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Essay

I RECALL A SUNDAY MORNING when the church lectionary readings included a passage from the prophet Isaiah. The lay reader that morning was a thoughtful, older man dressed in a tasteful gray suit. Standing at the lectern, he opened the Bible and read:

At that time Yahweh had spoken through Isaiah son of Amoz. He had said to him, “Go and undo the sackcloth from your loins and take the sandals off your feet.” The latter had done so, and walked about naked and barefoot. Yahweh then said, “As my servant Isaiah has been walking about naked and barefoot for the last three years—a sign and portent for Egypt and Cush—so will the king of Assyria lead away captives from Egypt and exiles from Cush, young and old, naked and barefoot, their buttocks bared, to the shame of Egypt.

PLATE 1. Yayoi Kusama. The Anatomic Explosion, 1968. Happening. In front of the statue of George Washington across from the New York Stock Exchange, New York. © Yayoi Kusama.

Strangely, as the reader sat down, no one murmured in distaste, or even raised an eyebrow. And when the priest got up to deliver the homily—the priest who was about fifty-five years old, the very age that Isaiah would have been when he strode through Israel preaching naked—I had a moment’s fear that he might slip off his robe and deliver the message in full frontal symbolic confession. Perhaps my fear arose from the fact that only two days before, I had lectured on contemporary performance art in my art history class. We had studied, among others, Yayoi Kusama, who once directed four young artists to dance naked on the public steps opposite the New York Stock Exchange in protest against the US financing of the Vietnam Conflict [see Plate 1].

Or maybe my fear arose because I had once discussed contemporary performance art over coffee in the fellowship hall after church with that very lay reader and priest. They had expressed their dismay at the weird way that avant-garde artists carried on these days and how, even if one felt strongly about a cause, public nudity was no way to convince people. And yet that Sunday morning, Isaiah could—within the confines of text—accost his ancient Jewish congregation with confrontational words reinforced by his aging naked body without causing even a murmur.

It struck me as interesting that what we tolerate—indeed, celebrate—in the biblical text about ancient confrontations between God and corrupt people, we would never accept in our own present moment, even if a performance artist claimed to speak for God. Maybe the sense of disconnect was only my problem. As a professional art historian and working artist I spend much time in the art world. I accept its habits of extreme expression, where even one’s body is understood as an expressive medium and its nakedness as a metaphor operating under the moral auspices of art. But as a Christian believer I also spend time in the church, where decorum overrides the Bible’s unnerving social transgressions and would never tolerate such prophetic performances, even under the auspices of holy preaching and call.

Perhaps because I teach young artists at a Christian college, that particular Sunday brought these two worlds face to face in a powerful way. It placed two realms of powerful symbolic action side by side and asked about their relationship. Certainly my students—eager to make relevant art as well as explore faith—caught hold of the juxtaposition of Isaiah’s naked preaching and Kusama’s naked war protests when I mentioned it in class the following week. They wanted to track this down. Their generation is tired of the either/or choice between pallid faith and vigorous art or vigorous faith and anemic art. They are well aware of the gritty texture of the biblical text and the fierce texture of the art world. Their generation is bored with art and faith as merely parallel tracks that do not know each other. They are equally bored with faith demanding that art be evangelical or faith be only personal. They want to be interlopers between these worlds, where each world is creative.

Obviously there is bad performance art, even as there were false prophets. But there is also good performance art and inspired prophetic action. The question is, what is their relationship? To explore the question with depth, it is necessary to avoid getting snared in partisan politics, whether liberal or conservative. There is something here that cuts diagonally across the bias of both. To put it more neutrally, the interesting question is about the phenomenon of public performance art and symbolic prophetic gestures, both contemporary and ancient. There exists within the western psyche a deep and authentic cultural form—and therefore a culturally expressive mechanism—for confronting contradictions between our ideals and the real world. Particularly interesting is the role that performative images play in flushing out those contradictions.

As I say, the meeting of Isaiah and Kusama soon found its way into my contemporary art history class. Nothing in my prepared lecture notes suggested that those strange, often strident preachers of ancient Israel—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea—would make unscheduled appearances in a Saint Paul classroom among twenty-first-century undergraduates. But a few days after I heard the lectionary reading from Isaiah, as Kusama’s dancers again hovered on the projection screen in the dark, my memory brought up the image of the ancient prophet striding naked through Israel. In the spontaneous energy of classroom discussion, the comparison seemed feasible and illuminating. Of course, upon later reflection it seemed equally preposterous and specious. Responsible methods of scholarship warn against glib anachronistic or cross-cultural comparisons—and to relate disciplines as different as theology and modern art history seems like skating on thin ice. Who in their right mind would weigh the poetic genius and brooding gravitas of ancient Hebraic poetry in the same balance as the quirkily hewn rhetoric and New-Age vagaries of Kusama’s 1960s hippie mysticism?

But in pressing the question, deeper and more creative connections soon emerged. Isaiah’s actions stand within the tradition of “sacred discontent”—a term coined by literary critic Herbert Schneidau in his book Sacred Discontent: The Bible and Western Tradition. Sacred discontent embraces extreme critique when people abuse divine blessing and operate corruptly in the name of God. Its long genealogy stretches from ancient Jewish prophets to early Christian martyrs to Protestant Reformers to twentieth-century civil rights leaders. In its name, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and others have performed some extremely weird and socially transgressive symbolic actions—many of which have surprising analogues in contemporary performance art.

Of course, this art is secular in its prophetic energy, and many will say this makes it a different matter. But Schneidau makes an intriguing case that both traditions use the same structure; and, more provocatively, that the avant-garde is essentially sacred discontent in secularized form. The need to challenge corruption—whether in political, economic, religious, class, race, or gender systems—through transgressive actions trumps orthodoxies both theological and modernist. Just witness postmodernism’s aggressive deconstruction of modernism’s utopian faith. Indeed, the striking parallels between ancient and contemporary performative critiques end up breaking down what has always been a somewhat specious divide between sacred and secular—a distinction itself created by rationalist positivism and reactionary theology.

Happily, my most energetic students see their cultural situation through twenty-first-century eyes, not through exhausted nineteenth- and twentieth-century constructs. They soon ferreted out numerous evocative juxtapositions, each with its own points of similarity, difference, and ambiguity. But in every case, at the pith of each comparison was a compelling resonance, even though no direct influence or appropriation surfaced. At any rate, this provocative but unstable territory called for further exploration.

PLATE 2. Mona Hatoum. Variation on Discord and Divisions, 1984. Performance. © Mona Hatoum. Courtesy of White Cube Gallery, London. Photo: Corry Wyngaarden.

Consider, for example, performance artist Mona Hatoum’s Variation on Discord and Divisions, which for us evoked Jeremiah’s symbolic uses of his poetic books [see Plates 2 and 3]. Actually, in this example we find an artist who may be aware of the old prophet, given that Palestinian-born Hatoum originates from a culture where scriptural texts are commonly known. In Variation, she performed several vignettes in a space where the walls and floors were covered with newspapers. Newspapers are the texts of the world, tasked with reporting the “truth” and stimulating dialogue and freedom through open information. Yet, as everyone knows, what each newspaper presents, given journalistic bias or government censorship, is an interpretation from a point of view. Discord and divisions are not easily resolved by the media’s reportage, even though we look to it for clarity. Surrounded by these texts full of information, Hatoum is dressed in overalls and a black stocking mask that covers her eyes, ears, and mouth, isolating her from the world while hiding her identity, as either victim or terrorist. In one vignette, she is on hands and knees attempting to scrub the newspaper-lined floor clean—but she ends up only smearing it with blood-colored water. At one point, she takes a knife and slits the mask at the mouth, eyes, and ears, an effort to see, hear, and give voice, though she remains masked.

Mona Hatoum, Variation on Discord and Divisions

PLATE 3. Mona Hatoum. Variation on Discord and Divisions, 1984. Performance. © Mona Hatoum. Courtesy of White Cube Gallery, London. Photo: Corry Wyngaarden.

