Johanna Went was once my favorite performance artist. She came closest to a kind of ideal I was looking for after I read Artaud's Theater and Its Double. I got to know her a little when I lived in LA from 1979 to 1982. Then we lost touch. I wrote this about her in 1991, nine years after I had moved to New York. It's sad she did not become the superstar she deserved to be. I will always be grateful for the earliest work of hers that I witnessed.
I'm feeling very let down right now about one of my heroes. Her name is Johanna Went. I've been walking around the past week telling anyone whom I thought might care that Johanna Went is the best performance artist I've ever seen and how they should change their plans on Tuesday evening so they could go see her perform at Alice Tully Hall as part of the Serious Fun festival. This is about my ex-hero and hero-to-be Johanna Went.
Johanna Went is my ex-hero because I went to see her tonight and I hated the show. It had all the elements I thought she disdained as much as I- a proscenium arch framing a fourth wall to her world; trite, tired references to political issues and human sexuality; arty self-consciousness. More on those in a sec. But first let me say this- she's my hero-to-be because I know she's gonna do better. Johanna will rise again. I know she's got it in her- it was apparent tonight. It just didn't coalesce together as it did when I saw her some ten years ago in Los Angeles. Now that was an event I will never forget.
The details I do forget. But the event- never. One reason I will never forget it is because it was a night in which the details seemed to fade away- as they probably will when we die. Yeah, I figure they'll kind get real vivid for a second and then disappear in a dark, divine blur. That's how I remember Johanna's performance at Al's Bar in Downtown in L.A. in the early '80s.
It was brilliant. I do remember extremely loud cacaphonous noise by Mark Wheaton and a cohort. It was something like music but it was also something like a roar. I don't necessarily remember it having a beat but it may have because I remember it as being very sexy. Sex is something that usually moves to a beat. Sometimes so slow you don't even know it has a beat, sometimes a steady muffled pulse, other times a flailing, grinding, pounding machine-like syncopation, but always a beat. Because I was bordering on a frenzied anti-aesthetitic love psychosis at the time, that's how I remember Johanna Went in L.A.- sexy- but like I say the details are lost. I do rememer dildoes. A necklace of huge dildoes around her neck, if I'm not mistaken. I remember a cunt- a larger than life, homemade cunt- one with objects and liquids of varying viscosity emanating from it, spilling out into the audience, penetrating that fourth uterine wall, weaving the audience into the piece, reeling us into her performance womb. The entire room had become one as the remains of snakelike objects were passed over heads to the people who stood behind us in the crowded smoky haze. It may have helped that we were standing then, too. No cushy seats, just an ocean of tired legs and mesmerized faces as Johanna cast her seductive spells and her repulsive smells out over the crowd that psychically mirrored her every motion, writhed inside and out with each of her tortured screams of ecstacy. All while the band roared on.
In the days and years that followed, I thought of things like Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty and how what I'd seen that evening was the closest thing to manifesting it that I had ever experienced. This was beyond genius, this was intuition. The experience I had that night bordered on religious. I had had an epiphany. It was a primordial journey to some transcendent womb, then through it and then back. I vaguely remember chocolate that looked like shit and come to think of it- I do remember a detail- there was a Santa Claus involved. Yeah, it must have been Christmas time and I remember now- she did something rude with Santa. But like alll the best things in life, her performance that night was impossible to describe, so please let me stop trying. Let's just say it moved me like no other artist in any medium had every managed to move me and I'd longed ever since to repeat it.
Cut to 10 or 11 years later. Alice Tully Hall. I'm sitting in Row V, center of the aisle. I have a nice view of the stage. Curtain opens. There are a few large props. A big thing in the center that says "My Party, Your House" or something like that with a big humanoid figure front and center with his arms outstretched. Awkward looking arms with badly painted hands. But that's not what is important. What is important is that I remember the details. This was no Jungian blurr. This was art- or worse- this was Performance Art. Capital P capital A, and a capital offence. Johanna Went had let me down. I could not believe she was going to trifle with "politics" when her earlier pieces had been the most political things I'd ever seen, merely by virtue of their existence. Her earlier work was beyond subversion, it was madness. Remember- the opposite of absolute oppression is absolute pleasure. There had always been an extremely dark side to Johanna's work but there was always something very pleasurable about it too - something beautiful bordering on dark- reminiscent of those scenes in Dante, Hieronomys Bosch or William Blake. To bring political sloganeering into something like that is to miss the profound power that a truly subconscious-inspiring image can have. That kind of power could have appeared tonight, but didn't and that makes me very sad. By fighting the Jesse Helmeses of this world on turf they are capable of inhabiting made her an instant victim of their buffoonery. When gods fight with mere mortals it is never a pleasant sight and always demeaning for all concerned. All this when we needed her most. I thought Johanna Went was the one cultural hero who could rescue us from this mundane, mediocre United States of Hell. But no, what I saw was merely "art."
