Though sparse in installation, the handful of vintage black and white photographs documenting the seminal performances of Barbara T. Smith in ‘Early Performances 1969 – 1976’ made for compelling viewing, and was abundant in reference points for artists working today. Smith was born in 1931 and studied painting, art history and religion at California’s Pomona College, from where she graduated in 1953. The traditional path of marriage and children followed, as did the drudgery and disillusionment of many women at that time; rather than disappear into pills, Smith found her escape through her art. After her divorce, she and her colleagues, including Nancy Buchanan and Chris Burden, founded F-Space in Santa Ana, the experimental art space where many of her performances were staged (as was Burden’s notorious Shoot in 1971).
The study of religion influenced her work from the start, with the concepts of ritual and community deeply ingrained in her practice: the earliest documented performance on show was Ritual Meal (1969), in which she invited guests – unaware of what was to follow – to a meal where they were asked to dress in scrubs and eat raw meat with surgical instruments, while projections of a beating heart, the galaxy and oceans were screened around them. This ostensibly Christian symbolism – merged with a New Age, West Coast quality of becoming one with the cosmos – surfaces again in Celebration of the Holy Squash (1971), in which Smith created an entire religion out of a vegetable husk, a ‘relic’ from a communal meal. Once you get over the Monty Python-esque absurdity of it, the deeper relevance of the shared repast and the creation of community connect to work being done since the 1990s by such artists as Rirkrit Tiravanija with his several pieces involving cooking and sharing food.
The Fisherman IS the Fish and Nude Frieze (both 1972) were endurance-based performances addressing types of martyrdom. The former was more directly feminist, in which Smith’s nude body was used as a projection screen – she stood for hours on a pedestal – while a man gently coaxed her to come down to him and, when she did, only his hat and jacket were left, which she then donned. In the latter, she and other performers were duct-taped naked to the wall and left painfully suspended. Still images from performances such as these were not only the seeds but even the direct transmission of ideas still absolutely relevant: a well-known example would be Dealer (1999) by Maurizio Cattelan, in which the artist taped his dealer, Massimo de Carlo, into this same position of helplessness.
Though criticized for succumbing to sexual stereotypes, Smith argues that she was precisely the opposite of helpless in her most famous performance, Feed Me (1973), for which she sat naked in a small room all night, and the public provided her with sustenance and other forms of sensual connection. Once again, a contemporary artist comes to mind: Vanessa Beecroft, whose work incorporating nudity, sexuality and in some cases ritual meals (for example the seven hours banquet VB52, 2003) puts the audience in the uncomfortable position of collaboration (though as passive viewers).
While many art schools today have cut down on the teaching of art history and countless aspiring artists might feel they spring, like Athena, pure from the head of Zeus or the well of art itself, it’s interesting to consider that what today would still feel cutting-edge or totally radical has indeed been done before. Artists like Smith, or Stuart Brisley, might work somehow in the shadows, less fanfared than some of their peers, but clearly their reach is long and their grip firm. The real challenge is being informed of these actions and still being able to extrapolate a position that is fresh and unique.