The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2010

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FEB 2010 Issue

WE SIT LIKE HOT STONES (The Performance of Grief)

“In performance you squeeze out yourself, you dredge it up from your unconscious. It is a process of giving it a form from the inner to the outer. The process cannot be frivolous, but must be a deep, a deep commitment to yourself.” — Rachel Rosenthal, The Power of Feminist Art


ACTIVISM: an internal state of revolt that finds a public form in protest;
PROTEST: a public movement to address an immediate cause of collective anger, often in response to unjust death or ideological loss;
MOURNING: the ritual form of grief;
ELEGY: a poetic form to address the dead, the loss of an object, or idea.

When synthesized, activism, protest, mourning, and elegy result in a “performance” of grief. Each term involves the movement from inner revolt to outward gesture. In other words, a psychological state of revolt finds a form in the performance of mourning.

If grief, as Freud famously said, is productive when connected to a larger, collective, or cultural loss, it is unproductive—and dangerous—when internalized. The internalization of loss is the tendency to become enshrouded by grief and its mirror, anger. Tightly wrapped, the shroud becomes an identity because it is the story—the script—that is returned to again and again. But in performing it, the shroud becomes an offering to the audience. The offering means that a person’s radical interiority is not a cage; it can be transformed into a cry of protest. A bird perhaps; a winged creature cawing, “release!”

His wings were a whole-cloth first
folded around his chest
so it hurt to rip apart
this revolutionary redbreast
and make him spread and fly
All his singing actually
was a cry of protest
Have lived!
Not this!
Have died!

-Fanny Howe, “The Passion”


The danger of performing grief is that all too often the audience perceives the gesture as self-indulgent: here is a melancholic woman who in her refusal to “get over it” acts out her neurosis on a stage. For ego-affirmation. And yet, if the performer successfully manifests the gruesome expression of her own suffering into a form of theater, what sometimes happens is that the self-indulgence of the performer is forgiven because her gesture has produced a powerful moment—not of emotional overload and pat sympathy, but of recognition. What just happened? In other words, the performer has taken her personal story so far beyond narrative, so “over the top” of personal story that the audience is left with feelings of bewilderment, confusion, and shock. This isn’t the typical Verfremdungseffekt effect of defamiliarization. Rather, it is the recognition of what is all too familiar: a larger expression of collective suffering, not sugar coated, but presented in its rawest form. Instead of internalizing anger at how the political system messes us up, the performer directs it outward to form.

“My father’s death gave me passion, an emotional indicator toward which to push the content of my work. It compelled me to take the unanswered grief, the terrible sadness that I lived with, and throw it at the world. It was the event that catapulted me into my heroic complex, my vision of myself as a kind of Joan of Arc.”
- Karen Finley, A Different Kind of Intimacy

Karen Finley’s notorious performance “We Keep Our Victims Ready” is the epitome of psychological content pushed to the boundaries of social taboo and acceptability. This is the performance in which she smeared her body with chocolate as a means of identifying with the shit-smeared body of a young girl named Tawana Brawley, who claimed she was raped; who may (her case is still undetermined) have smeared the feces on herself. Finley writes that she “decided to try to create a performance out of the chaos.” She claims that she could “never go emotionally where Brawley had been”—but she could go to where she had been. Abused as a child; raped as a young woman. Finley worked through her own psychic struggles through this radical identification with Brawley’s story. An identification that brought two bodies into vicarious contact with each other through an intense mourning ritual in which Finley emotionally purged both her own personal history with rape and abuse, and the cultural oppression of women and girls:

I smeared my body with chocolate because I’m a woman, and women are usually treated like shit. Then I covered myself with red candy hearts—because after a woman is treated like shit, she becomes more lovable. After the hearts, I covered myself with bean sprouts, which smelled like semen and looked like semen—because after a woman is treated like shit, and loved for it, she is jacked off on. Then I spread tinsel all over my body like a Cher dress—because no matter how badly a woman has been treated, she’ll get it together to dress for dinner.

