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The Art of the Unspeakable

How feminist performance artists found a way to express the trauma of sexual violence

Leslie Labowitz performs "Myths of Rape." (Courtesy of Susanne Lacy/Penn State University Press)

In 1971, the artist Suzanne Lacy was taking classes with Judy Chicago at the California Institute of the Arts, and she had an idea: What if they created a performance that involved an audience listening to recordings of women telling their stories of rape? It sounds simple now but it wasn’t then, because those kinds of stories weren’t told. Nancy Princenthal writes in her new book Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s that it took Lacy and Chicago months to locate survivors who would speak. “These women were hard to find,” Lacy said. “They did not want to talk. The rapes had been hidden for years from family, friends, even husbands.… I saw how fear had become as natural to us as breathing.”

Penn State University Press, 368 pp., $49.95
by Nancy Princenthal
Thames & Hudson, 304 pp., $34.95

The pair managed to record seven women, whose testimonies became part of the performance Ablutions in 1972. Made in collaboration with artists Sandra Orgel and Aviva Rahmani, the work involved an array of ritualistic actions: Lacy and another performer nailed 50 beef kidneys to the walls. A nude woman was bound to a chair like a mummy. Two other nude women bathed in tubs filled individually with raw eggs, beef blood, and gray clay, and then were wrapped in white sheets. Two performers walked around the stage tying everything together in a web of string. Through it all, hovering over the abstract, symbolic imagery, were the concrete words of seven anonymous women describing in harrowing detail how they had been raped. “I felt so helpless,” said a voice at the end of the soundtrack. “There was nothing I could do but lay there and cry softly.”

It was a watershed moment—as Vivien Green Fryd notes in her recent book Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970, it was “one of the earliest public testimonies of sexual trauma.” Indeed, the piece marked a quiet turning point in cultural history, when women began speaking publicly about their bodies, about what had happened and been done to them. Crucially, though, they weren’t only speaking. They were translating their trauma into a strange new form of expression, an inscrutable, multisensory morass that Princenthal calls “an assault on coherence.” Faced with patriarchal systems and structures that had no interest in, and no vocabulary for, their experiences and emotions, they used their creativity to force a reckoning. 

Amid another time of reckoning, Fryd’s and Princenthal’s books convincingly rewrite the history of performance art by tying it to sexual violence. Reading these books now is simultaneously illuminating and painful, an acute reminder of how far we’ve come in the decades since, yet also of how mired in the same problems we remain. What stands out is the fearlessness of the early female performance artists and the extent to which their work shaped how we think about art today. They confronted trauma not by externalizing it, but by turning their bodies into raw material. They insisted that art was not about the perfection of the image or the primacy of process or the execution of an idea; it was about the transmission of deep-seated, suppressed, sometimes even incoherent truths.

Although it grew out of a lineage that includes Futurist theater and Dadaist cabaret, performance art as we know it in the West began in the 1950s and ’60s. At the time, artists and poets were starting to collaborate with choreographers and musicians to create interdisciplinary events. The artist Allan Kaprow was organizing Happenings, a loose term for absurd performances that could range from women licking jam off a car to riffs on vaudeville theater. Members of the Fluxus group were staging events of their own based on simple scores—their term for written instructions—such as Alison Knowles’s Make a Salad, in which that is what she does.

Though the descriptions may sound nonsensical, early performance had a clear raison d’être: It was testing the possibilities of what could be considered art. It was sometimes improvised, but usually structured around actions that artists conceived and sometimes executed themselves. The open-endedness of not quite knowing what would ensue gave it an additional edge. And if that was true for the creators, it was doubly so for the audience, who were meant to do more than just watch; they were enlisted to participate, as part of an attempt to break down the separation between art and life. 

As this new genre developed, it became more self-reflexive. People began using it to explore their physical realities and test the limits of their bodies. Sometimes this manifested in performances of empowerment, especially for women who wanted to reclaim and celebrate their sexuality. Often it resulted in work that mined the terrain of aggression and violence. Perhaps the best-known performances of this kind are the ones created by men: In 1971, Chris Burden had a friend shoot him in the arm; three years later he was briefly nailed to the hood of a Volkswagen Beetle. For Following Piece (1969), Vito Acconci trailed randomly chosen strangers until they entered a private place. In Seedbed (1972), he lay underneath a ramp in a gallery and masturbated continuously, while narrating sexual fantasies that were broadcast out loud.

But women made work in this vein, too, and whereas Burden’s practice suggests a certain amount of bravado and Acconci’s a level of creepy control, for female artists who put their bodies in harm’s way, the choice was innately more complicated and fraught. Because of their gender, the threat of sexualized violence often loomed, whether or not it was their explicit subject matter. 

This is evident in Cut Piece, a landmark work by Yoko Ono, first performed in 1964. Ono was a member of Fluxus, and Cut Piece is structured by a score: 

Performer sits on stage with a pair of scissors in front of him. It is announced that members of the audience may come on stage—one at a time—to cut a small piece of the performer’s clothing to take with them. Performer remains motionless throughout the piece. Piece ends at the performer’s option.

