Suzanne Lacy’s Orbits Around the Notions of Womanhood

At the Queens Museum, New York, a survey of the artist’s career showcases her feminist genre of social practice

BY Travis Diehl in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 05 APR 22

The problem of the retrospective – which curators and audiences will face increasingly as more post-1970s artists receive surveys of their performances, happenings and social practice – is the gap between the active, catalytic artwork of the past and the more or less nonreactive present archive. This is absolutely the case with Suzanne Lacy’s ‘The Medium Is Not the Only Message’, a thematic survey at the Queens Museum curated by Sophia Marisa Lucas. The earliest piece on display, Net Construction (1973/2022), comprises a cargo net that served as the armature for a performance in which Lacy tied meat to the ropes, her naked body and the audience. Here, however, we can only extrapolate the experience from the wall text and a black and white photograph, imagining the new jute besmirched by fat or spices, activated by art. 

Performance documentation, Suzanne Lacy, Immigrants and Survivors (1983),  Immaculate Heart High School cafeteria, Los Angeles. Courtesy the artist, photo by Cindy Honesto.
Suzanne Lacy, Immigrants and Survivors, 1983, performance at the Immaculate Heart High School cafeteria, Los Angeles. Courtesy: © the artist; photograph: Cindy Honesto

The exhibition overcomes the basic inertia of document-heavy shows by emphasizing both thematic and formal links between works. The archive itself is one such form. Lacy’s practice, which is comprised largely of facilitating intimate discussions between groups of women, is just as focused on documenting the results: sketches, ephemera, videos and participant feedback – all of which are presented here in vitrines and on monitors. So, although visitors to ‘The Medium Is Not the Only Message’ won’t be served dinner, the branching, pre-internet form of International Dinner Party (1979) – in which groups of women around the globe gathered for meals then telegrammed Lacy the details – still carries a charge. Visitors can flip through several binders of these telegrams and, while they may be dry ephemera – much like the map, also on view, covered in red dots denoting the dinner locations – they were, and remain, acts of real-time communication: we, listed below, had dinner together, at this time, in this place. 

This idea of ‘connecting’ or coming together to share experiences lies at the heart of Lacy’s practice and continues to work whenever that transfer of experience still occurs. Perhaps with this in mind, a couple of projects with more subdued representations in the main gallery – The Crystal Quilt (1987), in which 430 women sat around tables arranged in a quiltlike pattern, and Freeze Frame: Room for Living Room (1982), whereby 120 women occupied a furniture showroom to discuss their life experiences – have been reprised, ambiently, in the museum’s sunken atrium. Several modish living-room sets furnish the floor, with blue velvet couches and club chairs turned inward around vitrines of letters, sketches and plans; a couple of televisions screen videos of past living-room projects. Here, Lacy’s simple premise – getting women together in a space to facilitate frank, and in some cases rare, conversation – carries its latent hope into the present.

Performance documentation, Suzanne Lacy, Cinderella in a Dragster (1976), California State College, Dominguez Hills (now California State University, Dominguez Hills), Carson, and University of California, San Diego. Courtesy of Suzanne Lacy Studio.
Suzanne Lacy, Cinderella in a Dragster, 1976, performance at California State College, Dominguez Hills (now California State University, Dominguez Hills), Carson, and University of California, San Diego. Courtesy: © Suzanne Lacy Studio

The show gives the impression that Lacy’s projects evolve depending on the input of the women who participate. This seems genuine in a way that numerous more didactic ‘participatory’ artworks don’t. Visceral, cathartic, even triggering at times, Lacy’s projects regularly seem to facilitate breakthroughs – in part because the artist meets women where they are, physically and emotionally. In Doing Time (1993), for example, inmates at a maximum-security prison in New York, with Lacy’s guidance, designed a series of shrines in old cars representing the realities of domestic violence: an ‘abuse’ car, scattered with household implements of torture, like a belt or a kettle of scalding water (a few of which are on view); a ‘healing’ car, the steering wheel garlanded with toys, which the inmates insisted on building. Doing Time calls our attention to the complex truths of chronic domestic abuse and the sometimes-equal horrors of escaping a deadly situation: the parallel sentences of jail and bad marriages. For their part, the women literally learned to use tools: jigsaws, drills and wrenches. It’s ‘art therapy’. But the soundtrack for Underground (1993), documenting a similar car-sculpture project in Pittsburgh, features many moments of sincere realization and relief, confessed into a special answering machine. Again and again, documentation of Lacy’s projects includes the refrain: ‘I’m not alone in my pain.’