At the end of the performance Finley sits quietly, her head bowed, her hand raised, palm down. A white sheet over her tinsel-stuck body. She took Brawley’s body like a skin and placed it over herself. In doing this she grieves for Brawley, for herself, for women who are like her but lack the voice to perform.

When a performer breaks out of her self-indulgent shroud and creates a work that connects her grief to a larger social suffering, she is taking risks at the level of public approval and affection, and the extremity of the act is probably not going to be appreciated by an audience expecting to be entertained. It is interesting that the alienation effect of Finley’s performance had nothing to do with raising public consciousness about violence—both external and internal—against women. Instead, the major publicity came from Jesse Helms and the Christian right who launched a campaign against the NEA and the artist’s grant awarded to Finley in 1990. The venom unleashed by the far right was ruthless. They ignored the political content of her work and focused exclusively on the sexual, portraying her as “a chocolate smeared young woman.” Finley responded in an editorial in the Washington Post in which she pinpointed the reductive attack on “part of a larger trend of suppressing artists—especially those whose work deals with difficult social issues—by playing on society’s fears, prejudices, and problems.”

Of course, it’s a far stretch to imagine that “larger trends” in American society will ever embrace such a radical representation of a merged collective and personal self. Donald Kuspit, writing about Joseph Beuys’s equally corporeally radical performances, observes:

 “One’s collective self and personal self, one’s wish to merge with others and wish to be separate, one’s sense of comfortably being one among innumerable others but also of being isolated among them, exist in precarious, anxious, and thus invariably awkward balance.”

The ability to balance inner and outer states of experience and manifest the awkwardness of this balance in performance may be a kind of shamanistic power—but it’s often one which the artist must bear alone, or if she’s lucky, in the company of other like-minded people.


In Finley’s performance, as well as other similarly violent pieces by Marina Abramović and Valie Export, the artist’s body is—quite literally—put on the line that divides one body from another: a living body from a dead body; a healthy body from a body that is torn up, bloody, defaced. The immediate reaction, how could she do that to herself?, is a cry of outrage. The substitution of one body that is sexy for another that is smeared in blood and wailing in agony is antithetical to societal perceptions of feminine beauty—and to how a girl should behave. We have difficulty enough reckoning with each other.

“And yet, as soon as it strikes, as soon as it makes its mark, in words if not in images, the singular death is pluralized, opening up a space and time that can be read and so reckoned with other times and other deaths.”
-Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning

Like substituting one body for another, pluralizing the singular death is an unsettling concept for many people. We want the singular death. After all, it was your father who died. It was your mother, friend, sister. The impact of these deaths on you will be severe, life-changing, dramatic. Holding onto these deaths as a singular experience relative only to you is all you have of these people, so dear to you, who have died. Sharing their death with a larger collective suffering will be like giving up their memory.

So, if we do give up a piece of our mourning to open up a space and time to be read and so reckoned with other times and other deaths, it is usually towards people who come from a similar place and time. In Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (2004), Judith Butler asks the question, why are some people grievable and some people aren’t? In the U.S. we grieve annually for the victims of September 11th—and yet we don’t even hold one public mourning ritual for any of the millions of people who subsequently died from the wrath we unleashed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first answer is, well of course not! Public mourning is about nationalism—it brings people together around a common cause, and that empathy helps build the moral fabric of the nation. I think that is a very powerful cultural assumption, shared, most likely, by every culture on the globe. Why mourn people who don’t look like you, or think like you, or live like you, or have the same agenda? Butler writes:

To grieve, and to make grief itself into a resource for politics, is not to be resigned to inaction, but it may be understood as the slow process by which we develop a point of identification with suffering itself…if the narcissistic preoccupation of melancholia can be moved into a consideration of vulnerability of others [,] then we might critically evaluate and oppose the conditions under which certain human lives are more grievable than others. From where might a principle emerge by which we vow to protect others from the kinds of violence we have suffered, if not from an apprehension of a common human vulnerability?

The idea that grieving can be linked to social justice and that compassion can serve the larger political motive of “common human vulnerability” is a gesture oft repeated in performance when performers channel the negativity of injustice, dying, and social violence through their bodies. Their bodies become the receptor for the ugliness the rest of us would rather brush to the side.

The Lebanon Series began as a series of dreams in 1981. The conceptual work is activated through my body—a sense of physiological invasion, impaction… With the increasing bombardments of Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982, I began to see imagery—on the threshold of sleeping—of very specific buildings blowing up, being bombed: an old stone library blasted by rocket fire and imploding. I pursue these chimera back into the world where they are located, to deepen what that world might be.
-Carolee Schneemann

Like Finley, Carolee Schneemann’s confrontational work reflects both her personal struggles and her outrage towards political and social injustice. Blunt, bloody, horrifically violent war imagery is montaged in film and projected around her (often onto her body) in performance. Rather than act out her protest against the current of male hostility and hatred of women (manifest in rape, abuse, plasticizing of women’s bodies), she overlays her internal protest onto countries—Vietnam, Lebanon—whom like women are raped and pillaged. The war footage she uses is unrelentingly violent. In her 1967 performance “Snows” she projected her film “Viet-Flakes” throughout the theater: “Dual projectors swung 360 degrees across space. The structural intervals and gradations of light and darkness, the paper-layered walls, the water-lenses and revolving-light sculpture, the performance movement, the highly visible technicians: each element was drawn into a vortex of increasingly disturbing energy.” The footage of Viet-flakes consists of photographs out of Vietnam clipped from papers and magazines, as well as newsreel footage of “one catastrophe after another.” People being tortured, hung, shot, limp bodies dragged behind vehicles.

In fact, there are many uses of the innumerable opportunities a modern life supplies for regarding—at a distance, through the medium of photography—other people’s pain. Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen. As Susan Sontag writes,

Photographs of mutilated bodies certainly can be used… to vivify the condemnation of war, and may bring home, for a spell, a portion of its reality to those who have no experience of war at all. However, someone who accepts that in the world as currently divided war can become inevitable, and even just, might reply that the photographs supply no evidence, none at all, for renouncing war—except to those for whom the notions of valor and sacrifice have been emptied of meaning and credibility.
-Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

The audience for radical performance art and the presentation of mutilated bodies on art gallery installations is, as Sontag suggests, “those for whom the notions of valor and sacrifice have been emptied of meaning and credibility.” Emptied, that is, of symbols of nationalism that are used to perpetuate violence against bodies in other nations. Because your dead aren’t our dead; and your grief isn’t ours. The radical act of performance, then, is to focus on the suffering of the individual bodies that are swept up as collateral damage in the war against those who, without democracy, must be living the wrong life and dying the wrong death.

Sixteen years later in the installation “War Mop” (1983), Schneemann uses similar footage of the bombardment of Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982. In showing these representations of destruction, Schneemann equates the violence against cities (and the bodies within them) with the psychosis of the “overdetermined masculine: the gratuitous impulse to destroy what is defenseless, feminine. You’re asking for it because you’re not as monstrous as I am. I am as monstrous as I am because you’re there to be savaged by the worst I can do.” Her appropriation of war imagery from far away places is, in fact, a way for her to research and manifest her greatest fear. Schneemann—and perhaps less explicitly, Finley as well—identifies with pillaging as a threat against her own autonomy as a feminine, artistic being.

As Sontag effectively argues, gruesome footage of war elicits many contradictory responses—depending on who is looking. Most of Schneemann’s audience, it’s safe to say, would look at those images as a means of renouncing war and its horrific aftermaths. But in her writings, Schneemann doesn’t make any claims about the possibility that war as a distinct force will ever be renounced. But as a force, its effect on her is clearly profound. Who else but an artist would open up her body to 30 years of atrocities, one after the other, unrelenting, repeating?

