FEMALE STUDY: MEREDITH MONK'S ORDINARY OBJECTS

I'm in design mode again, and this time I've been referencing performance artists working in the 1960s and 70s to help me shape the tone of my next collection.

Lately my main focus has been on Judson Dance Theatre, which was a repurposed church that housed a number of avant-garde dance and performance artists working between 1962-1964 in Greenwich Village, NYC. With the help of Choreographer Robert Dunn and composer John Cage, performers at the Judson Dance Theatre worked to re-envision modern dance by eliminating its compositional constraints to incorporate ordinary gestures, which effectively created what is now known as postmodern dance.

Among the artists working in the Judson Dance Theatre, Meredith Monk's early work with site-specific performance, and her postmodern approach to dance and music has really struck me. While pioneering an interdisciplinary approach to performance, Monk incorporated everyday movements and sounds in her work with a classic postmodern stance. However, Monk took her work beyond traditional postmodernism by combining her interdisciplinary approach with consideration for the venue her performances were held. This unique technique made for some very interesting work, especially while she was in her early experimental phases.

(This video is unable to play on other sites, so click the "watch on youtuble" link to view)

16mm Earrings was one of Monk's first interdisciplinary pieces. The original performance was held at the Judson Church in 1966 which included sound loops that echoed in the theatre, and incorporated smells of formaldehyde and burning tires to provoke all of the senses of the viewers. The above video was a re-performance made in 1979 in effort to document the work. 

16mm Earrings was a sort of 'coming of age' work where Monk explored her sexuality, and began to form her own artistic identity outside of the influence of her postmodern predecessors at the Judson Dance Theatre. In an interview Monk explains her aim with the piece:

With the concept I had in 16mm Earrings I realized that anything in my life could be used as material: my hair, my body, my crossed eyes, anything about me physically or mentally. By reading [Wilhelm Reich’s 1940] The Function of Orgasm, I could objectify it. It wasn’t that I felt I was doing a confessional piece at all; it was just the opposite of someone like Karen Finley. It was taking anything of my being and making that a plastic material, like paint.

This distinctive interpretation of what 'ordinary objects' meant is what sets Monk's work apart from her contemporaries. Likewise, her willingness to reject minimalism in her theories and her aesthetic was a departure from her predecessors, making her work it's own niche of avant-garde.

After working with the Judson Theatre, Monk formed her own vocal ensemble. As Monk worked into the 1980s, her performance pieces pushed the limits of what she was accepting and rejecting from postmodernism even further, creating a number of bizarre, but provocative pieces. (I once read in an interview with David Lynch that in the 80s, the highest compliment one could give another person in regards to their art, was that it was "weird." Well Monk definitely wins the weird award for her work in the 1980s.)

The amazing strangeness I speak of can be seen here in Monk's Turtle Dreams(This video is unable to play on other sites, so click the "watch on youtuble" link to view)

Turtle Dreams was recorded for television in 1983, and incorporated Monk's interpretation of postmodern movement, as well as her own music, which took multi layered vocals and minimal droning instrumental music to set the mood for the entire piece. I really love the gloves on the synth player, as well as the expressions on the performer's faces. It's hard for me to believe that this actually aired on television, it's just so strange. 

But what makes this piece important, to me, is that Monk uses sounds and lyrics that aren't generally considered 'musical' as one of the focal points of the piece. What might seem like uncommon sounds though, are actually basic noises that all humans make outside of speaking formal language. And the common, however non sequitur lyrics or words stand out as odd or unlyrical, despite their being used in everyday language.  This combination makes for an almost oxymoronic juxtaposition that the viewer is left to sort out on their own.

What also strikes me as significant about Turtle Dreams is that the performance was made with the camera in mind. This approach, which is known as dance for film, is a matured version of site-specific performance that is basically a side effect of the ubiquity of motion picutres at the time.

During the 1980s Monk also filmed two features, Ellis Island and Book of Days. Again using an interdisciplinary approach, Monk uses her personal sound and movement techniques, as well as a dance for film approach.

Excerpt from "Book of Days," 1988

Book of Days isn't easy to find in full length, but of the excerpts I've seen, it's my favorite of the two features Monk made because of her use of 1980s anachronisms in a "medieval" period piece. I also really like her application of dance for film. The movements go in and out of frame with intention, which is like a way of directly breaking the fourth wall, without the performers actually interacting with the audience. 

However bizarre Monk's work might seem, I find her to be extremely influential, any strangeness aside. All the Portland art school 'weirdos,' the non-burners in Oakland, and everyone at the Smell in LA and Weird in NY circa 2002-2010 can thank Monk for her ability to take the ordinary and obscure it. Without her contributions to postmodern art, pop culture of the late 1990s through the millennium wouldn't quite have the flavor it does. 


Courtney Cady ©Bagtazo 2015