form & concept, Santa Fe
November 24, 2017 – February 10, 2018
“I can just leave you… I can just walk away…”
spoken by a participant in Thais Mather’s performance at form & concept, December 15, 2017
As part of Thais Mather’s exhibition of feminist art, Reckless Abandon, there was a female performer dressed in black and standing motionless in a corner of one of the galleries. At a quick glance into the room, I initially mistook her for a sculpture, so still was she, and at the same time she was leaning forward a little, seeming to be pulling on a rope attached to a black sack on the floor. In my mind, I connected her to the mysterious charred bust on a pedestal in the same room, although the stationary woman exuded a dramatic sense of tension—and anguish—that the burnt wooden bust did not. Then the performer began to move away from the corner, struggling to pull behind her the weighted object on the floor.
What the performer was dragging with a great deal of effort was the symbolic burden of history and the struggle of women to free themselves from history’s seemingly endless cycles of oppression. As she walked along, the woman shouted out a series of phrases like: “Fucking history! Nothing’s going to change! I can’t do this anymore! I’m going to have to change!” True enough. And in spite of being blunted by misogyny for millennia, women have changed; slowly but surely they have begun to determine their own destiny, the greatest gift there is—a construction of self-identity created by being revealed.
Mather has challenged the burden of history and the various places women have been assigned in society—her roles as goddess, as witch, as magician, as a bimbo, or as an emanation of an animal spirit. In cross-disciplinary fashion, Mather has attempted to deconstruct the burden of these roles in a series of painted images, sculptures, performances, and a video. As political art, this is an ambitious show without being overbearing, or, in fact, particularly reckless. Although the performances pushed the volume up, literally and figuratively, they did not drown out the artist’s multi-layered messages about women needing to take back their image and construct new ways of seeing their place in the world. If the past is prologue, then the past for Mather is a cautionary tale to be dragged to a new altar of meaningful speculation and then dissected for its historical crippling effects and hints of a permanent liberation. First comes awareness of our past; then comes deconstruction, followed by the freedom to walk insouciantly in stiletto heels, for example, and then to abandon them at will in order to reach higher ground.
There are many threads to follow in Reckless Abandon: from images of Stone Age fertility goddesses; to the Walpurgisnacht, or Witches’ Sabbath, a performance of hellish and deafening heavy metal music played in a cave-like room and accompanying a video of fire projected on a large bowl of water; to the life-size wooden figure of a woman burnt from head to toe. This latter sculpture, Mine and Thine, along with the charred bust Thaumaturge, (a miracle worker or a magician), are the two most powerful works in Mather’s exhibition. The presence of the blackened figure, laid out as if on a burial slab, sucks all the energy out of the room it was installed in, just as it was intended to do. It’s a timeless reminder that women, along with men, are due for a ritual funeral pyre whereby the darkest aspects of our collective history are dematerialized and transformed into a more enlightened chapter of human behavior in the evolution of consciousness. How else can the phoenix rise from the oppressive ashes of history and say, “I can just leave you… Now I can just fly away”?