At least one level of this piece is the expression of frustration and futility implicit in reportage and censorship, truth-telling and cover-ups, communication and rhetoric. It captures the sense that we are blind, deaf, and mute, even as we take actions to clean up, resolve, or cut through—actions that often result in more bloodshed. It points to the ambiguous role of texts—both as truth-telling and rhetorical weapon—as we vie for justice or dominance. And it suggests the difficulty of understanding, or even wanting to understand, through the hooded isolations of our positions of deep discord and divisions.

All of this reminded my students of the poignant role of Jeremiah’s texts in his story. He had been accused of disloyalty to Israel because his writings criticized the king and national attitudes—all those who, in his words, did not “seek the welfare of Israel.” To discredit Jeremiah, the king had his secretary, Elishama, read Jeremiah’s text out loud. After every three or four columns, the king cut off that part of the scroll with a knife and burned it while mocking the prophet, who had been beaten, imprisoned, and placed under threat of death. Ultimately Jeremiah’s predictions proved reliable. Per his warnings, Israel was taken into captivity in Babylon, at which point he was instructed to write another text and give it to the king’s officer Seriah. The second text was one of hope in the face of despair. Seriah was told to read it aloud to the people in exile, and then tie a stone to it and sink it in the Euphrates River as a sign against Babylon and proof that God would not abandon the nation during their captivity.

While there is no exact similarity or direct influence between Hatoum and Jeremiah, my students felt a profound resonance between them. It had to do with the function of texts confronting power. It had to do with how texts mediate and give elegy to the tragedies of violence, bloodshed, and loss. And it had to do with the prophetic figures of preacher and artist under conditions of suffering, oppression, and threat.

PLATE 4. Ann Hamilton. Malediction, 1992. Performance. Louver Gallery, New York. Courtesy of Ann Hamilton Studio. Photo: D. James Dee.

No less poignant was Ann Hamilton’s haunting performance Malediction, when placed in relation to Ezekiel’s troubling enactments of Jerusalem under siege [see Plates 4 and 5]. Hamilton’s performance involved two rooms: an anteroom whose floor was littered with rags soaked in red wine and water, and an inner room where the artist sat eating bread. In the anteroom, viewers stepped on the wine-soaked rags, whose humid smell filled the space, in order to pass into the inner room, where Hamilton sat on a tall stool at a refectory table. On the table was a large bowl filled with balls of raw bread dough. On by one, she placed these in her mouth, bit down to form a cast of her mouth’s hollow interior, then put each cast in a long, narrow wicker basket of the kind used by nineteenth-century undertakers to transport bodies to the morgue. A voice playing on a speaker read from Whitman’s Song of Myself and The Body Electric.

This installation took place in Greenwich Village, the same New York neighborhood where poor immigrant women once worked in sweatshops with no labor laws to protect them. The neighborhood was the site of Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, where 146 workers, nearly all Jewish and Italian immigrant women, died because owners had locked doors to fire escapes to prevent them from taking unauthorized breaks.

Anna Hamilton, Malediction

PLATE 5. Ann Hamilton. Malediction, 1992. Performance. Louver Gallery, New York. Courtesy of Ann Hamilton Studio. Photo: D. James Dee.

What is powerful here is how Hamilton’s work connects to specific historic events through simple, universal elements and actions. Class struggle, labor laws, gender, economics, and justice are expressed by symbolic reference to working, eating, clothing, bread, and wine. As with the best art, the socioeconomic specifics are embodied in allusive poetic signs. And in the gap between pragmatic politics and abstract symbol, Hamilton’s chosen elements act as a bridge.

