The Banquet:  Hunter Reynolds and Chrysanne Stathacos

The Banquet, first preformed at Thread Waxing Space in 1992, was largely inspired by Surrealist Meret Oppenheim’s Spring Feast, in which a banquet was presented on the body of a nude woman. Andre Breton later encouraged Oppenheim to reenact Spring Feast for the Paris Exhibtion entitled Exposition InteR natiOnale du Surrealsime (the last joint exhibition of the Surrealist group). In The Banquet, Stathacos and Reynolds have inverted Oppenheim’s original event by substituting a nude man for the woman, blatantly confronting issues of male dominance throughout (art) history.The Banquet trailer can be viewed here 

The Banquet by G. Roger Denson To be included in the book: The Alternative to What? Thread Waxing Space and the 1990’s

The Banquet of Hunter Reynolds and Chrysanne Stathacos, a multimedia performance staged at The Threadwaxing Space on May 1st, 1992, reminds us that the 1990s introduced some of the most significantly mythopoetic art produced since the Surrealists.  But despite the artists’ original conception of the event as a restaging of Meret Oppenheim’s 1951 Spring Feast, the pair’s extravaganza extended well beyond the Surrealists’ famous articulations of the irrational and illogical operations underpinning all social structures. Even before they joined forces, Reynolds and Stathacos saw fit to go beyond surrealist concerns and return to the core of mythological archetypes to birth mythopoetic alter egos.

In 1991, Reynolds was morphing into Patina du Prey, a transgendered spiritual entity who emulates a hidden episode of the Hercules myth by wearing dresses tailored for a man’s body.  At the same time, Stathacos began channeling Anne de Cybelle, a French 19th century artist of “obscure” origin who, enraged by the exclusion of women artists from the Academy, turned to the ancient order of the Delphic Sybils, particularly the Sybil who heretically broke with the followers of Apollo.  While Reynolds was transcending the drag queens’ co-option of Woman to conjoin the male and female principles in one body, Stathacos’s was tapping the legacy of the last true line of historical women to consistently hold power of far-reaching consequence.  Their common need to overstep conventional time, identity, and social constrictions, plus their shared interest in conjoining the human body to the medium of art—Reynolds was making prints from his own infected blood while Stathacos was printing her unruly hair—drew the pair together to plot a performance that would distinguish their work from previous mythopoetic productions in poetically marrying the historic myths they exhumed to a very contemporary, if anguished, political dissent

. As a May Day ritual of rage and redemption, it was almost inevitable that The Banquet would coincide with a socially cataclysmic event.  When that event proved to be the eruption of riots protesting the Rodney King verdict and shaking Los Angeles to its core, the lavish production absorbed the aftershocks and, in the manner of a religious ritual, transformed them into waves of catharsis.  That is why, though people talked of nothing but the obscene verdict as they made their way to the space, at the entrance they became immediately entranced by the statuesque spectacle of Patina. Dressed in a radiant white ball gown printed collaboratively with black and crimson strands of Stathacos’ hair and spots of Reynold’s blood, Patina performed a “music box dance” of celestial revolution on a rotating dais like a slow-moving doll of pathos.  At first appearing immobile, gradually s/he could be discerned raising and lowering her arms in supplication to The Universe and its gods. It was completely by chance that The Banquet marked the first time Patina acted as empath for the world’s collective woes.  Having witnessed the neighborhood of Los Angeles s/he lived in for ten years go up in flames on TV as s/he dressed for the performance, Patina breathed in the rage and despair of the riots.  Yet, prepared for a ceremony intent on healing, s/he became galvanized by a tension that Reynolds claims was unlike any s/he had felt before.  Filled with a transformative energy, Patina’s visitation became like that of the Angel of Bethesda, whose footprint upon the square of Jerusalem unleashed an ambulatory spring healing all who sought its waters.  Only in place of a spring on the floor surrounding Patina lay a river of Bloodspots—circular photographs depicting friends living, dying, and dead with AIDS.  Like the blood of some passion deity shed to redeem humankind in an act of purification, the Bloodspots mythically converted HIV into a healing art.  Gesturing to the photographed spirits around her, Patina implored The Universe to take up those stricken with AIDS and accord them a place among the firmament.  From that night on, Patina became a receptacle of empathy offering access between the human and the divine.

Those who could pull themselves away from the miraculous apparition to move deeper within the cavernous space found awaiting them a spectacular array of food designed by Scott Spector and Zini Lardiari and prepared by a small army of chefs. Inherited from the Mithraic, Dionysian, Orphic, and Osirian feasts honoring the sacrificial body of God; the Hebrew Passover dinner; the Christian Mass’s re-enactment of Jesus’ Last Supper; the Muslim Id al-Adha’s commemoration of the ransom of Ishmael; the Hindu harvest sampling of Dipavali; and a multitude of religious feasts from around the world, the audience was readied to partake in a newly ordained ritual meal in which they could hold up all that they lost or sacrificed in exchange for the redemption and union they craved. But before they could partake in the sacrificial feast, like heroes on a quest, the audience had to first prove they could withstand two challenges. The first challenge was to resist the allure of Transient and Superficial Beauty.  There, amidst the culinary extravagance decked across a peculiarly-shaped banquet table lay a deliciously nude youth covered with chocolate and fruit and held captive for the delight of all.  So beautiful was this boy, even those not sexually oriented to men were said to be drawn to him.  Would the crowd be made devotees of the beautiful demon who distracted them from the nourishing feast as it was devoured by the faithful?  Or would they resist the fleeting pull of Beauty?  And even if they did resist, could they withstand the second and even more formidable challenge facing them?—the Maenads guarding  the sacrificial food.

