Los Angeles

Johanna Went, Untitled, 2007, mixed media. Installation view.

Johanna Went, Untitled, 2007, mixed media. Installation view.

Johanna Went

The Box

Grotesque props, crude puppetry, absurdist costumes, fake blood, and noise characterized Johanna Went’s riotous and scatological performances from the late 1970s and ’80s. A central figure in the Los Angeles punk scene of the time, Went was well known on both US coasts in her heyday and gained a cultlike following in LA underground art and music venues such as Al’s Bar, Club Lingerie, Hong Kong Café, and the Whisky. Alongside her collaborator, the composer Mark Wheaton, and a revolving cast of musicians, performers, and stagehands, Went blended experimental music, sculpture, spoken word, and New Wave theater into an idiosyncratic body of work. This overdue retrospective, which included photo and video documentation, ephemera, costumes, and audio recordings, made a strong argument for Went’s centrality to the evolution of West Coast performance art from the more Conceptual actions of the prior decades.

Displayed primarily on mannequins across two galleries, twenty-nine wildly imaginative costumes offered a taste of what made ’80s performance art so distinctive (and at times questionable): The genre’s spectacular postmodern pileup of references verged on being meaningless. Each of the colorful assemblages—some fashioned by Went specifically for this show from archival components—read as a misfit sculptural body transmitting the energy of the artist’s original performances. Shark Head, 1983, for example, is a red-, yellow-, and blue-striped costume assembled from an old sweater, fabric, felt, a pantyhose mask, and a Tide detergent box, the whole arrangement littered with such objects as a toy poodle and two rubber sharks. The look is part clown, part geisha. Other costumes involved rubber dildos, baby dolls, dental molds, a blow-up-doll face, and an Eames chair. The show also included iconic set pieces and props, notably Vagina, ca. 1980–94, an oversize sex organ crafted from handpainted silk and a wedding dress, from which several yards of red fabric emerged and billowed along one wall of the gallery. The prop was used in performances such as Passion Container, 1988, during which Went pulled jumbo tampons out of the vagina and hurled them into the audience. (Documentation of such events was projected onto a wall alongside the objects.) The interdisciplinarity of Went’s approach to performance art made her particularly well suited to this type of quasi-historical exhibition; the isolation of props and costumes brought out the sculptural aspects of her work and allowed them to function in ways they couldn’t when part of a larger orchestrated action. Their excesses lent vitality to what could otherwise have felt like a nostalgic, postpartum archive. 

For all their absurdist humor, Went’s chaotic rituals nevertheless retained the seriousness (albeit taken to theatrical extremes) of Viennese Actionism, Gutai, and other avant-garde traditions. For example, the 1984 performance Knifeboxing (documentation of which was projected in the second gallery) incorporated vaguely Christian iconography and a skinned lamb’s head from which fake blood spilled onto Went’s body; it recalled the early 1960s Aktionen of Hermann Nitsch: orgiastic, ritualistic performances that incorporated animal carcasses, staged crucifixions, and bodies doused in blood. But it was her explicitly feminist take on social anarchy that set her apart, as Went not so subtly, and with a heavy dose of irony, dealt with taboos such as menstruation, female pleasure, and sexual predation—in short, “the monstrous feminine,” as theorized by Barbara Creed. Nuns, for example, figure in Went’s work as depraved maniacs in Passion Container and in Untitled, a sculpture from 1986/2007 in which a sister appears as a two-headed doll. Elsewhere, Went takes aim at the nurturing mother. Everywhere, the artist rejects socially acceptable roles for women—as nurturing, innocent, virtuous figures—instead embracing wild, even dangerous portraits and claiming these disruptions as a source of power. Went’s improvisatory and often unscripted actions and urges, coupled with her complex, carefully planned costumes and sets, comprised a special blend of critique, spectacle, and catharsis.