My students, by now attuned to the idea of searching the prophets for resonant gestures, soon brought Ezekiel alongside Hamilton. The point was not a “where’s Waldo” hunt, but rather the discovery of a similar urgency made manifest by everyday symbols and actions. In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet is commanded to bake a strange and offensive bread which he must eat in front of his neighbors after performing bizarre actions foretelling the military siege and destruction of Jerusalem. Having been told to draw a picture of the city on a brick, then heap up dirt around it as symbolic earthworks of a siege, Ezekiel is tied up in cords and ordered to lie on his left side for 390 days, then on his right side for forty days—these numbers symbolizing the years of exile that will come after the city is destroyed. Performance artists such as Marina Abramovic have made much of the idea that artists must have extreme endurance and tolerance for pain in order to be genuine. Ezekiel’s 430 days of lying in bondage beside a clay depiction of beloved Jerusalem certainly must have challenged him—while severely testing the patience of his audience, whose demise he was predicting.

But he was not done. These strange labors were only the anteroom. To this torturing marathon of social criticism, Yahweh added the eating of bread defiled according to Mosaic law. Ezekiel’s eating this bread would stand as portent of how his nation’s moral defilement would bring conquest and exile. Yahweh instructed Ezekiel to:

…take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt, and put them into a single vessel, and make bread of them. During the number of days that you lie on your side…you shall eat it…baking it in their sight on human dung. And the Lord said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread unclean, among the nations whither I will drive them.”

To the use of human dung as fuel, Ezekiel himself protested: “Then I said, ‘Ah Lord God! Behold, I have never defiled myself….’” This raises a significant issue for both prophet and performance artist. To what lengths must one go to fulfill the moral mandate and make the point? Is it necessary, and is it ethically permissible—even when the command is attributable to God—for the prophet or artist literally to compromise or endanger him or herself?

Here again is that moment of tension I felt sitting in church with the priest and the thoughtful lay reader in his tasteful gray suit, hearing about naked old Isaiah. Here again, the mild discomfort we feel with ancient religious prophets may become downright anxiety when contemporary performance artists are involved. Are socially transgressive and literally dangerous actions really required for an authentic prophesy or performance? Is not a metaphoric action adequate? Every reasonable person would say yes, and indeed as a teacher and mentor to young artists I would agree. And yet, both religious and art-world figures have crossed these lines. Although the glass of paint drunk by Jim Dine turned out not to be real paint, Chris Burden did have himself shot with a rifle. Marina Abramovic almost suffocated when a ring of fire deprived her of oxygen. Both Abramovic and Catherine Opie carved words and symbols into their own skin, enduring pain and risking infection. And these are not the most grotesque examples.

The public, especially the conservative religious public, is repelled by this. And yet the biblical text offers equally repellent moments. Isaiah went naked in public; Jeremiah alienated his government to the point of arrest, beatings, imprisonment, and threat of death. Then there is Hosea, whom God commanded to marry and conceive children with the prostitute Gomer as symbol of Israel’s state of spiritual infidelity.

Hosea’s example was particularly agitating to my students, all of whom were young and thinking of marriage as an idealized and sacred commitment. And here was Hosea using marriage and sex to signify that Yahweh still loved his people and would redeem them, even remain their lover despite their spiritual and cultural wantonness. This even when Gomer grew restless and returned to the city square to resume her trade, and Yahweh told Hosea to publically retrieve her, despite the shame this brought to the prophet. Also this, even when Hosea abused Gomer with words and physical beatings. Given the sacredness of marriage and the prohibitions against illicit sex (punishable by stoning), is it not quite extraordinary that Yahweh would order such a marriage, require unsimulated sex, and condone the conception of a child, all as a metaphor of spiritual ideals and social corruption?

The rawness of Hosea came up in my class when we studied performance artist Andrea Fraser. In Untitled, Fraser sold a performance work—reportedly for twenty thousand dollars—to an unnamed male art collector consisting of her having sex with him for one hour in a hotel room. The performance was video recorded and exhibited later in a Chelsea gallery. In response to an established art critic’s statement that Fraser was “a whore,” Village Voice art critic Jerry Saltz replied that Untitled occurred within the contexts of “women taking control, Baudelaire’s idea of the artist as prostitute [and] art as institutional critique that risks being vulnerable.”