The work continues. In “Terminal Velocity” she forms a grid that depicts the famous New York Times photographs of bodies falling against the Twin Towers’ rows of silver beams. Schneemann arranges the bodies as if they are a filmstrip—beginning with a view of them in distance, and then zooming in. Out of context, they look like dancers. In context, the audacity of her appropriating these images is heightened. Falling bodies can be a poetic abstraction—but these bodies are different. These bodies are representatives of a national grief. Which means the images can’t be touched or manipulated. To the public who protested outside of the gallery, the images are sacred—beyond interpretation. To Schneemann, there can be no sacred representations of war footage because every body—especially those who have been maligned by the overdetermined male drive to oppress and conquer—is grievable.

She took these images from the front page of the Times and yet, in the very restricted space of public mourning that was happening at the time, the gallery was shut down in response to public outrage. These photographs, after all, are untouchable because the bodies being mourned are ours. And their sacredness will be memorialized every year for the next 20 years until there are so many bodies that we finally lose count.

“Mourning consists in recognizing that the dead are now only in us, now only images for us.”
-Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning

“We have no physicalized forms for mourning—the comfort we need to receive or give. It’s all in our eyes, staring straight ahead, quietly tearful. We sit like hot stones.”
-Carolee Schneemann, “Mortal Coils” (1994-1995)

We sit like hot stones until moved to perform grief in the service of all who are non-grieve-worthy.


If performance is a form of theater in which the body of the performer enacts the simultaneity of internal and external protest, then the social performance of grief is a collective body coming together in an effort to inspire other people to mourn for the same thing. For example:

Los Angeles, December 1977: The artist Suzanne Lacy, frustrated at the media’s portrayal of The Hillside Strangler (a celebrated serial killer who murdered 10 women in Los Angeles) creates the performance of “In Mourning and in Rage.” She describes it as follows: “A motorcade of sixty women followed a hearse to City Hall, where news media reporters waited. Ten very tall women robed in black mourning climbed from the hearse. At the front steps of City Hall, the performers each spoke of a different form of violence against women, connecting these as part of a fabric of social consent for such crimes. After each of the ten performers spoke, the motorcade women, now surrounding City Hall steps, yelled, “In memory of our sisters, we fight back!” The tenth woman, clothed in red, stepped forward to represent fighting back against all forms of violence.”

Boulder, CO, Rocky Flats, 11:02 AM, August 9, 1978: Commemorating the moment when the Atomic bomb, 33 years previous, dropped on Nagasaki, demonstrators at the Rocky Flats Plutonium Trigger Plant fell across the pavement in mock death. One protestor, dressed in an asbestos suit and gas mask, symbolically checked each body for signs of life, and looking up each time at police and reporters, shook his head. This was to become a popular form of nonviolent resistance at political protests.

Jerusalem, 1988: In response to what they considered to be human rights violations by Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Territories, a group of women dressed in black mourning clothes, their faces covered by veils, stood silently in mourning for all victims of the conflict. The initiative spread and now the Women in Black can be seen silently mourning wars around the world.

Washington, D.C., 1 PM on October 11, 1992: over 300 members of Act Up flung the ashes of their friends, fathers, lovers, and brothers onto the White House Lawn in what they called a “Political Funeral”: “BRING YOUR GRIEF AND RAGE TO A POLITICAL FUNERAL. You have lost someone to AIDS. For more than a decade, your government has mocked your loss. You have spoken out in anger, joined political protests, carried fake coffins and mock tombstones, and splattered red paint to represent someone’s HIV-positive blood, perhaps your own. George Bush believes that the White House gates shield him, from you, your loss, and his responsibility for the AIDS crisis. Now it is time to bring AIDS home to George Bush. On October 11th, we will carry the actual ashes of people we love in funeral procession to the White House. In an act of grief and rage and love, we will deposit their ashes on the White House lawn. Join us to protest twelve years of genocidal AIDS policy.”

