Artist Heather Marie Vernon debuts Durga-Puja-Be-coming Invincible, a seven week “durational performance,” at Verge/Light Assembly during Art Week in Miami December 6 through 9, 2012 (yes, everyone refers to it collectively as "Art Basel"). The performance uses sound performance, body and movement, vocal therapy, video performance and photography with the aim of transforming the self and overcoming unhealthy patterns in life that keep us from moving forward.
“Durga Puja-Be-coming Invincible is a 7-week collaborative approach to diagram how expressive modalities and energy work can encourage a person to be-come and transform the self. “ says Vernon, adding, “Or G.I. Jane with energy work!”
Within the piece artist “transforms” herself into Durga, the Indian goddess of war. Durga is a demon fighter and the name means “the inaccessible” or “the invincible.” Vernon uses the Durga as the symbol of personal transformation while likewise using metaphors of war and re-tooling.
The piece consists of a series of photos diagramming the process and then the actual performance piece follows. The performance includes projected video (including original soundtrack). Vernon has been assisted by a movement artist, vocal coach and photographer. The work isn’t just a solo effort but a team one.
The piece is also inspired by an Elenore Antin carving—specifically CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture from 1972. Antin used her body and its weight loss over a 36 day diet. Heather Cassils’ Cuts was also an important inspiration. Cassils work focuses on reinventing her body using training, weightlifting and diet.
Vernon spoke about the Durga-Puja-Be-coming piece and how she approaches performance art in general.
“As an entertainer I use tools, modes, and ways that can still convey information in a way that is exists heavily in metaphor. I have people that come up to me after a performance and it was a myriad of responses,” she says. “They say, ‘I really responded to your use of humor’, or they say, ‘I was a little scared’, or ‘you made me think about a lot of things’, or ‘you inspire me’. Because I am interested in art tools, and what they can do, I always ask further questions, because I am always interested in expanded pedagogy.”
Why did Vernon choose Durga as her motivation for this new piece? The answer is in the artist’s early life. Her connection to Durga goes back to her own origins.
“It has been an amazing opportunity to have had an alternative childhood, living in communes growing up meant I was familiar with collaborative environments, and dismantled power systems of the family unit. My parents were also very young and were very interested in creating a more meaningful and rich life, which meant there was a spiritual quest,” she says. “My parents followed a guru from India, Guru Maharaji and during my childhood, I attended multimedia festivals throughout the world. As an adult questioning and dismantling of systems of power, my interest in relational aesthetics, and collaborative performance was birthed at Holy festivals. I was introduced to the principle of Durga, when I was shown how to transcendentally mediate at age 11. Durga always represented the invincible, or another way of looking at Durga is self-knowing, or self- affirmation. She is also a warrior; so in reinventing the use of symbols of empowerment was a natural course of action.”
How does this piece fit into the rest of Vernon’s work? It is a more personal piece with roots in her education.
“Rather than a political war, it was a personal war. Healing my self as a practicing artist was my main motivation. I saw this opening in my practice as an opportunity to investigate the field of art therapy. Having already held a masters from Yale in Sculpture, I preceded to pursue a second masters in Art Therapy,” she says. “I knew art tools were helping, but what I didn’t examine before was my own intuitive use of expressive art therapy, which is multi-modal. There had always been movement in my work, my painting were inspired by private internal worlds that I wrote about it in the form of poetry and those poems influenced stories, that I responded to by making paintings from.”
“So I responded to my audience as an entertainer would, a history of site-specific installation informed the choice to always respond to the space with each piece. Using video was first an economical way of documenting the performance. Then I began to use the camera like a paintbrush, and later a way of involving a cast of over 400 personas.” she says.
Vernon would then build props, costume and environments that she would engage or that would influence her movement.
“Moving in and out of modalities was curative, as well as the personas, it prevented dissociations of the self, because it was constantly deflecting and reinventing the self. I realized as a performer that I had a personal experience of be-coming or performing that was cathartic. So each persona was in conversation or relation with another persona, and in turn would inform the next persona. Personas’ allowed me to walk through any discomfort, or inspiration I used camp, humor, the abject, and drag. It was the way I told my story and rewrote the story, and my practice became a multiplicity.”
She now sees this as “dizzying.” Vernon says she came to a place in her work where she could “speak from multiple tongues.” But she had to ask herself what it was she was saying.
“Life experiences also influences my practice and I had to adapt to a new this desire for a more open practice that was potentially more meaning full, rather than stagnate in my old practice.” says Vernon. “To use Hotelman words, because the ‘roots of my desire’ always ‘lie in the desire’ for ‘something infinitely open and unrestricted.’ I chose to re-invent my practice and align with my art therapy pursuits and my interest in energy work.”
“Performance art is both the form of art that is easiest and hardest to relate to--when you say ‘art’ to the average person they think ‘painting’, ‘sculpture’...etc. what do you think the best way to get the general public to take notice of performance pieces.” she says.
Performance pieces are more difficult to explain, to get people to wrap their heads around somehow. But why?
“Why is it difficult to talk about performance art or to wrap ones head around an involved piece, is this because we just have more to talk about, meaning that performance is relational, the performers relating to space, time, and duration in new ways? Rose Lee Goldberg in her seminal book, Performance Art: from Futurism to the Present she states, “Live art is different. Live art is something that happened to art, to history, and to art history”. If ‘live art’ is something that ‘happened’, how did happen?”
Performance is something that evolved throughout art and within the respective histories of different sorts of art. Vernon brings up the classicist artists of the armory and how they spit (literally) on paintings by the Impressionists.
“The Impressionists were responding to light, and not the figure, nature not, the architecture, enjoying process, not creating painting ideals. The Impressionists were responding to the temporality of light, the way light hits a flower, a pond, a shoulder, or the way light hits other patterns of light. So there have always been artists revering aesthetic ideals and artists in direct resistance to aesthetics, and more aligned with process of creating a work of art. In her “Partial history of performance”, Martha Wilson, wrote, that performance had an “attitude of confrontation”. In fact entire histories of art have to do with art that is about that confrontation, or in response to another artists work, or oeuvre,” says Vernon. “If the impressionists were responding to the temporality of light, the experience of painting outside, standing in a field painting light, is a kind of responding to, in a sense, temporality. It is standing in the field, responding to the experience of the weather, the patterns of winds, or stillness, hearing birds, hearing footsteps, and hearing brushstrokes. Seeing the paint respond to heat and the elements, allowing paint to ‘be’ in real time. In that duration of an event, meaning in real time; is the process of being, seeing, thinking, and doing. So I liken that the impressionists even though there were not cutting up paintings, burying painting in the wall, or making paintings into sculptures, what they were doing out there in the field was a kind of experimental art practice, a performance.”
All this contributes to why wrapping our heads around performance art is tough. As Vernon says, it is more difficult to understand an event than an object.
“How do (you) describe how the light flickering in a tree, is flickering because the birds, just flew across the sun’s rays that subtly distort how we see that one leaf, in that one moment, and now it is gone, it will never be like that ever again. Meaning that how do we capture the complexity of a moment or duration. We can’t be there for that performance, but we can look at a Van Gogh painting and get a sense of it, we either call him a genius or we could actually look at him as trying to record an event in real time,” she says. “Again thinking of Van Gogh cycling through all of his brushes, sometimes 50 in his hands all holding aggregates of color relationships. Was Van Gogh dancing, was he responding to nature with his own movements? So we can also think of performance art as something that just happened or something that was bound to happen in the history of art, because I think eventually there was no need for a painting, it was about the performance of relationships in real time between sound, light, space, time, duration, feeling, acting, and being.”