Anyone who follows the art world knows that world’s double binds: aesthetically authentic/marketable; socially critical/collectible; spiritually rewarding/profitable; beautiful/a good investment. The artist is often caught between creating the work she wants and producing collectibles for the auction house that will drive up prices. There is real pressure to compromise in order to succeed. The contradictions are rife between notions of art as sacred ideal and art as status object. The point being, these dynamics are decidedly not metaphorical. And they guarantee strange bedfellows—sometimes literally.

Whether this justifies an artist having sex with a collector becomes a serious question. Would simulated sex have had the same significance? Saltz suggests that without actual risk, the work would lack a force equivalent to the unsimulated system of compromise between art-as-money and art-as-keeping-faith. And yet, when it comes to gestures that are meant symbolically but involve concrete actions that go to the core of one’s self, perhaps the giving of one’s intimate personhood under the auspices of aesthetic detachment involves too much? After all, even Yahweh relented when Ezekiel protested against eating bread baked on human dung, and allowed him to substitute animal dung. One wants—I want—to leave Fraser’s Untitled out of this essay or find in Ezekiel’s example the final answer to the question of “how far?” Does the artist literally have to screw to prove she has been screwed? Yet it is hard to gloss over the extreme and extended prophetic gesture of Hosea’s intimacy with Gomer. These transgressive and dangerous actions go to considerable lengths, raising ethical questions about an artist or prophet’s choice between realism and symbolism.

Zhang Huan is another artist who puts his own body at risk. In 1991, wearing heavy winter clothing from his home in China, he jumped into a Florida swimming pool and tried to breathe underwater [see front cover]. The result is a touching and desperate portrait of a man strung between two cultures—his native Chinese culture being hostile to his enterprise as a free artist; his new American culture being hostile to how he fits into the world as a human person. Wearing old clothes from the first while drowning in the beautiful blue waters of abundance in the second, he tries to breath while struggling to swim, lost between two worlds.

PLATE 6. Zhang Huan. Twelve Meters Squared, 1994. Performance. Beijing, China. Courtesy of Zhang Huan Studio.

His Twelve Square Meters, performed in the poor neighborhood of Beijing East Village in 1994, was a protest against the deplorable sanitation conditions of public toilets there [see Plate 6]. The toilets did not work, flies swarmed, and the stench of human waste was everywhere. Complaints to the government got no notice. So Zhang brought attention to the situation by lathering his naked body with honey and fish oil and sitting on a rough-hewn latrine in the public toilets until hordes of flies and insects covered him. In this way he shamed the authorities into cleaning up. The courage required to transgress against decorum, sanitation, and law, in a generation of young Chinese artists whom the government often jailed as unpatriotic for protesting human rights violations, is quite extraordinary. But it also put the artist in bodily and legal jeopardy.

Though there is no direct influence, Zhang’s risk certainly bears resonance with Ezekiel’s. In fact, Ezekiel’s government soon became hostile and demanded to know what he was doing. They accused him of being unpatriotic for criticizing his people. Happily, Yahweh had instructed the prophet on how to face criticism. And in that instruction, we gain a rich insight into how we might think about this problem.

Yahweh’s instructions to his prophets grant them a special social status, a sort of platform or set-apart place from which they may say or do otherwise objectionable things. From that platform, a prophet is permitted to operate symbolically, even when the symbolism is offensive, outrageous, or dangerous:

In the morning the word of the Lord came to [Ezekiel]: “Son of man, has not the house of Israel, the rebellious house, said to you, ‘What are you doing?’ Say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God…, say, ‘I am a sign for you: as I have done, so shall it be done to them.’”

Clearly, today a person can also operate under a special, set-apart status, namely as a performance artist. In both cases the notion that “I am a sign” becomes permissible, even if sometimes problematic or repugnant. We have seen that in these loose pairings of ancient and contemporary actions, though there may not be a direct or concrete influence, a sense of resonance sets them into relationship with each other and with us. They make similar use of elements that feel both ancient and modern—such as symbols of human dignity (bread, oil, wine, labor) and life processes (eating, sex, cleanliness, excrement, death). But perhaps what most directly bridges the chasm between ancient past and present, religious and secular contexts, is this strategy by which the actor ceases his role as an individual person in order to become a sign. I find this strategy—a person driven by moral conviction to challenge corrupt power at considerable personal risk—incredibly interesting. It is inspiring even as it is problematic.

