Performance Statement #2, 1982

Why Judson Memorial? or, Thoughts about the spiritual attitudes of my work*

© Lorraine O’Grady, 1982

In writing a proposal to perform Rivers at Judson Memorial Church, a venue with important avant-garde history, O’Grady unexpectedly reached greater clarity on the spiritual aspects of her work, especially its forms.

I have purely performance reasons for wanting to do RIVERS at Judson Memorial. The first is my feeling that RIVERS is important, ambitious work which should play in a significant space. A more practical reason is the spatial requirement of the piece itself. RIVERS is designed on the ancient theme of The Crossroads (particularly important in Haitian Voudoun). It needs an upper and lower playing level, so the piece can develop on a visual vertical while, at the same time, having a horizontal line that clearly divides “above” from “below.” The raised altar of Judson’s sanctuary would provide this. In addition, the piece’s deliberately tempestuous soundtrack demands good acoustics. Though not perfect, Judson would work well.

Another reason for my choice of Judson has to do with the content of the piece. Although the work for which I’ve become known is heavily political, throughout all of it there has been an underpinning of religious concern — as in the funeral ritual of Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, or the water symbolism and hymn singing of Rivers, First Draft. Sometimes the

religious concern disappears into the purely aesthetic — for instance, the chasuble-like design of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire’s cape. As a child of Jamaican immigrants, I was raised an Anglo-Catholic, or High Episcopalian, and I have been permanently influenced by the church’s attitude toward ritual and form.

The “religious attitude” is an involuntary aspect of my mental landscape. I’ve long since renounced the church, but my life an work are marked by a quest for “wholeness,” a variant, I guess, of the old spiritual search for significance in the cosmos. As a good post-modernist, I undertake the quest for “wholeness” and “meaning” knowing that it’s doomed. But I can’t help harboring a secret hope that I will be able to achieve psychological and artistic unity. The predominant aesthetic of my work is that of collage,, i.e. of disparate realities colliding, of fragmentation and multiple points of view (I teach a course in Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism at SVA), but with me, the collage aesthetic reflects a desire to unify and contain everything. It isn’t intended to be merely descriptive; it is never a capitulation to the fragmentation and division. ( … )

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