As Nancy Princenthal recounts, at the first two performances in Japan, audiences acted in a fairly restrained manner—except for a man who walked onstage and held the scissors over Ono’s head as though he might stab her. Participants at a 1965 Carnegie Hall iteration were more enthusiastic; in a film of the performance, you can watch mostly men remove Ono’s clothing eagerly, including one who takes his time snipping off the front of her slip and cutting her bra straps. A woman’s voice rings out from the crowd: “Stop being such a creep!” Through it all, Ono sits with her legs folded to the side and her face a stoic mask, except for her eyes, which occasionally betray anxiety and maybe fear. After the straps are cut, she uses her hands to hold up her bra.

Ono has explained Cut Piece as a work about vulnerability, the act of giving, and peace, but she has rarely given it a feminist interpretation, as Princenthal does. “Assault was Cut Piece’s language,” Princenthal argues, “and eroticism was undeniably at issue, yet neither the artist nor her early critics talked about it as an expression of sexual violation.” Some contemporary interpretations read it as a comment on post-atomic bomb Japan, but it’s impossible not to also see it as a frightening enactment of violence against women. Fryd cites one critic who called it “really quite gruesome—more like a rape than an art performance.”

This metaphor rings especially true in light of a pair of works made by Ono a few years later. Rape (or Chase), from 1968, is a text piece that describes “Rape with camera”: a cameraman is instructed to follow an unsuspecting subject found on the street “until she is in a falling position.” The following year, Ono and John Lennon enacted the script to make the film Rape, for which two men with cameras trailed an unknowing woman in London for over an hour, first outside and then into her apartment. She starts out seeming to enjoy the attention but by the end is terrified and hysterical at having no means of escape or help. It is excruciating to watch.

Rape is a rare piece from the late 1960s and early ’70s in which a woman serves as an aggressor (even though Ono wasn’t present for filming, the scenario was hers and the cameras followed her instructions). More often, female artists used the new genre of performance art to embody and process their role as victims, whether of overt violence or more subtle sexism. Quite a few of them did so by inviting or self-inflicting harm, thereby complicating the question of who was in control. The most extreme example is Marina Abramović, who for her Rhythms series (1973–74) stabbed her hands repeatedly, lay down inside a fire and passed out, and, in a more elaborate version of Cut Piece, gave the audience 72 objects to use on her however they wanted, including a loaded pistol.

Abramović pushed herself to her limits to see how much pain she could endure. By contrast, the Cuban-American Ana Mendieta was less interested in live violence than in its emotional specter, using her body to stage the effects of it. Mendieta’s “sanguinary early period,” as Princenthal labels it, was prompted by the murder and alleged rape of a student at the University of Iowa, where Mendieta was in graduate school. In 1973, not long after the killing, she invited her classmates and professors to her apartment. When they arrived, they found the door open and the artist inside: She was bent over and tied to a table with her underwear around her ankles. Her legs were bloody, and her head was facedown in a pool of blood. Shards of broken pottery lay on the floor. “The gory details recreated those that had been recently reported in the press,” Princenthal writes, “but one imagines that Mendieta’s colleagues, entering the dark, silent apartment like intruders, were altogether unprepared for what they found.” Fryd reports that the group sat down and discussed the work while the artist stayed still for an hour.

After this initial piece, titled Rape Scene, Mendieta staged several more interventions and performances on the same theme. In Clinton Piece, Dead on Street (1973), she lay down in a road at night in a pool of blood while a fellow student photographed her with a flash camera. For Bloody Mattresses (1973), she strewed an abandoned farmhouse with torn mattresses, clothing, papers, and other items, and covered the walls in bloodlike red paint. (Princenthal says that the sculptor Charles Ray happened upon the building and thought it was a real crime scene.) In Rape (1973), Mendieta sprawled over a log outdoors, once again naked from the waist down and covered in blood.

Mendieta’s mini performances were grisly, but they weren’t spectacles. She purposefully avoided creating or re-creating acts of violence, instead forcing the viewer into a confrontation with their aftermath, as Ablutions did. She also staged her pieces largely for the camera; very few people saw them live. In that way she used her body to bridge the gap between performance and more traditional, two-dimensional art. 

Mendieta called Rape Scene “a reaction against the idea of violence against women.” At another time, she said, “I can’t see being theoretical about an issue like that.” Indeed, what’s notable about her work, as well as Ono’s, Abramović’s, and others’ from the same period, is how tangible the violence is. It’s embodied in an intimate, personal way. This mirrors the development of the 1970s rape-crisis movement, which began with women sharing their individual experiences at feminist consciousness-raising sessions. It was only once people realized the widespread and systemic nature of the problem that they progressed to speak-outs, a public form of testimony, and then to political action.

One strain of performance art followed a similar trajectory. Early on in her career, Suzanne Lacy struggled to integrate two aspects of her life: art making, which she saw as a more personal endeavor, and activist work. “The apparently simple solution, to look at the structure underlying this political activity and use it as a model for artwork, did not occur to me until new ideas in performance art provided the context for it,” she later reflected. “I wanted to provide … a structure for dialogue at a mass level—to raise the consciousness of our entire community.” 