I wanted to like it, I really did. I am not judging this harshly because it was presented uptown. I could care less. More power to her and everyone who gets to hock their weird wares at Lincoln Center. I'm all for it. No, this was a letdown because it just didn't have that primoridial feel to it. Johanna Went had done the unthinkable- she had started thinking and stopped feeling! Not that her previous pieces weren't brilliant in an intellectual kind of way. Indeed they were. They'd put any ten Brian Eno lectures to shame. But in those earlier manifestions of Johanna's talent, once the perfomance began and the music started- all that headiness disappeared and only the visceral remained. The lower chakra's kicked in, with maybe some flashes from the third eye or the top of the head. But this was not intellectual artsy-fartsy stuff she used to do, this was experiential, like all the great sublime works of art (and therefore beyond art) in history. That's why I dared to call her my favorite perfomer.
But July 16 1991 at Lincoln Center she was artsy-fartsy all the way. Sure, she had tried, I could tell. But maybe too hard. All the elments were there. There was a cunt, as always. The beautiful props and puppets. I suppose the arms she constructed had always looked awkward, the hands always were alwayscrudely drawn, but they had always been part of a coherent whole before. This was a mishmash of potentially volitile, but functionally impotent parts. Her phallic symbols had lost their kick, the giant mouths no longer had bite. Even Wheaton's music was too sophisticated for it's own good. Apparently the roaring electric guitar and drum kit that was so effective ten years ago at Al's Bar isn't good enough for the '90s or for Lincoln Center or for Lincoln Center in the '90's. Sure it had it's moments- particularly when it reminded me for a brief moment of her hard-to-find album called Hyena-but that was the exception- not the rule. The music was generally self conscious enough to conjur up visions of Billy Joel and Phillip Glass arm wrestling with their elbows on a sampler. I was horrified. The least they could've done was crank it up. It wasn't even loud enough.
There were other frustrations. She didn't need those other performers (Peggy Farrar, Stephen Holman, Tom Murrin) on stage with her. There was one gag that worked where a pair of aboriginal Bobsy Twins ran around behind her with colorful snake-like projectiles in their hands. Only moments before they had been nuns, I believe. Or was that the other performance I had seen that night? See, as soon as I begin to like it, I lose control of the details- a good sign. But it faded when the details-including her ubiquitous assistants, the usual assortment of tits and cunts and penis envy- retuned.
But enough description. I'm not here to describe the piece to you. I'm here to describe my disappointment. It was a failure in my opinion. I can't put my finger on which detail did it in. It was more in the way it was concieved. It wasn't that the "actors" were bad- it was that it even had actors. Enough said. I'm sure many liked it. Maybe Johanna liked it. It says in the program "her performances have grown in size with clearly defined sets, bigger props, more developed costumes and actors and dancers as co-performers. Her scripts are structured with recurring characters and simultaneous stories developing on stage." More power to her. If she's doing what she wants to do and feels good about it, I'll be the first one to shake her hand. I'm not here to tell anyone to stay the same. I don't want Woody Allen to go back to being an all-out clown. I don't want David Bowie or Robert Rauschenberg to stay the same from year to year. But it's hard for me to believe that no matter what her new goals and interests are, that Johanna isn't interested in transforming her audience. No, I feel like that's a given, based on my earlier experience of her work. She absolutely transformed me. I had been initiated into some strange new part of myself, passed over into another realm, never to return- with her as shaman. But not this time. This was definitely art. The kind that makes ya nod off from boredom, because you're thinking too much and feel nothing inside.
There was one magic moment- just before the end. Her cohorts were gone and Johanna Went stood before the crowd alone, center stage. The music was loud. She used the microphone but this time there were not words, only sounds. Gutteral, deep sounds bubbled from within her. For a moment I had an experience similar to the one I'd had years before. All my attention was focused on her focusing all of her attention on some Goddess of Paradox within her gut. That was what was missing until this fleeting moment- the entire piece had lacked focus. Her brilliance 10 years ago had been her ability to coalesce the ever-changing, blurry, peripheral vision that is spiritual/sexual/animal energy- a convergence of the universe's darkest but most exhaulted forces- into a microscopic focus, a coherent pinhole of light that burned everything in it's path with it's clarity. And there it was before me, tonight. But only for a moment. Then something arty happened and it was gone.