New York

Mary Beth Edelson

The Women’s Movement has its own history, its own mythology, but understandably, its substance is shallow by mere lack of time. Because women as a category of humanity have been around quite a bit longer than their movement, martyrs do not have to be loaned or created; female victims of oppression can be found in any and all periods of history. Perhaps more importantly, the image of woman is central to, if not the very center of, mythological prehistory.

Mary Beth Edelson has investigated the witch hunts and burnings which took place throughout Europe from the 12th to the 18th centuries. Her show is a series of “Proposals for: Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era,” as well as being a commemorative space in itself. One enters the exhibition through a wooden portal which has a frieze of women’s hands making the sign of the bull (mano cornuta) or the mano fica. This gateway is topped by a clay sculpture of bull’s horns. The focal point here, the monumental image, is a partially ignited ladder constructed of copper tubing attached to a source of propane gas. A low, circular table surrounds the ladder, displaying handwritten/drawn books with bindings of fired clay. An indented compartment dispenses and files cards on which the artist has written words such as “memories of burning,” urging the viewer to participate in the memorial through written input.

Photographs on the wall chart Edelson’s mythic journey to a cave in Yugoslavia which the peasants of the area believed to be the abode of a goddess. The pictures record both her journey to the site and the rituals which she performed there. Shards and shells from the cave are disposed on the wall above the photos, along with Edelson’s narrative of the event ritualistically etched with pencil on wet white paint. This commemorative proposal is categorized as “See For Yourself.” A drawing describes another proposal—an Earthwork memorial constructed, planted and sculpted in the image of the “Body of the Great Mother.”

On the eve of Halloween, Edelson and some female assistants performed a “sacred ritual” in the gallery amidst the exhibition. It consisted of entering through the gate, passing out names of women who were burned and serving the audience pomegranates and figs, the “Fruits of the Goddess.” The performers called to the “spirits of the ancient sisters” through wailing chants and a roll-call of all the names passed out earlier of the women who perished at the stake. The ritual ended with the tantric transformation of the name of one of the victims, Anna (Hendricks) into Innana, the Naked Goddess. And in their chant “The Goddess is here . . . is us,” the words “is us” are gradually metamorphosed into “Isis,” the name of the Egyptian goddess.

The philosophy touted here is ancient: through re-enactment, either by dramatic ritualization, “seeing for yourself,” or re-creating, the powers of the Goddess, of Women, will be reactivated. Interestingly, it was just this sort of activity that gave rise to witch-burning, and it is these powers which are now sought again through formalized procedure and seizure.

Despite my feminine gender, I had extreme difficulty in forming any relationship with this goddess image or with those women who perished at the stake. This feminist ideology, which borders on a pagan theology, faces numerous rough spots in presentation and tone. The validity of Edelson’s insights are cheapened by the patness of her approach. The very set-up of the exhibition space—the new wood of the stage-set portal with inserts designed to hold the photographs of hands, the burning ladder and the circular table—simply does not carry the weight of the archetypes to which it refers. She forces new meanings on old symbols; for example, the familiar liberation fist happens to resemble the mano fica, an ancient symbol present in many cultures. Edelson jumps to the conclusion that since fica means “fig” and figs are fruits of the goddess, that mano fica can be taken to embody the flesh of the goddess. Frankly, I am not sure whether the gaucheness of this pseudo-mythology with its almost alchemical academic involvement is totally unacceptable or positive in its directness and (should I say it?)—its charm.

Mary Beth Edelson has in the past succeeded at moving her inner experiences outward without losing too much in the translation. Here too are some valiant and some excellent attempts. Such photographic sequences as Diane’s Grove Rituals, part of one of the handmade books, are pure magic. But the installation as a whole does not succeed in creating a mythogenetic zone. We remain detached from her historical and prehistorical sources, and though we comprehend them intellectually, they never quite embrace us emotionally.

Judith Lopes Cardozo