The 21st Century Odyssey Part II: The Performances of Barbara T. Smith

Pomona College Museum of Art
Claremont, California
January 22–April 10, 2005

The Kennedy Museum of Art
Ohio University, Athens, Ohio
September 9–December 18, 2005
Sandra Esslinger

This past winter Pomona College Museum of Art was the site of a solo exhibition of
the work of Barbara T. Smith, an artist who began performing in Southern California
in the late ‘60s. The opening night’s ceremonies were a celebratory affair with 
a panel discussion, a lavish reception, and an invitation-only dinner. The audience at the panel discussion was a veritable who’s who from the early Southern California feminist performance and video scene: Judith Baca, Cheri Gaulke, Sue Maberry, Terry Wolverton, Susan Silton, Suzanne Lacy, Nancy Buchanan, Sheila Pinkel, Dextra Frankel and Joan Hugo. Joining co-curators Jennie Klein and Rebecca McGrew in the panel discussion was Moira Roth, who had given Smith her first solo thirty years earlier at the Mandeville Gallery at the University of California, San Diego. Accompanying the exhibition was a beautifully illustrated catalog, with essays by Roth, McGrew, and Klein, as well as Kristine Stiles and Jenni Sorkin. All in all, there was a sense that Smith, whose work was contemporaneous with more famous women artists such as Rachel Rosenthal, Carolee Schneemann, and Linda Montano, had finally gotten her due.

Unlike other feminist performance artists, Smith has received very little critical attention (although she was recently included in two major surveys: Made in California and Parallels and Intersections: Art/Women/California). Of the plethora
of recent books and exhibitions dealing
with feminist art from the ‘70s, beginning with the 1994 publication of The Power of Feminist Art by Norma Broude and Mary
D. Garrard, very few, if any, include Smith. Interestingly, at least one author/curator who excludes her—Amelia Jones—was
very familiar with Smith’s work and had done extensive research with and about artists who had collaborated with Smith.1 Smith’s omission from any “new” canon simply could not be attributed to masculinist notions of art history, particularly since the curators and authors who excluded her were clearly sympathetic to feminist art practice. Rather, something about the nature of her performances must have made it difficult
for feminist critics to embrace them. Several of the performances documented in the Pomona exhibition were indeed problematic, suggesting that Smith was more interested in being “one of the guys” in a male- dominated art world than in constructing a new, performative female identity. I confess, as a woman and a feminist, I cringed inwardly at some of the performances while being very intrigued by others. It was the Freudian da/fort (attraction/repulsion) of the works that I found most intriguing.

Barbara Smith, Installation of <em>Ritual Meal</em> 
at Pomona College Museum, 2005.

The exhibition began with Smith’s atavistic 1969 dinner party Ritual Meal and ended with her 1991-93 performance The 21st Century Odyssey (from which the exhibition derived its title). Other performances exhibited included Feed Me (1973), Celebration of
the Holy Squash (1973), Intimations of Immortality (1974), A Week in the Life of… (1975), Birthdaze (1981), and Pageant of the Holy Squash (1988). 
Smith’s explorations often used the notion of “food” to enact ritual, desire, and
their relationship to the understanding
of heterosexual gender identity. In Ritual Meal, Smith directed a production in which raw food was cooked for participants at a large table, while imagery of and sounds emanating from human viscera were broadcast in charts, tape loops and videos of surgery. Ritual Meal’s gender-bending drew particular attention to traditional roles. Smith took on the stereotypically masculine role of shaman presiding over the ritual feast in order to emphasize the gendered interiority of “home.” Historically, women have aestheticized the “rawness” of bodies. (As early as 1969 it seems, Smith was fascinated by the trangressiveness of “leaky” organs, associating them with the female body in a patriarchal system.)2 The interiority of feminine action that often goes unnoticed was the very thing exposed by Smith in 
this ritual. 
Other performances in which Smith directly referenced her own body (rather than a 
symbolic representation of her body) were less successful. Use of the female body
in performance art can be dicey, opening
up an artist to charges of essentialism, unintentional collusion and unwitting reinforcement of patriarchal constructions. Smith’s actions and statements in Feed Me, Birthdaze, and The 21st Century Odyssey hovered uneasily between an assertion of feminine subjectivity and a re-inscription of the female artist as passive and sexually available.

Barbara Smith, Installation of <em>Feed Me</em> 
at Pomona College Museum, 2005.

This became clearest with Feed Me, perhaps Smith’s most famous and controversial performance, staged in the lounge of a public restroom located in the Museum of Conceptual Art in San Francisco. Smith adorned the setting with a mattress, pillows, books, marijuana, wine, food, and massage oil that could be used by the visitors to “feed” her. Alone in the room, she received a preponderance of “authorized” male visitors. During the event, she accepted all offerings that she considered “food,” which she loosely defined as anything to satiate desire. Because Smith’s relationship to her viewers was primarily passive, her performance became almost literally “embedded” in the patriarchal power structure (by its end, she had had intercourse with three of her visitors). While Smith viewed her experience as personally empowering, it raises an impertinent question: was this not also the objective of many courtesans throughout history?

