Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here and Always Were

SFMOMA and YBCA jointly stage a retrospective of the work of an experimental artist whose provocative works about sexual abuse prefigured #MeToo by nearly 50 years.

Suzanne Lacy, Julio César Morales, and Unique Holland, “Code 33: Emergency, Clear the Air!,” 1997–99, from The Oakland Projects, 1991–2001; performance, Oct. 7, 1999, City Center West Parking Garage, Oakland. Photo by Kelli Yon

Like rap albums from the ’90s that warned buyers of “explicit content” or X-rated Hollywood films from the late ’60s that announced “Persons under 16 not admitted,” the new Suzanne Lacy exhibit cautions anyone who’s about to experience it firsthand. In 2019, cultural institutions like SFMOMA and YBCA — which co-host “Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here” — have to give patrons a heads-up. Lacy holds nothing back in her artistic explorations, whether it’s showing explicit photos of vaginas or playing audio of women recounting details of their sexual assaults at the hands of depraved men.

“This exhibition contains graphic content, including audio and visual accounts of violence against women,” blares a sign on SFMOMA’s seventh floor, at the entranceway a few feet from the elevators.

Sexual violence is just one of many topics that Lacy has addressed in a 50-year career that has pushed the boundaries of activist art. In her late-1990s collaborative project, Code 33: Emergency, Clear the Air!, Lacy orchestrated a public dialogue between Oakland youth and the city’s police department, giving them a chance to air their grievances, fears, and hopes about everything that mattered to them.

YBCA devotes much of a gallery to videos of that one event, which was part of Lacy’s ongoing work called The Oakland Projects. A new multichannel set-up accentuates the raw emotions of back-and-forth discussions that resonate today, since police violence against youthful suspects is still ongoing.   

“Because you’re a cop and you made a mistake that I was reaching for something — and because you ran my name and four years ago I have something on my record — I got shot and it’s OK?” one youth says to an officer as they’re sitting in a circle of students and police, surrounded by observers. “You may not even lose your job. That’s how you’re above the law. You have to admit that.”

Lacy didn’t merely organize this single event. She shepherded an entire series of art workshops, community presentations, and other actions that had a lasting impact on their participants. One of them, Ogubala Atkintunde, said in 2007 that Code 33 helped in relationships with college teachers and authority figures by giving him the confidence to express “my own voice.” Code 33, on which Lacy collaborated with Julio César Morales and Unique Holland, accomplished something that few art projects do: Empower people.

So did Lacy’s project La piel de la memoria/Skin of Memory, for which she visited Antioquia, a barrio in Medellín, Columbia, whose history includes years of drug-related killings. With collaborator Pilar Riaño-Alcalá, Lacy gave residents a chance to talk about their dead family members, show their photos and keepsakes, and meet with other residents who were also caught up in the violence. In 2011, Lacy and Riaño-Alcalá revisited that 1999-2000 project, which created a kind of epilogue in which one barrio resident, a woman who lost her son, said her participation “really helps me now to come to terms with my own pain.”

Exhuming and examining pain is one of Lacy’s preoccupations, and “Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here” shows that Lacy can accomplish this through art projects that are participatory not just for others but for Lacy herself — and that, when necessary, she can also employ dark humor. In her 1976 project Anatomy Lesson #2: Learn Where the Meat Comes From, Lacy spoofs TV chef Julia Child by embracing a full lamb carcass — even using vampire teeth for one scene — and pointing out the animal’s different parts in relation to her own. It’s the pain of the animal’s death that Lacy is challenging.

While Anatomy Lesson #2 is a brief artistic entrance into the world of food and pop culture, there’s no easy entrance to — or easy escape from — Lacy’s continuing work on violence against women. In Ablutions, she worked with Judy Chicago, Sandra Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani on what Chicago has called “probably the first public work of art about rape.” In it, two women bathed in metal tubs with egg, clay, and blood as Lacy nailed animal kidneys to a wall while a soundtrack played graphic narratives of seven women who recalled their past rapes or attacks.

