Anna Mayer with Corey Fogel, WORD THE WORD PART 3: Unimplanting, Candice Lin’s backyard, Altadena, May 20, 2011
On a warm Friday night in May, I found myself in a woodsy backyard in Altadena, surrounded by various friends and acquaintances from the LA art community. We had all been invited to participate in a performative ritual centered around a ceramic pit fire—this being the latest iteration of Anna Mayer’s WORD THE WORD series of semiotic investigations.
A wealth of subtle, layered ideas go into Mayer’s projects, which lightly utilize a variety of media to achieve expression. WORD THE WORD events, which since 2010 have sought to “initiate and affirm the connections between exploration and language, consciousness and articulation,” have taken the form of guided meditations and listening sessions as well participatory readings. In 2008, ceramics began to play a significant role in Mayer’s practice when she launched Fireful of Fear, a long-term work in which the artist placed ceramic pieces inscribed with a variety of texts into the earth at different sites around Malibu, to await natural firing via wildfires. The project, which still awaits firing as we speak, evokes re-considerations of Land Art, California disaster myths, and the active or passive nature of the artmaking process.
The Self-Soothery series, which took place in 2010 and had a showing at Sea and Space Explorations, consisted of a variety of pit firing sessions, each one involving a different group of participants and producing a different set of ceramic objects. The series evolved out of Mayer’s interest in the history of ceramics as well as occult uses of fire; the firings strived to become sites for generative social gatherings as well as discursive transformations of objects. For the first firing, she invited “all the Annas and Adams I know”; for the second, a mixed group of friends told stories around the fire in Lara Bank’s backyard; for the third, she “only invited women but then tried to downplay my separatist leanings with mixed results.” Objects produced included incantation vessels, scorched money sculptures, and vaginal totems.
At Unimplanting, the fire, built on top of a cluster of ceramic wares, was already going when the mixed group of guests started arriving. Over the fire was a tall spit on which hung a large, floppy sculpture made by Mayer out of sundry materials such as rope, feathers, wood, and pennies. Strands of this sculpture danced mysteriously in response to the heat below. Carefully arranged in a ring around the fire were 10 square ceramic tiles; each one supported two candles and five unfired ceramic pieces (two bells, two noisemakers, and a “megaphone”).
The performance began when we all gathered around the fire and Mayer addressed us, encouraging everyone to listen to the fire, as well as to “the subtext behind all texts.” She then shared a wide range of thoughts with us—she told us about ceramic pit firing, which is the oldest form of ceramic practice; she described the materials that went into the sculpture and what each one symbolized for her; she shared intense feelings and anecdotes from her personal life; she told us what would happen to particular objects in the fire; she discussed the history of ceramics and sculpture in California as they pertained to frontierism and territoriality; she related a legend about a woman named Marjorie who had been buried alive; and so on.
Periodically, Mayer would also discourage us from easy reads of the ritual we were witnessing, telling us not to look at the sculpture as a sacrifice or an effigy, not to regard what was happening as an invocation or an incantation, not to identify with anything that she said—but rather, to look for a way to “de-instrumentalize the fire, let it burn without progress.” At times, she would pause and Corey Fogel, with the assistance of John Burtle, would move around the circle and make a music of sorts using the objects that were arrayed on the tiles. These objects were also passed to guests for noisemaking.
Eventually, the sculpture was lowered into the fire, where it quickly burned, the copper from the pennies creating little blue streaks. And eventually, we were asked to place the unfired pieces at the edge of the pit, so they could warm gradually before being tossed in towards the end of the night. The fire would burn for a few hours more, long after the last guests had left, and the finished pieces would be unearthed by Mayer the next day.
The mood of this night felt so Southern Californian to me—casual, organic, and magical. There was a bubbling blend of inquiries and reflections at work in Mayer’s words, and the subtlety of their reverberations offered a quiet place for both contemplation and connection with others. The ancient social act of gathering around a fire, along with the references made to witchcraft and spells, generated a primordial heat of their own, offering a powerful setting for voyages into language and consciousness.
Sipping steady amounts of Candice Lin’s intoxicating homemade vodka-honey-pepper infusion, I felt the fire warm and unfold before me, letting the words of the artist float through my consciousness, sometimes kindling sparks of recognition or the glow of reflection, sometimes not. It was one of those nights when I felt so lucky to be living in Los Angeles at this particular time, knowing the people that I know, who constantly seek to engage one another in ways like this, multifaceted explorations that bloom simply by being, that make things without trying to Make Things, that burn simply to burn.