Monday, March 22, 2010
Thoughts on Stevie Hanley's "Rain Down The Harvest": A lecture by La JohnJoseph feat. performance by Gerry Visco (Berlin, 19/3)
Stevie Hanley, Rain Down The Harvest, 2010
(As the audience enters, Juicy Geraldine cleans the floor. Once they are all seated Juicy sits at the back of the room and the lecture begins)
Manet, Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe, 1863
Hello lover, and welcome to a Golden Afternoon, where today we’ll be discussing Rain Down The Harvest by Stevie Hanley, enjoying coffee and each other’s company, and maybe even witness a little performance. I want to talk about this impressive work from several different perspectives, in several different contexts. That of the Anglo-American tradition of bathing scenes, in terms of religio-mystical concerns, it’s intergenerational empowerment , its meditations on natural vs unnatural, and its transgressive attitude to genre and behavioural norms.
Titian, Diana and Acateon, (1556-1559)
From Greek Godesses to athletic young men, painterly bathing scenes have historically allowed rare glimpses of nudity, in the sexually repressed, fleshphobic Western art culture. These scenes provided one of the few (though obviously not the only) opportunity for the study, and more importantly from this perspective, the display of naked bodies in a public context. They did this by putting nakedness in a “natural” setting, a person usually is naked (or at least partially clothed) when swimming, right? Furthermore naturalness has God on its side with its objective objectives, its realism, its figurative and representative concerns, manipulating God in its own image. Naturalness in painting allows the artist to implicitly claim the moral highest ground on God’s good green earth, a plateau above moral criticism. This is furthered by the insertion of a more explicit moral in the amongst the nudes, most often seen in history paintings, wherein the painting acts as a lesson in morality. In the Titian, Acateon caught gazing upon the naked Goddess Diana reels backwards ahead of his transformation into a stag and his subsequent slaughter by his own hounds. In a bathing scene the viewer is explicitly a voyeur who knows that what she is looking at is essentially verboten, only allowed by the high standing of the medium. This oscillating tension between the temptation to look and the fear of the punishment that follows, undoubtedly adds to the erotic power of such scenes, whilst doubly encoding the naturalness of the tale told and the morality encoded.
The joke is of course, that there is really nothing “natural” about a painting, it’s probably the least natural of the arts; dance, theatre, and voice all come from the body in a visceral way, more physical way than painting, they are natural products of natural organisms; even when abstract, conceptual and convoluted bodily arts retain a naturalness painting does not own. Sculpture too with its solid presence in space belongs more in this world than painting, which acts more as a window than a door. You could even say a photograph is more “natural” since it is essentially a chemical process and a chemical record (however manipulated).
Thomas Eakins The Swimming Hole (1884-5)
More so, these famous bathing scenes are all meticulously staged tableaux, look at The Swimming Holeby Thomas Eakins. The incredible triangulation built up of almost contorted but undeniably beautiful poses, the contraposto, the delicate interaction of the multi-figural composition against the hazy green verdant mist that constitutes the background. Nature is here stylistic and philosophical, symbolic and metaphorical more than it is “natural”. We could almost say (in somewhat Barthesian terms) that painting, like a play, is something outside of nature, specifically fenced off, ending at the border of the work, whereas performance continues of course.
Cezanne’s Women Bathing from 1900-1905
Or look at Cezanne’s Women Bathing which is a most definite move away from naturalism (and therefore respectability) in favour of modernism and abstraction, yet somehow manages to retain a virtuous aura thanks to its association with the respectable tradition of bathing scenes.
Manet, Olympia, 1863
Compared to the uproar paintings such as Manet’s Olympia caused not so much earlier in Paris, Cezanne’s scene was received with relative calm because he chose to work in a context which Manet threw out of the window by painting a naked prostitute (not a courtesan) undisguised by the pageantry of mythology.
