Mary Beth Edelson: Ritual Performances

The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project

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.

Woman Rising, Earth Rites, Mary Beth Edelson, 1973, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Ritual Performances
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.
Woman Rising / Sea, Mary Beth Edelson, 1973, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Woman Rising / Sky III, Mary Beth Edelson, 1973, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project

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)

Woman Rising, Earth Rites, Mary Beth Edelson, 1973, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Dematerializing, Mary Beth Edelson, 1975, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project

She believed her ritual practice provided a metaphysical experience and a unification of mind, body, and spirit.

Light Feet, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project

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, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project

"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".

Light Feet, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project

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)

The Nature of Balancing, Mary Beth Edelson, 1979, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project

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.

The Nature of Balancing, Mary Beth Edelson, 1979, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Up From the Earth, Mary Beth Edelson, 1979, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project

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.

Up From the Earth, Mary Beth Edelson, 1979, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project

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)

Up From the Earth, Mary Beth Edelson, 1979, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project

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.

Grapceva Neolithic Cave See for Yourself, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Grapceva Neolithic Cave, See for Yourself, 1977
After reading Marija Gimbutus’s "Gods and Goddess of Old Europe, 7000 to 3500 BC" in 1975 and performing numerous private rituals in nature and her studio, Edelson desired a pilgrimage trip to a Goddess site. She focused on the former Yugoslavia as her research indicated that that this area, referred to as “Old Europe” by archeologists, was an early location for Goddess activity. Travelling with Anne Healy, and with the help of locals, Edelson came upon the cave on Hvar Island (now Croatia). On her second day at the cave, Edelson returned with numerous candles and flashlights to choreograph the image. Owing to the darkness of the space, "Grapceva Neolithic Cave, See for Yourself" was the moment when the artist began using time-lapse exposures to document her private performance, but she also realized this process could record her movements on the film’s surface. 
Grapceva Neolithic Cave See for Yourself, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project

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)

See for Yourself: Pilgrammage to a Neolithic Cave Memory Drawing, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project

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.

Ladder Works High Falls New York, Mary Beth Edelson, 1992, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
High Falls series
Edelson continued to make these private performative photographic works in the 1990s, most notably at High Falls in upstate New York. These two proof sheets from her archive include the outdoor piece "Ladder Works" (1992) and a series created within an enclosed landscape entitled "Cave Chiffon" (1992). For both, Edelson continued to use time-lapse photography to capture the movements of her body on the black and white film. For "Ladder Works", she precariously balances her body on a ladder suspended on rock formations with water rushing around her.
Ladder Works High Falls New York, Mary Beth Edelson, 1992, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Cave Chiffon High Falls New York, Mary Beth Edelson, 1992, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project

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.

Memorials to the 9,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era Workbook, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era, 1977
"Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era" (1977) was performed on October 31, 1977 at A.I.R. Gallery. Edelson came to this theme while researching the Goddess and began to historically question how Goddess worship ended. Twelve pages from her artist book devoted to the project describe her development of the theme, the performance, and the final installation piece. Edelson writes, “When did Goddess worship actually cease, and why? The popular notion that the old religion was superceded by superior Christian/Judeo theology did not satisfy me. After the patriarchy gained the dominant controls, up to the early Christian era, women were still worshipping the Goddess, the mysteries were still being passed on from mother to daughter, [then] women were being censored for this.” She then researched witch hunts from the twelfth through the eighteenth centuries. She was shocked by the number of women who were killed and, moreover, that it was not discussed in history books. Hence, she developed the work in response to this historical oversight which included a reading of names of those burnt as witches as indicated on this handout provided as part of the public ritual and installation at A.I.R. Gallery. Participants entered the space through the “Gate of Horns/Fig of Triumph” and were given names of women burnt as witches and Fruit of the Goddess while performers sat around the Ladder of Fire and read “What Happened? How Did We Get Taken Over: Notes from the Artist on the Exhibition.” There was a call to the “Spirit of Our Ancient Sisters,” chanting, and a reading of the names. "Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era" is indicative of the efforts of feminists and feminist artists to look back and embrace a time when Goddess worship was prevalent. Many were reading Merlin Stone’s "When God Was a Women" (1976), for example, for alternative symbols and mythological frameworks to challenge and undermine patriarchal systems of oppression. A special issue of "Heresies: A Feminist Publication of Art and Politics" (1978) was devoted to the theme of the Great Goddess illustrating the significance of this ideology during the period.
Memorials to the 9,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era Workbook, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Memorials to the 9,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era Workbook, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Memorials to the 9,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era Workbook, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Memorials to the 9,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era Workbook, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Memorials to the 9,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era Workbook, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Memorials to the 9,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era Workbook, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Memorials to the 9,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era Workbook, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Memorials to the 9,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era Workbook, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Memorials to the 9,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era Workbook, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Memorials to the 9,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era Workbook, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Memorials to the 9,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era Workbook, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project
Credits: Story

