New York

Dream Bardo

Franklin Furnace

From the apocalyptic imagery of its sets and costumes to its eccentric hillbilly music, Lambs Eat Ivy seems to embody southern-style outsider art, as if it were the performance counterpart of the Reverend Howard Finster. And, like Finster, this trio has definitely found a universe in its particular grain of sand. The group’s subject is mythology, from kundalini to Christ. The show at Franklin Furnace, Dream Bardo, 1989, documented a librarian’s journey through the Bardo state (the period between death and rebirth described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead). The trio (Nancy Andrews, Emma Elizabeth Downing, and Michael Willis) began the piece in the dark, with one member keening, another fiddling. Wearing a bouffant and horn-rim glasses, speaking in a deadpan drawl, the librarian (Andrews) described her death, which occurred while shelving a book. For much of the remaining piece she lay on the floor, occasionally playing her fiddle from that position or reporting on her progress through the afterlife. Willis (guitar) and Downing (banjo) sang their advice (such as “Don’t be jealous of the living as they enjoy your possessions”) in the bright nasal whoops and twangs more often associated with Hee Haw than with sacred song. All three wore stiff dresses painted with birds in flight. As they sang of accepting the loss of the physical body, they pulled off their dresses to reveal bright satin shorts and tops—suburbia by way of India and orchestrated by Appalachia. In the second half of the show, they added a washboard to the orchestration and sang of visions, goddesses, and sacrifice, closing with a tribute to their hero, Joseph Campbell.

Lambs Eat Ivy balances the iconographic with the iconoclastic. The group’s sensibility is droll, but never ironic. Seeing hillbilly and Hindu rub against each other creates a sort of cosmic equilibrium. Lyrics about the great white serpent goddess are set to a toe-tapping hoedown tune, so that it’s easy to imagine a square dance as a mystical experience, an unfolding mandala. The presentation blurs the line between folklore and myth, like the trip of the tongue between “lamsey divey” and “lambs eat ivy” in the nursery rhyme that gave the group its name. Americana becomes exotica, as unfamiliar as the mythological schemes of other cultures.

C. Carr