In amongst the harmonious and wholesome and sensual landscapes, Titian, Cezanne and Eakins et al managed to paint beautiful figures of flesh free from most moralistic pitfalls thanks to the armoured mystic of “high art” which elevates the physical, pornographic body to a level of spiritual beauty therefore free of sin, sex and the visceral. Of course who is allowed to be naked in a bathing scene and who can paint such scenes, was until recent times very much pre-fixed; beautiful boys and luscious women, ie sexually passive, objects of a heterosexual, Eurocentric desire, captured by white men of independent means. But, by offering a view of living bodies in such a celebratory way the bathing scenes pierced a whole in Western body shame and politics of sexual repression.
Rain Down The Harvest, though not a study of nudes, or in fact a painting can be read/viewed/encountered/enjoyed/experienced in this tradition of bathing scenes I believe. It shows a group of bodies in and around water, and it too is head on with dominant morality and moreso, codes of behavior. It can be understood in dialogue, sometimes opposition, sometimes continuation, with the concerns put forth by works in this tradition.
Its existence as a drawing (ie not a painting) talks to two things I think. One economy – Stevie is an artist without institutional commissions, who is required to make work with somewhat limited means, and the choice of drawing makes that explicit. Not in a complaining way, not in an ironic way, but the sheer size of a such a piece executed in a low art medium underscores quite powerfully the economic currents and currencies of the art market. There is a wrestling back of power from higher status art forms within the drawing, a refusal to accept that grandiose oil paintings are the only suitable formats for such divine concerns as this drawing voices. The choice (and here we have to muse on the appropriateness of that word) to execute this work as a drawing talks also to a missionary impulse, an artisanal, everyman, material approach to artwork I think. Stevie speaks of drawing as “the spoken word of visual art”, an immediate, non-hierarchical, personal expression that anyone can access. Children draw, punks draw, absentmindedly we all draw and doodle, on the phone, on bus tickets in diaries. We find in the drawing a rejection of pomposity and by extension the attaining corruption of established religions, more concerned with political power and material wealth than spiritual illumination. In this context the choice of drawing again makes sense, a back to basics, spirituality of equality that is open to anyone and everyone, yet not an austere Pilgrim spirituality that is suspicious of beauty, decoration or celebratory aesthetic refinement. This is characteristic of his lifestyle and Stevie’s work, there is an elegance, and a wonderfully personal, intelligent, beautiful aesthetic here, but it is not one that prizes material wealth.
There is also something transgressive in the age range of the subjects, ranging from teen boys to elderly ladies, a collection of people rarely seen gathering together outside of familial commitments. We exist in times of ever increasing stratification; intergenerational communities are ever rarer, ideas of apprenticeship seem defunct in the face of the cult of teen protégés and art stars, a culture inflamed by the cyber hero worship which through twitter, myspace, facebook and personal websites have made everyone into the Romantic hero of their own deranged, heremetically sealed fantasies. Compounded by the decimation of a generation by AIDS, we have a culture obsessed with newness and youth which is not only ageist, but actively afraid of age and aging, to our detriment. As Penny Arcade says in her latest theatre show “You are the most informed generation in history, but without an old queen you lack context”.
One central figure for me in the drawing is the robust old lady in the foreground left. Although apparently originally based on a photograph of Beth Ditto, she represents an archetypal of female wisdom we shall call the grandmother. Originally the drawing was going to contain many more grannies and this was one of the original hooks of the image for me, something Stevie and I have talked over on several occasions. Grandmothers are ciphers for secret knowledge, the knowledge nobody thinks they want or need. They are also tokens of supreme individuality, think about the famous red hat brigade and their flamboyant individualism in defiance of the rules of what is appropriate to people of a certain age, gender and class. I feel that as people age, as they approach the great void, they come closer to that constant roaring river of energy sometimes called Heaven, they become closer to the universal. The grandmother is an eternal embodiment of the physical nature of humankind, but also its essential spiritual existence. As the body ages it becomes simultaneously more real and less real, at once more like a body and less like a body. On one hand, closer to death marked by lines and reshaped by life, gravity and experience, the body becomes magnified in its physicality, an ever more irrefutable manifestation of the visceral body and its limitations and yet at the same time the proximity to death endows the body with a luminous, less physical quality, an inkling perhaps of what is beyond. Like all the figures in the drawing, my favourite granny is still earthy and sexual, not prim, Victorian or prudish, a breathing voluptuous erotic presence counterpointed not ironized by the presence of the young boys.