Both prophet and artist symbolically inflict upon themselves the present conditions of their culture and the sufferings, punishments, or humiliations resulting from the culture’s practices. These are borne in their own persons first; and in that strategy of proclamation, they impute responsibility for their culture’s corruptions to their viewers, who now find it more difficult to remain passive onlookers. The moral force of the performance is its implication that we, the viewers, have the power to alter social direction, ethical and spiritual contradictions, and political policy.

I have expressed reluctance to embrace without qualification a connection between these ancient and contemporary phenomena. The obstacles of time, cultural contexts, disciplines, notions of art, and theological versus secular paradigms are enough to justify such reluctance. But it strikes me, as I find the resonances so provocative, that there are other fruitful bases for placing ancient Hebrew prophets and contemporary performance artists in dialogue.

One of the inciting premises of contemporary performance art was Robert Rauschenberg’s move from the high aesthetics of abstract expressionism into his performative work and combine paintings using found objects. Our class text, like every text on performance art, treats his famous explanation of this move as the iconic signifier of this paradigm shift in artistic practice: “Paintings relate to both art and life…. I try to act in the gap between the two.” This is a break with the aesthetic decorum of art, but does not succumb to crass political alliance with life. And it is similar to the method of the prophets, who broke with religious decorum, but without succumbing to a blatant theocratic coup.

The meaning of that gap was to avoid highly personal or self-involved aestheticism, on the one hand, and glib, politicized social critique, on the other. If the former tends towards escape (whether aesthetic or spiritual), the latter tends to be reductive. But work made in that gap navigates both poles. Thus that gap becomes a territory, and a form in which the artist’s or prophet’s actions are conceived and experienced simultaneously as pragmatically actual and as symbolically set apart. The meaning is neither in the aesthetics (or religion) nor the politics alone. Rather it is in the relations between the two; the relations have now become a form—a dynamic, performative form. It is the agency of performative action—of relational formto stimulate relation, whether critically or in celebration.

It is interesting that some recent art history has now declared the rich value of what is “between.” For example, Hans Belting’s Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art and David Freedberg’s The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response both use the discipline of art history in a new way that allows art history also to operate, so to speak, in that gap favored by Rauschenberg. They do so by studying how people have used images, rather than how style or iconography or semiotics have organized art’s development. Their interest in how people have responded to images within the practice of their lives offers an interesting model for relating these ancient and contemporary realms of performative images.

As Freedberg succinctly put it, “This book is not about the history of art. It is about the relations between images and people in history. It consciously takes within its purview all images, not just those regarded as artistic ones.” Echoing that, Belting speaks of how images were used in late antiquity and medieval art “by people before the development of fully self-conscious notions of Art.” I believe that what drove Rauschenberg—and his drive stands in for much performative art beyond him—is a similar fascination with how people use images simultaneously as life and art.

What becomes interesting then, is not the important yet peripheral problem of how to relate practices divided by time and cultural context, but rather, how the deeply felt need to make vital images that confront, negotiate, and enrich human lives within their cultures always continues. Even if Isaiah going naked can no longer raise an eyebrow in the very church that claims his heritage, the idea that a naked Isaiah might meet and dance with a naked Kusama and disturb us once again is a remarkable one. If there is a degree of perversity in my forcing these comparisons, it is because of the inherent challenge to culture that this deep structure of sacred discontent and its desacralized distant cousin, the avant-garde, still bear. Perhaps this is what art historian Mieke Bal meant by allowing what she calls “willful anachronism for the sake of history.” It is the very ambiguity and enigma, the very irresponsibility of these pairings, that makes them all the more authentic and potent, reminding us that something wilder and more true than our disciplinary categories and our rationalized histories is what determines human experience and meaning.


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