms and engaged in an all-out fist fight with one another. This rough fight followed a delicate dance done by two polite, nude men. The piece, which was actually a Nancy Buchanan performance, was a deliberate upending of gender roles. The fight lasted for 20 minutes, a fact that was laughed at by Smith’s male friends, who told her that real fights between males rarely lasted more than a few minutes.

Smith’s most recent performance series, A Meditation on Time (2009), done as part of the Armory Center for the Arts’ Installations Inside/Out exhibition, finds her knitting at several significant sites in her hometown of Pasadena. The act of knitting represents duration and nostalgia for the past. With this series, Smith feels that she finally comes back home, and unites the darker periods of her life with the lighter ones.

These are just a few highlights from a fascinating discussion that lasted for more than 90 minutes. The event ended on a warm note with guests partaking of two different squash soups that had been cooked by Smith and McCarthy that morning. Squash, of course, was the centerpiece of a faux/authentic religion that was founded by Smith in 1971 following a very successful dinner party in which she united the people from her old Pasadena life as a housewife, and her new Pomona life as an artist.

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