SFMOMA’s gallery runs those narratives on a loop as visitors see still images of the original 1972 performance. One woman describes being attacked by a date who took her to the beach, gave her flowers, then forced himself on her inside his VW bus. “We were just kissing, and all of a sudden he pinned me down and I said, ‘Get the hell off me, right now!’ ” one woman says. “I was screaming. I said, ‘What’s the matter with you? Don’t you care who I am or anything?’ …  I couldn’t kick or anything because he was so large. He was so strong. …  I think I tried hitting him but he took my hand away and pinned me down.” Another woman describes waiting for the bus at Haight Street and Masonic Avenue before deciding to hitchhike. She got into a car with two men who turned out to be serial rapists — “we already raped a girl today” — and who beat her before driving to Marin County, where they then forced her to have sex. Almost 50 years after its making, Ablutions is still a shocking work of art. At the time it was made, it may have been too shocking for the art world or the mainstream media, as Chicago has now said the work was “met with total silence.”

The silent treatment may be why Lacy was even more determined with two 1977 works about rape for which she collaborated with Leslie Labowitz. In Three Weeks in May, Lacy used a red stamp to print the word “RAPE” on a map of Los Angeles to show every attack that had been reported the day before. She filled it with swaths of bright red lettering as it hung in a mall near L.A.’s City Hall. On a different map, Lacy tagged the locations of organizations and events that included a self-defense demonstration, a dialogue between activist women and authorities, and performances. One performance featured a woman marking a sidewalk with red lettering that said, “2 Women Were Raped Near Here May 9 May 21.” The project including reading police reports about rapes on Los Angeles radio station KPFK. The media covered Three Weeks in May, just as it did the 1977 work In Mourning and In Rage, for which Lacy and Labowitz — in the middle of the Hillside Strangler’s killing spree — organized a motorcade of 60 women to follow a hearse to City Hall, where they announced, “In memory of our sisters, we fight back!”

Lacy is still fighting. One of her recent works is De tu puño y letra (By Your Own Hand), where men in Quito, Ecuador, went to a bullring to read letters from women who’ve been subjected to other men’s violence.

Because of her resolve and courage, some admirers have urged Lacy to seek elected office, but she refuses, telling journalists at the exhibit’s opening, “I’m an artist and I make art. I’m not in the political realm. I’m not running for office, which some people have suggested to me. I can’t imagine.”

The “here” in the retrospective’s title refers to the women’s voices that Lacy and her collaborators have brought to more vivid attention. At the exhibit’s press preview, Lacy seemed modest about her own achievements — which are many. Among her awards and academic accomplishments, she’s had fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Now a professor at USC’s Roski School of Art and Design, she was Dean of Fine Arts at the California College of Arts and Crafts from 1987 to 1997 and Oakland’s art commissioner from 1999 to 2001. She calls herself an “experimental artist.

“I’m only interested in what I don’t know,” Lacy said. “Collaboration is key to teaching me. So moments of collaborations are moments of reciprocity and exchange of information. I don’t think we exist in the world individually. And I think everything we do is really engaged with and reflective of exchange — of information, of wisdom. And I think this is fundamental to feminism and equity practices in general — that to acknowledge the contributions of other people is critical. When we challenge the myth of the heroic artist, we actually challenge the idea that any work is constructed by a single person.”

“Dialogue is like the color of paint for me,” Lacy added. “How dialogue moves and is choreographed to elicit emotional and intellectual responses from the listener or the viewer is my craft.”

Those truths can be hard to hear, even in a MeToo era where rape trials are reported in detail and violence and bloodshed have become fixtures of public debate. But those debates often devolve into finger-pointing and blame, where people — especially those in power — don’t so much listen as try to have the last word. Lacy’s art has always subverted that paradigm, has always created the space — the literal space — for people to say, “I am here, so please listen.” Lacy has welcomed so many people into those spaces that the “I” became a collective “we.” The SFMOMA sign that warns of “graphic content” essentially says Lacy’s circle is much bigger than the circles that most artists travel in. Her art brings together people of different classes, different genders, and different experiences — all of whom acknowledge any pain as much as they acknowledge each other.

“Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here” through Aug. 4, at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., $19-$25, sfmoma.org, and at YBCA, 701 Mission St., $10, ybca.org.

View Comments