Edelson’s ritual performance work includes small private works such as the "Woman Rising" series (1973-74) and larger group or public rituals including "Your 5,000 Years Are Up" and "Memorials to 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era" both from 1977. "Woman Rising" is part of a larger practice in Edelson’s early 1970s work in which she photographed her naked body in nature to reclaim the female body and empower women. The energy, direction, and intention were marked on the surface of the images.
The "Woman Rising" series reference the Great Goddess, as Edelson wrote, “Goddess was always a metaphor for me for radical change and change of consciousness and for challenging the daily experience of what is thought of as acceptable social codes while opening other realms of experience. This spirituality invaded an area which in western culture was previously a male territory, and therefore, this action was, in and of itself, a profoundly political act against the patriarchy and for spiritual liberation—the ramifications of which are still unfolding.” (Edelson, 1990, 45)
She believed her ritual practice provided a metaphysical experience and a unification of mind, body, and spirit.
By 1977, Edelson began covering her body in the private ritual performances believing she had examined what she could with her naked form.
"Light Feet" (1977) was created in 1977 in the arbor of the Castle Lowenburg in Kassel Germany and is part of the larger project Proposals for "Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era".
Edelson stated “I was the fire spirit with light feet that both gives and takes away, mourns and celebrates, and leaves you wondering.” (Edelson, 1990, 60)
In "The Nature of Balancing" (1979) created in Port Clyde, Maine, Edelson’s draped figure is photographed from below and seems to hover between the earth and sky.
These works share Edelson’s search for diverse outdoor spaces where she envisions then carefully choreographs her movements as in "Up from the Earth" (1979) taken in a rocky landscape in Reykjavik, Iceland.
She described this series, “I separate myself from the awesome unyielding landscape of hardened lava without trees to establish my own nature.” (Edelson, 1990, 58)
Choosing low-light moments of the day in these varying landscapes allowed Edelson to subtly capture her movements on the film surface via longer exposures.
While creating her work on this former site of Neolithic rituals, she noted, “Aware of having the cave to myself, I felt like the center of the universe. My mouth was actually inhaling the cave, all of it, and breathing it out again. The cave contracted and expanded with my rhythms and shimmered on its way back and forth. I made a pact with the cave: it would tell me some of its secrets in exchange for my rituals, rituals that it had not seen for millennia.” (Edelson, 1978, 98)
Edelson has documented her experience in an essay in Heresies #5 including her description of the fertility of the land surrounding the cave entrance, her impression upon entering the coral quartz with its other geological formations, and her sense of the power of the space. However, Edelson’s "Memory Drawing of the Interior of Grapceva Cave" (1977) found in her archives is a more powerful complement in its visual expression. Her drawing describes the space as she experienced it and visually lays out its interior meaning to her ritual performance.
In "Cave Chiffon", Edelson moves with a piece of cloth whose translucency changes depending on her movements creating a ghostly figure within the dark space. From the numerous photographs taken, the artist would select a group to constitute a finished work, such as "Staged Exit, High Falls New York" (1992) that includes three images from the "Ladder Works" series.
Written by Dr. Kathleen Wentrack
(c) 2019 Kathleen Wentrack
Kathleen Wentrack, PhD, is a Professor of Art History at The City University of New York, Queensborough CC and the editor of the forthcoming book "Collaboration, Empowerment, Change: Women’s Art Collectives." She recently published “1970s Feminist Practice as Heterotopian: The Stichting Vrouwen in de Beeldende Kunst and the Schule für kreativen Feminismus,” in "All Women Art Spaces in the Long 1970s" edited by Agata Jakubowska and Katy Deepwell (Liverpool University Press, 2018). She is a contributing editor to Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice and a co-coordinator of The Feminist Art Project in New York City.
Produced by Erica Galluscio
Photography of studio space provided by Kolin Mendez Photography
Accola Griefen Fine Art exhibition photos courtesy of Accola Griefen Fine Art: Rob van Erve
Images of "Goddess Tribe" installation courtesy of David Lewis New York
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Edelson, Mary Beth. The Art of Mary Beth Edelson. New York: Seven Cycles, 2002.
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