The depiction of these intergenerational figures not only speaks to the universal nature of what it is to be human, the but also speaks against that implied sinister overtone which comes to the surface when people talk about interactions between individuals apparently separated by more than a decade, the paedophilic paranoia that comes from a society simultaneously obsessed with and obsessed with repressing its sexuality. Of course religious gathering are not free of such fears either. The current scandal in Catholic Church over child sex abuse only highlights the negative assumptions surrounding multi-generational gatherings, even (or maybe I should say especially) spiritual or religious. Think here about the tabloid fixation with sex cults, the dominance of polygamy in discussions of Mormonism, and the multiple ways Islam is sexaulized by a Western audience.
Any paedophilic or sexually exploitative connotations, indeed any exploitative connotations, are obliterated in Rain Down The Harvest, in the face of the “new radical love” Stevie so often talks about, which though not visible, dominates the scene. It is a love that calls out to all – and that is really transgressive. The subjects are multilingual celebrants who have come through the forest, they have heard the call and been drawn to the water to be born again under a pure white sky, hanging above one pristine grey line, a sky that has itself been wiped clean, emptied of all content and prejudice. Something bigger than them and yet of them has overcome them and they have become one sprawling, ecstatic mass, writhing and undoubtedly erotic, one body to be read metaphorically perhaps as the oneness humanity seems so incapable of accepting.
There is something more than spiritual, some metaphysical question being asked in this drawing, I can’t get over the feeling that these figures are receiving some great understanding, some omnipotent, eternal knowledge. Stevie says there are two levels of time here, the people who have lived their lives, and the trees that have lived their own several times longer. I would also suggest a third level of time, the holy spirit, the manifestation of God acting on a human body, representing eternity. That is not to say eternity as in “a really long time” or forever, but rather, all moments at once. Then and now, the past the present the future, all that has been, all that will be, all that is, and all that could have been and could be – that is eternity, and I think that it is drawn into Rain Down The Harvest , in an open hearted, non-hierarchical way. There is no attempt made to commodify this power on the part of the artist or the figures which I think is both provocative and transgressive, it is a spirituality that does not exist tp, and cannot be used, to exploit its participants.
Also transgressive is the behaviour of the subjects, who cry out, scream, spasm, thrash and freak out in a manner seemingly totally inappropriate to the behavioural norms of personal and emotional expression encoded in Anglo-American social interactions. There is something archetypal in the scene, it is Moses and John the Baptist, it is gospel and PJ Harvey, and it is English folk.
Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev, 1966
The gathering down by the water is reminiscent to me, of a scene in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev in which hundreds of naked pagan villagers run through the forest to the river celebrating St John’s Eve. In Tarkovsky the revelry is dealt with severely by the Christian authorities, but in Rain Down The Harvest the figures are left to revel freely, there is no implication of earthly restriction. There is also an omi-sexual, multi-valent energy flowing through the drawing that whilst not exactly erotic is most definitely more than merely spiritual, or rather the erotic and the spiritual are not mutally exclusive but mutually expressive. Again to quote Penny Arcade from her show Bitch! Dyke! Fag Hag! Whore!; “We only have one energy and that energy is sexual. We don’t have grocery shopping energy and getting on the subway energy, our energy is sex.” In freeing themselves of the restraints on their physical bodies the subjects in receipt of the Holy Ghost are finding new ways to express that physicality.
There is religious mysticism at work here, the participants are seeing things personally and collectively. This visionary quality recurs in Stevie’s work, and can be seen in our collaborative performance piece, 7 is the Holy Sex and his portrait series, God is in the Face of the Other, both of which looked to express God through art, in a specifically non-denominational framework, to look for evidence of God’s presence in all people.
