'Passages: Rites and Rituals' features Betsy Damon’s early performance artworks

Monika Fabijanska curates a look back at American artist Betsy Damon’s initial years of performance art practice at La MaMa Galleria in New York.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Dec 08, 2021

Have you ever heard of the notion of universal consciousness? Well, if you have not then here is a simple definition - universal consciousness, or the universal mind, is the understanding that our individual consciousness is influenced by, and also influences, the global movement of thought. It is a metaphysical phenomenon that suggests that we are all, collectively part of the same oneness. The implication of such an idea suggests that thoughts originate from this oneness, which eliminates the concept of originality. If you are receptive, you will frequently observe the rise of thoughts, feelings and actions within you reflected simultaneously in others around you and also on the opposite side of the world. American artist Betsy Damon’s work came to me as a reminder of the consciousness we all participate in. At a time when we were experiencing the mercury pollution of our rivers in Kodaikanal (India) by Unilever, curator Monika Fabijanska introduced to me Damon’s work exploring the nature of water and our relationship with it. Damon’s portfolio is a reminder of the sanctity of water, a reminder that we are birthed from it, made of it, and cultivated with it. Damon went on to deepen her inquiry into water through her creative practice which sits atop a strong foundation built by her performance art works. Fabijanska recently curated an exhibition of Damon’s early performance art at Passages: Rites and Rituals hosted by La MaMa Galleria, which included many artworkspreviously unseen to public eyes.

7,000 Year Old Woman, a performance by Damon in 1977 | Passages: Rites and Rituals | Betsy Damon | STIRworld
7,000 Year Old Woman, a performance by Damon in 1977 Image: Courtesy of the artist

Damon began doing performance art with the Feminist Art Studio, which she founded at Cornell University in 1972. Activism and community-building are building blocks of her practice, within which she grapples with traditional gender roles and our relationship with nature through various media. Damon tells us at STIR more about how her performance art practice pivoted toward her later eco-activist practice focused on our relationship with water. She says, “My public performance work began in the streets. It was about cutting off oppressions and bringing people together to discover their archetypes. Universal archetypes are a part of my performance work. And water is the ultimate archetype. I love science, so in my mind, art and science are married in water. My questions were: How does water create life? Is water quality important to quality of life? The performance Meditation with Stones for the Survival of the Planet evolved more directly to be connecting to the flow. Water is the connection that we all share. All bodies are mostly made of water. Water is the largest shared element. How hard is it for us to really register what this means? It must be very hard, since we still have not been able to stop treating water like a commodity, or a problem to manage. Since we are all connected to water, it is like we are sharing one body. My healing is your healing. All of this is intuitive to some, but a mystery to others.“ Damon’s articulations only reinforce my faith in the universal consciousness.

Meditation With Stones For The Survival of Our Planet by Damon in 1983 | Passages: Rites and Rituals | Betsy Damon | STIRworld
Meditation with Stones for the Survival of our Planet by Damon in 1983 Image: Courtesy of the artist

She continues, telling us about an interactive performance work she did, titled Meditation with Stones, which she started doing on a monthly basis at SoHo 20 Gallery in New York City in 1983. She tells us, “It raised some interesting questions: Why did that person place a stone where I am hurting? How did they know that I have a headache? It was stones that guided me back to water. Water is the public. Water is the verb of life. With that understanding, I took water as my teacher, not my object of study. From this perspective, I make art. I act with and for water… Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu knew about water’s power. According to an early Taoist proverb, “There is no way of love, love is water.” Can we reclaim the reality that water is love and life? Can we fight back against the commodification of everything, against the widespread practices of selling water and treating rivers as our sewers? All public places need public water fountains where anyone can get clean water”.

Damon’s 1985 performance at the UN World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya | Passages: Rites and Rituals | Betsy Damon | STIRworld
Damon’s 1985 performance at the UN World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya Image: Courtesy of the artist

It is not unfair to liken our commercial attitude to water with every other oppressed group that faces societally constructed discrimination - indigenous people, women, animals and the soil we stand on. Fabijanska addressed this through her 2020 exhibition ecofeminism(s), using “ecofeminism” as the lens through which she presented art. Ecofeminism is the belief that acknowledges society’s positive relationship to women as central to a positive relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world. The phrase itself, however, is multifaceted and rich in philosophical implications. Fabijanska ventures an expression of her own understanding of the phrase. She says, “Feminism itself is a complex, heterogeneous movement, especially from a transnational perspective. In the US context, the descendants of indigenous peoples, white settlers, and enslaved Africans have fundamentally different relationships to the land, which define their distinct voices relating to their preserved – or lost – relationship with Mother Earth.

Blind Beggarwoman (1979) a performance by Damon on Wall Street | Passages: Rites and Rituals | Betsy Damon | STIRworld
Blind Beggarwoman (1979) a performance by Damon on Wall Street Image: Courtesy of the artist

Ecofeminism is grounded in spiritual feminism, which insists that everything is connected – that nature does not make a distinction between matter and soul. Ecofeminist art emerged in the late 1960s, when the development of conceptual art, spiritual feminism, and the exclusion of women from the art market drove feminist artists far beyond the limitations of painting and gallery presentation, to create new genres of art, like social practice and eco-art. The features that characterise most of early ecofeminist works (from the late 1960s to the early 1990s) are their foundation in spiritual feminism, which proposed to end the dualism between nature and culture (the dualism inseparable from the issue of traditional gender roles); the belief that patriarchal religions and philosophies are the common sources of the abuse of women, nature and indigenous peoples; and finally, formal inventiveness rooted in the philosophy of ecofeminism and feminism”.

In a perfectly choreographed complementary combination, Damon’s artistic practice and Fabijanska’s curatorial values come together to discuss the multi-tiered narratives around current social and environmental dilemmas. Passages: Rites and Rituals combine conversations around erasure of women’s histories, gender-based violence, indigenous wisdom in a relevant, considered curation. The exhibition ended on November 21, 2021.

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