Washington, D.C., October 2, 2004: People dressed in black mourning clothes assembled at the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery for the National Memorial Procession, described as “A Trail of Mourning and Truth from Iraq to the White House.” “Mourn the dead. Heal the wounded. End the war.” After hearing speeches made by veterans, members of military families, family members of fallen soldiers, and others, participants marched to the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., carrying cardboard coffins to symbolize the war dead. In a subsequent “Trail of Mourning,” twenty-eight people were arrested while attempting to deliver the names of fallen heroes to the White House.

All of these are powerful examples of the enactment of private grief in the public sphere; public mourning that seeks a political response to social injustices. Of course, if grief is an acknowledgement of “common human vulnerability” then it does not discriminate between political perspectives. Although right wing public mourning is rarely focused on individual bodies who are the victims of war or social injustices, it does effectively utilize mourning to garner wide-spread sympathy against abortion legislation. Mourning is the singular cause that most unites them.

The National Memorial for the Unborn in Chattanooga, TN: Situated on the “hallowed” ground of the Chattanooga Women’s Clinic that from 1975-1993 performed 35,000 abortions, this memorial “is dedicated to healing generations of pain associated with the loss of aborted children…The National Memorial for the Unborn gives you the opportunity to honor your child by purchasing a brass name plate to be placed on the Wall of Names. You can join thousands of others from across the country who have taken an important step in the healing process.”

The continued death threats (and murders) to doctors who practice abortion are themselves an abomination of the performance of mourning—it is the grief of the unborn child, after all, that incites these men to murder. And there is no doubt but that the pro-life movement has very effectively used mourning rituals to serve their political agenda. Not only are there memorials for unborn children (often represented by white crosses) but there are counseling centers for “post-abortion syndrome” for both women and men who are “victims” of a woman’s decision. As The Nation’s Sarah Blustain writes, the Christian Right’s turn towards mourning “has given new humanity to a movement that even a decade ago seemed locked in violence and lacking in empathy.”

Because a grieving body in public is understood differently depending on how it is used, it is tempting to be suspicious of mourning as a vehicle for protest. As Butler argues, public mourning is a “struggle for recognition” and certainly many wars are fought over whose body is more deserving of recognition. Mourning, like the violence that precipitates it, is a human experience whose use as political protest has the power to start as many wars as it stops. When bodies are on the line, mourning is not a leveler because bodies are inscribed by loaded perceptions of gender, race, ego, beauty, ugliness, purity, oppression—indeed, it is difficult (impossible?) to see a grieving body stripped bare of these projections. Yet, when not metastasized into revenge and hatred, the movement from inner revolt to outward gesture can effectively transform private suffering into a wider social perspective.

When the body count is too high or the cost of individual suffering too great, it is the landscape itself that becomes grievable because the landscape is a reflection of what it feels like to be torn up inside. What was once there—a bustling city, a neighborhood, a church, a park —now lies in ruin. A hurricane, an earthquake, a war.

In these great times, the terror of action and inaction shapes the burden of history. Perhaps the task of art today is to remake the burden anew by suspending the seemingly inexorable order of things (which gives the burden its weight) for the potential of a clearing to take place, so that we can see and feel what is in fact worthless, and what is in truth worth renewing.
-Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans

In November of 2006 the artist Paul Chan visited New Orleans for the first time, only to find himself in the setting of a play (Beckett’s Waiting for Godot) he had seen many times before. “The empty road. The bare tree. The silence.” Instead of keeping this profound reflection to himself, he raises the money to actually stage his vision for a community of viewers. He doesn’t conceive of the project as a work of mourning, but the staging was a ritual transformation of something left to die (in this case, the Lower 9th Ward). And whatever experience the audience had of watching the play amidst the flood-ruined and abandoned neighborhood speaks to what is “in truth” worth renewing. Say it: the human spirit survives amidst all the shit, violence, abandonment, loss, disappointment; amidst the vengeance of history, nature, ignorance, injustice; and sometimes, amidst life itself.


Kristin Prevallet

Kristin Prevallet is a poet and manuscript doulah. She is the facilitator of Trance Poetics, a site for teaching, scholarship, and community around oracular arts and practices.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2010

All Issues