Rain Down The Harvest took its spark specifically from (Slide Eight) William Seymour’s Unity in Christ teachings and Stevie’s own experience in the Pentecostal Church. My interest in this aspect of the drawing is its attitude to power structures. In Pentecostalism, anyone can receive the holy ghost in the church it is “a direct, unmediated connection with God” says historian and social psychologist Marcos Fernades. There is a lose association of churches within the movement but no “head” and little system of stratification. Whilst the traditional theoretical divide in Christina theology posits Protestantism as a private, personal religion, and Catholicism with its Pope, Bishops, Cardinals and extensive, intrinsic power pathways, as a much more public religion, Pentecostalism fuses the “personal” (ie direct, unmediated) aspect of Protestantism with Catholicisms more public and mystical, ceremonial aspects – the visions and revelations. It is mystical and public but non-hierarchical.
In the drawing the tone is most definitely mystic, bordering on psychedelic, surprising perhaps to see in a work exectued in gray tones, graphite on paper medium. There is something majestically ceremonial and spectacular in it but at the same time, earthy, physical and materialist here. There is no denying the body in favour of the soul as is the want of much Christian teaching. Here I am put in mind of (Slide Nine) Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation with its mystic symbolism, its eagle headed angels and its psychedelic insistence on the flesh. The angel raising Christ from the grave Kazantzakis writes has green wings and “smells like wet earth”. Here as in the drawing is the notion that Heaven and earth are one. The drawing is a scene of Revelation, in the Biblical sense, but also in the psycho-active, ecodelic drug inspired sense. It is a scene which could be the faithful heading to be baptized in the river Jordan or people under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs seeing things. And maybe both, to quote Kazanstakis again: “Whatever gives men wings, that is truth."
The process of making such a huge drawing is laborious and intensive, and here again I am reminded of a religious work, one of penance or contemplation, akin to monks illuminating the scriptures maybe, or more obviously the grand large scale paintings commissioned by the Catholic Church. There is something hyper visceral about the drawing, not only because of its central multi-figural composition but because of what is required of the body making it. The drawing is not made of smaller fragments collaged together, but rather it is one three metre long, one metre high continuous sheet of paper that necessitates endless hours in awkward, contorted positions to render. This bodily process, divine and torturous, a penance, a holy dedication of mind soul and body is ultimately what the drawing is for me. Here religion and spirituality are mutually expressive with the visceral and thus the sexual.
Other arts are all more firmly rooted in the natural world than painting, they exist physically in this reality in a way paintings do not, and yet still it would seem that painting (and less so drawing) has managed, maybe because of its exteriority, its quasi-divorce from the body, to have made itself the most acceptable, most highly regarded art form and thus the medium (historically at least) most able to address nude figures and their dirty, dirty connotations. Visual arts have commanded greater respect largely one could say because they are objects which are inanimate and have thus less power to threaten. Think about all the trials and tribulations, the outright banning in fact of performance under various theocratic governments (including Oliver Cromwell’s), the Catholic Church’s deep suspicion towards theatre, and fascist – Communist paranoia over performance, and indeed how much performance has been required to become more painting like to gain artistic credibility. An illuminating anecdote is the case of the Windmill Theatre in London which during the 30s and 40s became the first British theatre to have naked actors on stage, but those performers could only be onstage if they were perfectly still. IE if they were more like a painting than a performer.
Marina Abramovic, Dragon Head, 1990-1994
Carolee Schneeman and Richard Morris, Site, (1964)
Likewise think about the stillness at the heart of much durational performance art, Abramovic’s Dragon Head series or even Schneeman’s Site, work which vies for the power given to painting to be wrestled from the frame and onto/into the body. Rain Down The Harvest to my mind can be considered also in a performance context, and compared to a performance, in that it is a drawing of ceremonial, performing bodies created by a ceremonial, performing body, seeking like Schneeman or Abramovic, to tear power from the arms of those who hold it hostage. To do this in spite of the physical difficulties, the economic obstacles, the genre snobbery and the sheer scale of the project is audacious and fearless, like the figures themselves of whom it is written on the drawing; “The unglamorous poor – their faith is stronger than their fear,” a summation in direct opposition to the cowering subjects of established, repressive religious system, whose values Kazanstakis’ Christ dismisses with the line; “Your virtues are daughters of fear.” The drawing teaches us I think to not fear fear, nor for that matter the ecstatic.
(Juicy Geraldine interupts the lecture at its conclusion, heckling and demanding she be allowed to speak her mind on the subject.)