The Maenads, a chthonic horde of angry women dressed in printed hair dresses resembling the animal skins of Paleolithic cave dwellers, were modeled by Stathacos on the willful women of pre-Christian Greece whose matriarchal beliefs and rituals were driven underground with the ascent of the patriarchal gods.  Branded as Hellenistic outlaws, Stathacos, who is of Greek descent, long thought the Maenads to be prototypes of feminist revolt.  Now, as Anne de Cybelle, she assembled a group of women writers, artists, and performers to revive the Maenad matriarchy. The sight of the frightening sisters stopped the crowd in their tracks.  But they listened to the channeled de Cybelle read how the Maenads emerged from the hills and forests after eating hallucinogenic ivy—alluded to by Stathacos’ printed ivy and leaf paintings on the surrounding walls.  They learned that the beautiful youth of this cruel banquet was being offered up to Dionysus, the Divine Androgen born from the womb wrapped in hair from Zeus’ thigh.  Brutally torn to pieces by agents of the jealous Hera, Dionysus was reborn from a drop of blood.  In their delirious commemorations, the Maenads were known to tear apart a live bull with their teeth in effigy of the passion of their god,  now recognized by de Cybelle to be embodied on earth by Patina.   But as the Maenads ate and drank from the boy’s body, they read biographical and fictional texts about women who seized control of their gender (one was The Story of O, another was autobiographical), and it became clear to all who witnessed the Dionysian mass that the real sacrificial victim to be shredded and devoured that night was Patriarchy. Few ventured forward to eat while the foreboding Maenads were on, but once they finished their readings, the ravenous audience rushed the table and devoured the food and wine in a glutinous frenzy, while the weaker willed fondled the beautiful youth who remained their passive and prostrate object throughout the evening.

Amid the bacchanal, now awash in a light show by Jim Conte, composer Ben Neil seemed like the nature god Pan as he played his mutant trumpet solo, the anti-nuclear Downwind, against recorded conversations of women who had won a lawsuit against a government plutonium plant that had infected their children with cancer. It was not until the December 2003 airing of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America on HBO that I realized that The Banquet had been at the forefront of a potent mytho-political dissent marking the decade’s most compelling art and theater—and at last culminating on mainstream TV.

Mythopoetics have always played an important part in cultural revolutions.  We can see time and again that when a civilization’s artists begin honoring myths that have been in disrepute, sometimes for centuries, or blatantly altering those still revered by the mainstream, it is a sign that a notoriously censorial social order is slowly being toppled and supplanted. Angels in America happens to be only the most famous instance of contemporary art reviving figures of faith to explore what is still vital in them while simultaneously purging them of the ideological pathogens that had bred hateful prejudice and indoctrination in their times.  This is the poetic function that distinguishes mythopoetics from myth making—or more plainly, separating the urge to create self-conscious, if aesthetically engaging, contingencies (or, in this case, art) from the will-to-power that edifies unselfconscious delusions of absolute “truth.” Like Kushner’s Angels  plays, which in 1992 were still to be introduced to Broadway audiences,

The Banquet  conflates disparate myths of a pointedly spiritual persuasion with left-liberal social ideology steeped in the harsh social realities of the Reagan-Bush administrations.  Although performance art, activist theater, and independent cinema had famously produced political dissent for decades, with the exception of Bunuel’s landmark film, The Exterminating Angel –which also uses the banquet motif to deliver moral redemption to a spiritually bankrupt class—it was not since the plagues of Medieval Europe that the cathartic efforts of artists were seen to be so obsessed with the motifs of healing and death.  Now, however, the healing gaze of artists are being aimed at the political as well as the physical and spiritual pathogens infecting civilization. At times when plague and war overwhelm us, societies tend to reach for metaphysical or mythological cures—and why not, if realism and rationalism do not heal the despair of loss as well.  And so, The Banquet ushered in an era richly bestowed with iconographic masterpieces merging mythopoetics with sociopolitical critiques, including Cindy Sherman’s medieval grotesques mirroring the distended egos and rank casualties of a greedy and vulgar society; Matthew Barney’s satyricons embodying the orgiastic libidos and power lust that today equal anything pagan Greece and Rome dreamed up; and Mariko Mori’s ironic appropriation of Buddhist and Shinto iconography as brands for advertising  and consumption—all of which comprise fantastical yet biting mythpoetic social commentaries unlike anything seen since Goya. As the fin de siecle first came upon us, however, most of us could not see the wealth of this mythopoetic mine, or the relevance it had to a postmodern civilization, but Reynolds and Stathacos could, and this is why the two artists created what may be one of the most operatic performances in recent downtown history—operatic not in terms of the vocal instruments used, but in the sense that Wagner meant it: as a total art composed of visual, performative, musical, and perhaps most importantly, mythopoetic dimensions.  The emotive intensity of The Banquet, an amalgam of rage, sorrow, forgiveness, protest, and catharsis, raises it above the usual ironic and formal art performance—after the performance, the nude actor on the table blurted out he had mystically seen God—just as its sculptural, improvisational, and discursive features distinguish it from the theatrical genres more accustomed to such affects.  Yet, it’s closest relative, the guerilla street theater of the 1960s, was without its mythopoetic heart, even as its most mainstream mythopoetic cousins, the Angels In America productions, were largely without The Banquet’s flash access to the moment.  In these respects and more, The Banquet is to be counted among the most unique of 1990s performances.

NOTE:

In February, 2016 G.Roger Denson has included The Banquet in his blog post-Abby Hertz’s Cannibal Lust Heats Up the Dada Centennial. Abby Hertz was inspired by seeing the video of The Banquet (1992)  in Roger Denson’s class.