In 1977, she found her way. Running from May 7 to 24 of that year, Three Weeks in May was a public art installation, a series of performances, a slate of programming, and an unprecedented exercise in collaboration, all under the guise of art. The centerpiece was a pair of 25-foot-long yellow maps of Los Angeles installed in the mall below City Hall. At the time, LA was the rape capital of the country. During the run of the project, Lacy would gather police reports of the crime daily and mark them on one of the maps with a red “rape” stamp; she would add nine lighter stamps of the word around each one to represent the estimates of unreported rapes. “As the recorded incidents began to occupy more and more space on the map, the public, daily life of the mall began to incorporate a sense of imminent danger,” Fryd writes. The second map contained information about support resources for victims, including the locations of crisis centers and emergency rooms and numbers for rape hotlines.

This was the physical anchor of Three Weeks in May, but events activated and drew awareness to it. The artist Leslie Labowitz organized four lunchtime protest performances, while Lacy created a more intimate, weekend-long piece that was closer in kin to Ablutions. There were artistic rituals, self-defense demonstrations, a press conference with LA’s deputy mayor, and moments of silence in churches. Lacy brought together government officials, feminist activists, female artists, and the media, collaborating with the city attorney, the LAPD, the American Civil Liberties Union, and organizations like Women Against Violence Against Women and Men Against Rape, among many others. In the process, she blended performance with activism to model yet another new genre, which would become the foundation of her art career: social practice.

Three Weeks in May was set in a mall, because Lacy wanted to reach a much larger audience than she could have in a gallery, and she did. Princenthal explains that “a great deal of what Lacy and her collaborators presented … was news to the public,” though she adds that the effect wasn’t entirely positive: The project “seemed to contribute to an anti-feminist backlash,” including a woman being raped just 100 yards from the maps.

Although Three Weeks was much larger in scale than the performances about sexual violence that preceded it, it shared with them the goal of creating awareness—of representing the reality of rape. These artists were making visible something that hadn’t been discussed openly in American culture, let alone seen. Their insistence on talking about a taboo subject helped reduce the stigma of doing so, and seems almost prescient today, when nearly every part of American society is confronting accusations of sexual assault.

It’s noteworthy, if not entirely surprising, that it took a new genre to open up conversations about rape. Performance offered a form that was immediate, fleeting, and intangible, which allowed for emotions, experimentation, and mistakes in an enterprise that surely felt and was risky. It created a safe space in which artists and others could speak freely, and it provided an audience, whose members became witnesses to the trauma. Fryd sees an even deeper connection, citing the scholars Peggy Phelan and Sophie Anne Oliver, who argue that because of its ephemeral nature, “performance ‘is always an enactment of loss, of the impossibility of retrieving the past.’” Performance could emulate the conditions and effects of sexual trauma, but maybe also help to heal it. 

What’s more, the new genre promised the possibilities of a more abstract and untainted language than what had come before in art history. The Western canon consists largely of paintings and other images depicting what feminist author Susan Brownmiller, in her landmark 1975 book Against Our Will, labeled “heroic rape”: mythical and historical scenes in which men’s sexual violation of women is justified as part of the way civilization maintains order. Most such works were made by men, for whom, Princenthal writes, the subject of rape in art was “allegorical or metaphorical” and almost never “an experience of consequence for its victim.” To make a painting or other two-dimensional representation of rape in the 1970s must have seemed to many a daunting task that would require working through or against such precedents.

Once performance art, along with feminist activism, had broken the silence and begun to center the survivor in accounts of sexual assault, the culture started to shift. The initial surge of urgency—the sense that we needed to deal with this, now, somehow—gave way to a broader, ongoing conversation among all kinds of media, including books, television, paintings, and photographs. Contemporary art is in many ways at the margins of that conversation, and it can rarely project at the same volume as a political movement or protest. What it can do, however, is renew or refocus our attention. 

Emma Sulkowicz did so in 2014, when she began carrying her mattress around with her at Columbia University to protest the continued presence of her alleged rapist at the school and sexual assault on campuses in general. Luzene Hill did it too in Retracing the Trace (2011–15), a performance and installation for which she spent 60 hours hanging up nearly 4,000 Incan quipu knots made of red cord. It’s what Naima Ramos-Chapman does in her short, surreal, almost quirky film And Nothing Happened (2016), which stars her as the protagonist dealing with the everyday psychological effects of rape.

For the most part, artists today handle sexual violence with more nuance than their forebears did. Princenthal describes the “nearly wordless horror” expressed in early performances. Later work has adopted a wider range of tones and tended to treat assault as an issue that intersects with others like racism and war, the media and popular culture; it may only be a single piece of a larger narrative. Still, it’s hard to count how much that work owes to the women of the ’70s, and the generations that followed (about which comprehensive books have yet to be written). Though they may not have realized it at the time, those artists were creating their own canon and establishing a new visual language for art about sexual violence. We’re still adding to it five decades on.