Similar issues about the inescapability of 
the patriarchal structure arise in Birthdaze. Staged to mend the breach between men and women, Smith created this performance with Allan Kaprow (her then companion), Kim Jones (a.k.a. “Mudman”), Paul McCarthy, Dick Kilgroe, and Victor Henderson. Taking place on her 50th birthday, Smith enacted her journey from ‘50s housewife to liberated performance artist as a sort of “mating dance” with the five men. Ultimately, she retreated with Henderson, with whom she engaged in a Tantric sexual ritual over several hours. One wonders, once again, did she truly disrupt the patriarchal power structure by having agency in her choice of mates or was she merely playing into the system?

Barbara Smith, Installation of <em>The 21st Century Odyssey</em> at Pomona College Museum, 2005.

The performance 21st Century Odyssey encompassed themes that Smith explored throughout her career: sustenance, emotional and spiritual satiation, process and journey, and the relationship between “real” and “performance.” It evolved as collaboration between the artist and the late Dr. Roy Walford, a UCLA professor, a scientist, a Biospherian, proponent of
the 120-year diet, and Smith’s mate at the time. The 21st Century Odyssey resulted
from Walford’s isolation in Biosphere II, which necessitated the couple’s separation. Casting herself as Odysseus to Walford’s Penelope, Smith traveled the world. Using whatever technologies were available, Smith transmitted her performances to
the Biospherians, while the Biospherians responded in kind. While she felt this performance cycle reversed the patriarchial structure (in that she took on the role of the male adventure while her mate stayed near the hearth) she was, in large part, still responding to Walford’s research project. During her circumnavigation of the world, Biosphere II served as her axis. Again, from a feminist perspective, was she not still participating in a Helios/bio/phallo-centric project while she orbited Biosphere II?

As evidenced by the interview with Moira Roth, Smith’s articulation of the meaning of her work has been couched in a late modernist and universalist discourse apparently hinged upon the irreconcilability of (white) men and women in spite of their desire for conciliation. Smith’s articulation of the works on display in Pomona often seemed at odds with the more theoretically rigorous criticism that has been the norm.

Barbara Smith, <em>Ritual Meal</em>, 1969.

For 21st Century Odyssey Part II, the curators made a conscious attempt to emphasize the body and female authorial subjectivity. As
for the display, the curators tried to let the works, carefully chosen because of the issues that they raised, speak for themselves. Ever since Peggy Phelan argued that performance was the only genre of art that has already disappeared by the time it is written about,3 curators and museum professionals have shied away from organizing exhibitions about performance. Flying in the face of Phelan’s cautionary words, some exhibitions have attempted to “fix” performance in history by writing descriptions that are more and more excruciatingly detailed. Thankfully, the curators of The 21st Century Odyssey Part II showed restraint: brief, one-paragraph descriptions accompanied the reproductions and performance artifacts. Viewers who wanted more information were invited to browse through Smith’s original journals, displayed on desks crafted especially for the exhibition. The exhibit was supplemented by excellent video documentaries, created by Kate Johnson of EZTV, in which Smith provided her own narration of slides and video segments from past performances.

Barbara Smith, <em>Ritual Meal</em>, 1969.

In 21st Century Odyssey Part II, one gets
the sense of the difficulty inherent in documenting something as ephemeral
as performance art, which truthfully can never be understood in its totality, even
by the artist. Oftentimes, the saying “you had to be there” is (wrongly) invoked in relationship to performance art. Even if you were actually “there” for a performance,
your understanding can never be more
than partial, limited as it is by the corporeal restrictions of the body. It seems to have been a wise choice on the part of Klein and McGrew to eschew wordy descriptions in the catalog in favor of more scholarly essays by performance theorist Kristine Stiles and up- and-coming curator Jenni Sorkin.4

Barbara T. Smith’s performances are important. As a pioneer, she used her own body as a vehicle for expression at a time when this strategy was only beginning to
be explored by artists. According to Klein, “Smith has deliberately chosen the less visible—and careerist—path, believing
that the pursuit of spiritual realization is more important…”5 Thus, it should not
be surprising that she feels no need to overtly contextualize her very personal and internalized performances for the viewer. But when a performative practice has been so loosely framed, a risk is run that patriarchal discourse can inadvertently be further reified, despite the artist’s intention. The 21st Century Odyssey Part II, exhibited at Smith’s undergraduate alma mater, Pomona College, provides a nice beginning to a different
kind of discussion about the successes and failures of feminist performance.

Sandra Esslinger, Ph.D., is a professor of Art History in the Department of History at Mt. San Antonio College


  1. Amelia Jones, ed. Sexual Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). Also see Jones’ essay in Paul McCarthy, Paul Schimmel, ed., (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2000).
  2. Many of the ideas regarding the exhibited works were generated during a conversa- tion with Katrina Sitar, with whom I viewed them.
  3. See Peggy Phelan, Unmarked (New York: Routledge, 1993)
  4. Jenni Sorkin’s High Performance: The
First Five Years, 1978-1982 was one of the
first exhibitions to take the work of Smith seriously. This exhibition was initially created as Sorkin’s thesis project in 2002 at the Bard College Center for Curatorial Studies. The following year, it was presented at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE).
  5. Jennie Klein, “The Body’s Odyssey,” The 21st Century Odyssey Part II: The Performances of Barbara T. Smith (Claremont: Pomona College Museum of Art, 2005) p. 21.
Further Reading