Performance documentation, De tu Puño y Letra (2014-2015). Plaza Belmonte bullring, Quito, Ecuador. Courtesy of Suzanne Lacy Studio.
Suzanne Lacy, De tu Puño y Letra, 2014-15, performance at Plaza Belmote bullring, Quito, Ecuador. Courtesy: © Suzanne Lacy Studio

Lacy invites women to share their distress – with her, with one another. They grow and, maybe, listening in, so do we. But where is the artist? Her work purveys innocent altruism, on the one hand; on the other, it amplifies the convolution of personal relationships, especially sexual ones. The terror of rape and femicide anchor the show in darkness. Its highlight is the communion of women – abused or aging or just worn down – feeling seen and heard. The artist is the third element in this three-body problem of receiving good love and respect. Lacy doesn’t command the tendencies and cycles of human interaction: she designs an art-ecosystem in which she enters into other women’s orbits or invites them to join hers. Lacy acts as a sort of interdependent, arbitrating or mediating figure in pre-existing relationships: a friend of a friend and her friend in International Dinner Party; a hooker and her john in Prostitution Notes (1974). 

Prostitution Notes exemplifies another quality that sets Lacy’s work apart in the crowded genre of social practice. For the piece, documented on butcher paper with maps and matchbooks, the artist studied the routines of Hollywood sex workers, interviewing them over lunch or coffee, watching them work the streets. To her credit, Lacy allowed the project to change her biases, realizing in the end that their problems (with men, police, money) weren’t so different from hers. These moments of seemingly real vulnerability on the artist’s part make it OK for us to enter the compact. Even here, decades later, in the cool room of reason that is the Queens Museum, we can still be moved.

Performance documentation, Suzanne Lacy, The Crystal Quilt (1987), Performance, IDS Center Crystal Court, Minneapolis; Organized with Sharon Roe Anderson, Sage Fuller Cowles, Nancy Dennis, Judy Kepes, Phyllis Jane Rose, and Phyllis Salzberg; Sound: Susan Stone Choreography by Sage Cowles; PBS live broadcast produced by Emily Goldberg. Courtesy of Suzanne Lacy Studio.
Suzanne Lacy, The Crystal Quilt, 1987, performance at IDS Center Crystal Court, Minneapolis. Courtesy: © Suzanne Lacy Studio

But who is this ‘we’? Is Lacy’s art, made by a cishet white woman , vulnerable to the intersectional blind spots of second-wave feminists? We have to wonder. We must also bear in mind the second-wave origins of Lacy’s thinking, while allowing it to unfold in the present – to be both retrospective and prospective. Even where the projects excluded male participants (usually for the good reason of creating a safe space), their imagined, vaguely defined viewing public includes everyone. A recent project, in fact, turns the question on men: De tu puño y letra (By Your Own Hand, 2014–15/2019) gathers Ecuadorian men in a bull ring, where they read harrowing accounts from women who survived domestic abuse, in an inversion of the machismo that ostensibly fuels such violence. ‘I am sharing my great pain with you,’ says one man, voicing an anonymous woman. Vertical screens surround the viewer.

The Queens Museum was built as an exhibition and recreation hall for the 1939 World’s Fair and served, until 1950, as the temporary home of the fledgling United Nations General Assembly. Lacy’s exhibition feels well-sited here. In some ways, her work is locked in the decade when the Twin Towers were first erected; a replica of them still stands in the Queens Museum’s intricate Panorama of New York (1964–ongoing). The installation, though – both because of and despite this weight – models the porousness and persistence of history.


Suzanne Lacy’s ‘The Medium Is Not the Only Message’ is on view at the Queens Museum, New York, until 14 August

Main image: Suzanne Lacy, Julia London, Jan Chattler, Joya Cory, Natalia Rivas, Ngoh Spencer, and Carol Szego, Freeze Frame: Room for Living Room, 1982, performance. Courtesy: © Suzanne Lacy Studio; photograph:  f-stop Fitzgerald

Travis Diehl is online editor at X-TRA. He is a recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism.