Born in 1945 in Wasco, California, Suzanne Lacy has spent much of her adult life as a feminist performance artist. Lacy’s art involves education, activism and community organising, and has resulted in real political change as well as inspiring and innovative pieces of artwork.
One such piece is ‘The Crystal Quilt’, the culmination of a three-year public artwork called the Whisper Minnesota Project, which aimed to empower older women. It was filmed on Mother’s Day in 1987 and was made up of 430 women over the age of 60 who gathered to share their experiences of growing older. The women sat at tables on a huge rug constructed to look like a quilt, and at regular intervals the women changed the position of their hands to alter the quilt’s patterns.
At the moment, a representation of this project is showing at The Tate Tanks, including a bird’s-eye-view film of the construction of the quilt in front of a 3,000-strong audience. In the documentary the older women speak about the project. One explains: “A lot of senility comes from the fact that nobody asks you anything. It is a great cultural loss.” Another remarks: “I’m not aging, I’m ripening.” You can read my review of the exhibition here.
In person, Suzanne is completely charming. She is a formidable woman from the US, and I was a little star struck when we met after a press viewing of the Tanks. At her suggestion, we settled down on seats near the entrance, agreeing that free tea and coffee in the exhibition was preferable to heading over to the crowded café. She asked me about myself, seeming genuinely interested in my response to the artwork, and was keen to introduce me to her friends. Suzanne’s open attitude meant we fell quite naturally into the questions I had prepared, occasionally stopping when fans sought her out to congratulate her on her work. I was struck by how patient she was with everybody, and how welcoming. She has a knack at making people feel at ease, resulting in more of a friendly conversation than a formal interview.
How long have you identified as a feminist?
I’ve been a feminist since I was a child, before I even knew what the word meant. I was always engaged with the issue of fairness at school, whether it was about racial fairness, or class fairness, or gender fairness. I wanted to know why boys got to do things girls didn’t. So the issue of equity is just an underlying current in my life.
I would say that the three biggest influences on my art are political activism, feminist art and Allan Kaprow’s psychological explorations of the boundaries between art and life
Did you have a feminist upbringing?
Very definitely. My family treated me equally. I would announce I was going to be a fireman and nobody would challenge it. To be honest, I think I wanted to be almost everything.
How does your feminism translate into your art?
I went into the world of art through feminism and the politics of American culture generally. The civil rights movement, the Nazi persecution of Jews, farm workers’ rights, the Vietnam war – as a young adult, I was moving in a very politicised environment.
I was on a career path for medicine and psychiatry when I happened upon Judy Chicago’s first feminist art programme, which allowed me to express my interest in art and feminism. She wasn’t real keen on me being there, because she didn’t think I was going to be an artist, but that’s how I moved into the arts. I would say that the three biggest influences on my art are political activism, feminist art, and Allan Kaprow’s psychological explorations of the boundaries between art and life.
How long have you considered yourself an artist?
Probably since ’72 or ’73, when I was in art school. I didn’t ever have a problem with that identity and frankly I don’t think many people around me did, even though my work was often quite political. It was such an experimental moment of the arts, all kinds of perspectives were welcomed. Particularly being a performance artist, the content of art was always evolving. It could be political, psychological, durational, testing the limits and boundaries of one’s body…there were a lot of ideas we were exploring, so it was a way to explore my politics.
As a performance artist you’ve used your body as part of your work. Do you believe that the female body can be political?
They became political at that time. I think one of the reasons that so many women were involved in performance art was that you could leap over some of the hurdles that existed for conventional artists, and definitely for women artists. In performance, the body is the medium. So yes, I used my body in my work – everybody took their clothes off in performance, it was part of that era, people took their clothes off at every opportunity. At least, they did in the United States!
The challenge for women was to co-opt, play into or challenge the convention of looking at female bodies in a sexualised way. A lot of women who were nude in European performance adopted a level of seductivity with their body, whereas people like myself used the body in a more de-sexualised way, partly because of my interests and partly because of the way my body looked. It was very androgynous. I focused on my body as a tool, I used it for a somewhat aggressive exploration of the biological aspects. But nudity means different things for different people. So taking off your clothes can be an act of vulnerability, or an act of confrontation, or an act of exposing the flesh and therefore the biological nature of the body, which is perhaps what I was doing.
What drives you to create art?
I think for me it’s the desire to make shape. It’s a pure physical pleasure. The shape can be conceptual, performative, relational, or visual… As a child, I was always making things, fooling around with napkins, or food on my plate after dinner. With some of us there’s just this urge to create shapes, and that’s very individualistic. It can be trained, but I’m not sure if the drive to do it is trainable.
So in ‘The Crystal Quilt’, is the fluidity of the women constantly creating new shapes partly what interests you?
Well, that’s temporal, it’s creating shape out of time. It’s also a visual shape, but the piece itself is quite conceptualised. The shapes of the ideas and the way they cohere make it interesting to me and exciting aesthetically.
Is drinking a glass of water biology? Yes, it is, but it’s not the same as a biological experiment
‘The Crystal Quilt’ was recorded in the 1980s and looks at women and ageing. How do you feel personally about ageing, as a woman, and how do you feel about the work having aged yourself?
I don’t connect the two things. I mean, you could ask me about how I feel about being a black teenager, or how do I feel about being a raped woman (which I haven’t been). I empathise with the social conditions I work with, but they’re not, strictly speaking, expressions of personal experience. ‘The Crystal Quilt’ certainly gave me a broader sense of the spectrum of attitudes about ageing, and a deeper understanding of the politics of ageing.
In the feminist movement, you developed the politics out of the personal experience. So if three women in a consciousness-raising group experience violence, suddenly you start putting these experiences together. You ask ‘how come so many of us experience violence?’ and then you begin to think about it politically. I would say the same about ageing. I see the way older women are ignored and understand it now within a political context. On the other hand, I am now past 60, the age of cut-off for ‘The Crystal Quilt’, and I have my own experience of ageing, which I don’t think was shaped a whole lot by the piece.
Much of your work has been with people of colour. What do you feel about the claim that feminism is predominantly white and middle class?
I heartily challenge that, and from the beginning I challenged that. The overtures between white and African-American, Latino and Asian feminists happened in fits and starts, but there are many evidences of global feminism from the 1970s on.
The International Tribunal of Crimes against Women took place in ’76 in Belgium and it brought together women from all over the world talking about violence and our reactions to it. But it’s not a perfectly integrated movement, nor do we live in a perfectly integrated world. I believe personally that issues of ethnicity and race are key feminist issues, as is class. Because, fundamentally, feminism is about equity, and not about getting ahead.
Do you consider art to be a form of activism? And on the other hand, do you consider some activism to be art?
I think art can be activism. It’s down to the intention of the artist, the kind of work that occurs, the place the work occurs. Sometimes art can be political without meaning to be. Some people say all art is political and in a sense it is, in the way that all human manifestations have some political impact.
I don’t think the opposite is necessarily true: that all activism is art. I think everything in the world can be artful, or have various kinds of creativity involved, but the visual arts itself is a very specific field.
The trouble with art is that everybody has some abilities in creativity, just like everybody has some level of curiosity, but not everybody consciously engages over the course of a lifetime with art, and with the histories of the art, and with the current practices of artists. It’s like saying, is drinking a glass of water biology? Yes, it is, but it’s not the same as a biological experiment by a scientist.
So I can look at certain kinds of political activism and get very excited by them aesthetically. I’m very influenced by scale, for example, by large numbers of people doing things. I like that visually. But I wouldn’t necessarily call it art unless I knew an artist was doing it, was thinking about it in terms of the many aspects of visual art.
I think it’s really important to understand the politics of your position, your gender position. And how you can use or operate that within the constructs about who you are. Pretty much just that, and good luck. ‘Cos it’s still not that equal a world
So the definition of art, for you, is intention?
The definition of visual art, like the definition of science, has a certain level of skills, concepts and evolving practices. I was influenced by other artists, and their work informed the way I began thinking about art. But because fundamentally performance art is an experimental form, you always have to ask yourself, ‘Is it art? Is it good art? Why is it art? How does it relate to my contemporaries?’ People who seriously engage with those questions are making art. Whether it’s good art or bad art, they’re making art.
What advice would you give to an aspiring female artist?
Young women are entering a world that’s very different to the world that I entered. I think it’s really important to understand the politics of your position, your gender position. And how you can operate your gender position within the constructs of your specific situation. Pretty much just that, and good luck. ‘Cos it’s still not that equal a world.
Art in Action runs from the 18 July – 28 October 2012. Opening hours are 10.00-18.00, Sunday – Thursday, 10.00-22.00 Friday – Saturday. Many performances are free; the full programme can be found here.
The first photo is ‘The Crystal Quilt’ by Suzanne Lacy, 1987, copyright Suzanne Lacy. The second photo is Performance, Tattooed Skeleton, by Suzanne Lacy (2011), Madrid; Photocredit: Juan Cruz Ibanez. The third photo is The Tate Tanks, from Tate Photography.