The prayer book

The prayer book invites us to contemplate the fifteen mysteries of the rosary, which are based on the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Christ, but it substitutes events from the lives and deaths of the five women. The fragmented biographies found in the prayer book, presented to parallel the life and death of Christ, echo the extreme way in which these women have been fetishized by the public and/or within the art world. They also underline a preoccupation with the Romantic ideal of martyrdom for art, while the performance encourages us to participate in a ritual of reverence for such an ideal. The notion that most of these women were concerned with their own suffering, death and immortality – or at least in some way pre-enacted or pre-wrote their own deaths – is reinforced by the quotations that Fusco has chosen. Most of the texts articulate an idea of suffering and redemption, an ambivalence about the flesh, and a concern with death that anticipates the renown that came after death. They convey the impression that these artists have on some level chosen to incarnate themselves as icons even if such iconization has meant incarnation as death.

When the installation stands without the performed element, there is a morning-after feel to the work. The candles are burnt down and unlit, and there is no incense. Without Fusco’s presence in the casket, the icons – for Selena, a black sequined bra, for Sor Juana a quill pen, for Eva Peron a radio microphone, for Frida Kahlo a paint brush and for Ana Mendieta two vials of what look like blood and ashes – as well as the accompanying texts become the focus of the piece. In this context the work functions more as a collection of artifacts of the histories and work of the women we’re invited to ponder, indicating their absence as the empty casket indicates the absence of Fusco invoking the corpse of Mendieta.

There are absences mirrored within absences here; those in Fusco’s installation are mirrored by those in the work and lives of the women she has invoked. Fusco’s presence in performance and the empty casket indicating her absence in the installation obviously point to the absence of all these women through death. But beyond this, the empty casket where Fusco’s body lay as Ana Mendieta recalls the impressions Mendieta left in the earth with her own body. Miwon Kwon (Inside the Visible, 1996) writes, “Mendieta’s use of her/the body almost always approached erasure or negation: her `body’ constantly disappeared. . . . It is curious that Ana traced her absence. . . .” Octavio Paz, in his 1988 biography of Sor Juana, points out that many of her love poems have as their object one who is a ghostly figure retained in the memory, or one who is actually dead. Kahlo painted images of her empty dresses, maimed and gashed and incomplete bodies, aborted fetuses.

How do we step in to fill these absences? Fusco, by aligning herself so strongly with death, faces us with the traumatic fact of death. Funeral space always brings out the desire to memorialize. Absence creates the desire to fill the gaps with myth, icons, texts or, as critics and biographers have repeatedly pointed out, with the absent parents and children and homelands found in biographies. We can also try to fill absences with our bodies, which after the moment of performance leave only the memory of a body, or an object indicating its passing. Often struggling to reconcile the paradox of being both subjects and objects of their art, all of the women invoked in the performance used their bodies as medium or subject matter or both. What we’re left with is the traces of those performances – the self-portraits and images of mirrors, the photographs and video footage. As a woman artist, Fusco, who adopts all of the above strategies of memorialization, can also attempt to fill absence by creating predecessors, mirroring herself by placing herself in a lineage of women with whom she identifies. But the work also suggests the possibility of an endless lineage of unfillable absences, leaving open the question of whether there’s any authorizing predecessor at all.

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