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


Select Bibliography

Buszek, Maria Elena. “Mothers and Daughters, Sluts and Goddesses: Mary Beth Edelson and Annie Sprinkle.” In: It’s Time for Action (There’s No Option). About Feminism. Ed. Heike Munder. Zurich: Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst and JRP/Ringier, 2007, 228-61.

Edelson, Mary Beth. The Art of Mary Beth Edelson. New York: Seven Cycles, 2002.

Edelson, Mary Beth. Firsthand: Photographs by Mary Beth Edelson, 1973-1993 and Shooter Series. Essay by Jan Avgikos, “No Reverse Gear.” Mary Beth Edelson: New York, 1993.

Edelson, Mary Beth. Interview with Kathleen Wentrack. New York, 12 September 2008.

Edelson, Mary Beth. "Male Grazing: An Open Letter to Thomas McEvilley.” In: Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology, 1968-2000.” Ed. Hilary Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001, 592-94. First published as “Objections of a ‘Goddess Artist:’ An open Letter to Thomas McEvilley.” New Art Examiner 16, No. 8 (April 1989): 34-38.

Edelson, Mary Beth. “Pilgrimage/See for Yourself: A Journey to a Neolithic Goddess Cave, 1977. Grapceva, Hvar Island Yugoslavia.” Heresies: A Feminist Publication of Art and Politics #5, Spring 1978: 96-99.

Edelson. Mary Beth. Seven Cycles: Public Rituals. With an Introduction by Lucy R. Lippard." New York: Mary Beth Edelson, 1980.

Edelson. Mary Beth. Shape Shifter: Seven Mediums. New York: Mary Beth Edelson, 1990.

Edelson. Mary Beth. “Success Has 1,000 Mothers: Art and Activism from Mary Beth Edelson’s Point of View.” In: Women’s Culture in a New Era: A Feminist Revolution? Ed. Gayle Kimball. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2005, 27-60..

Freitag, Barbara. Sheela-Na-Gigs: Unraveling an Enigma. London: Routledge, 2004

Gimbutas, Marija. Gods and Goddess of Old Europe, 7000 to 3500 BC/Myths, Legends, and Cult Images. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Griefen, Kat. “Considering Mary Beth Edelson’s Some Living American Women Artists.” The Brooklyn Rail, March 2019, 38-9.

Höglinger, Nora. “Mary Beth Edelson: “The Goddess is Us.” In: Feminist Avant-Garde: Art of the 1970s, The Sammlung Verbund Collection, Vienna. Ed. Gabriele Schor. Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2016, 120-25.

Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses. Ed. Vincent Hale and Vincent Croce. New York: Britannica Educational Publishing and Rosen Publishing Group, 2014.

Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman. New York: Dial Press, 1976.

Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution. Ed. Lisa Gabrielle Mark. Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007.

Winifred Milius Lubell, The Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Women’s Sexual Energy, Nashville and London: Vanderbilt University Press, 1994

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