The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago

Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party premiered when my son was 9 years old, and now I am here visiting him in New York City for his 44th birthday, finally about to relish the experience of the famous artwork. A long time I stand silent at the entrance, knowing that it will change me. Lights like stars in a black ceiling seem to reflect endlessly from each of the triangular walls of the room before me. The architecture of the room, designed and built specifically to house the permanent installation, gives a sense of great space around the triangular table. The effect is one of outer space and inner space merging. I’m held here at the entrance by this effect, and by something else. As women are unaccustomed to receiving honor, this art that honors women is art to which I am unaccustomed, honor which, in its unfamiliarity, can daze.

Then I move along the three wings of the open triangle, to view the sumptuous place settings that give tribute to thirty-nine individual women, thirteen place settings per wing. The website for The Dinner Party describes the settings thusly:

The “guests of honor” commemorated on the table are designated by means of intricately embroidered runners, each executed in a historically specific manner. Upon these are placed, for each setting, a gold ceramic chalice and utensils, a napkin with an embroidered edge, and a fourteen-inch china-painted plate with a central motif based on butterfly and vulvar forms. Each place setting is rendered in a style appropriate to the individual woman being honored…Chicago specifically chose to use vaginal or “central core” imagery for each of the plates in order to demonstrate that the one thing that united these forgotten historical subjects at the table was that they all had the same genitalia. Her aim was to reclaim and celebrate that mark of women’s “otherness,” replacing connotations of inferiority with those of pride, and to create a “new visual language” with which to express women’s experience.

Though they have not before been included at the table of history, the honored guests seem present in their place settings. Or is it their absence, which Judy Chicago makes so palpable that it becomes presence? Chicago has also invited and transported to The Dinner Party the 999 women whose names are inscribed in gold luster on 2,300 hand-cast porcelain tiles on the triangular Heritage Floor, providing the foundation both structurally and metaphorically for the table. Her monumental celebration of female achievement brings me a harsh and startled recognition of how very much has been missing.

Some names/plates catch my heart more strongly: HATSHEPSUT, ahead of her time in multidimensionality, a Queen, yes, and also a King and a Pharaoh, her plate a stunning raised relief surface symbolizing authority, the shapes and tones of the image on the plate breath-taking; SAPPHO, innovator of lyric poetry, whose academy I can now actually imagine attending, her name on The Dinner Party runner embroidered “in an eruption of color that identifies her poetry as a “burst of female creativity”; The Celtic warrior queen BOADACEIA with swirling golden patterns on both plate and runner; ETHEL SMYTH, the twentieth-century British composer and a champion of women’s rights and female musicians, whose plate is a grand piano with raised lid and  a stand with notations from her famous opera The Boatswain’s Mate.

After one slow journey around the table, I am filled with the sense that Judy Chicago has indeed conjured these women, both human and mythological. And it is the juxtaposition of so many astounding women that radiates The Dinner Party’s power! Many journeys around the table would be required to satisfy the hunger for that power, to savor the quenching of such a long and unrecognized thirst.

When I walk away after viewing The Dinner Party, I am a different woman from the one who stood silent at the entrance. Erasure, that process which women throughout history have known so well, now feels impossible. And because of the transformative power of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, what feels possible is a new imagining, an authentic hope for a future of full humanity. As Chicago writes on the six woven entry banners to the installation, one line on each banner:

And She Gathered All before Her
And She made for them A Sign to See
And lo They saw a Vision
From this day forth Like to like in All things
And then all that divided them merged
And then Everywhere was Eden Once again

            NOTE

The experience of personal viewing of the art can be extended by visiting the website for The Dinner Party, http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/home.php , where one can browse each place setting individually and read the fascinating research about each honoree, including the 999 named on the Heritage Floor. Please don’t mistake this for the experience of firsthand viewing of the groundbreaking installation at its permanent home in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

 

Spring Equinox in North Carolina

IMG_3944

 

As I walked the trails yesterday In the North Carolina Arboretum, I breathed it in: the end of winter, the start of spring. With each step, the earth kissed my feet with gravity and steadied me, just in time to keep me from falling all the way into despair, just in the new season’s nick of time to hold me up. She whispered to my hamster mind to STOP its dizzying whirl. All around me, she displayed Her course-correcting beauties. Alongside me, Her creek rushed in joy, announcing over and over the return of hope. She melted my stiff stance with sunlight, and She set me back to balance. At Spring Equinox’s beginning of bud and blossom, I wish everyone in the world Her gift of balance.

 

IMG_3935

 

IMG_3932

 

IMG_3941

 

IMG_3940 IMG_3920

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the North Carolina Arboretum yesterday

 

 

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

SPOILER ALERT

Park thinks she is big, awkward, and wearing clothes that are a mess. Eleanor think he’s either a devil or stupid. He swears at her, she frowns at him. Here is the most unromantic start to a romance I have ever encountered in YA literature.

In the midst of the raucous student atmosphere at the back of the school bus, Eleanor reads Park’s comics with a covert sideways gaze, forging a silent intimacy between them. Once Park is on to her, he turns the pages more slowly and holds the pages wider on his lap for her to see. A full eighth of the book in, they still have not spoken to one another from their adjacent seats, but at her bus stop, Park hands Eleanor the half-finished Watchmen comic. The romance, unlike any you’ve ever read, is on.

Her voice in class has a cool defiance and Park thinks she recites a poem in English like it’s a living thing she has just let out. The kids call her Raghead and Bozo and steal her clothes in gym, until, nearly midstory, heretofore mild-mannered Park kicks his friend Steve in the mouth with a jump reverse straight out of Karate Kid. By the time the story ends, Eleanor escapes her abusive stepfather with Park’s help, but they may never see each other again. He writes her every day but Eleanor puts a stop to it, unable to bear the thought that Park would ever love her less than he did on the day they say goodbye.

Rowell succeeds in making the unlikely tale utterly credible, in no small part by observing the protagonists so closely that they seem to become friends of the reader. Here is a book that redefines first love; redefines romance, period. The author breaks new ground for outsiders everywhere! If you missed it when it came out from St. Martin’s Press last year, like I did, go read it now.

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

 

The Summer Prince

June Costa’s art is her life, and she crafts her life to be her art. This radical theme resonates through the character and through the cataclysmic events that unfold within one year in her society, events at whose center she stands, an artist hero such as I have not seen expressed before in literature. June Costa makes public art in a city of future Brazil, art that might be described as techno spectacle, everything from graffiti that transforms mountains to holo murals that carry scent. In her resistance to governmental limits, this protagonist changes herself and affects her whole society.

The author does such a job of world-building that I feel I could book a ticket to Palmares Tres. Not a dystopian setting, but rather, a post-apocalyptic setting, June’s society has started over. There is conflict between the government-sanctioned isolationist policy and the protesting technophiles, labeled extremists by the powers-that-be, the Aunties who can rule for centuries. June is from but not of, their upper tier way of thinking.

Alaya Johnson uses an interspersed second narrative voice, daring if not consistently effective. This is the voice of Enki, born poor and dark and wild and creative, voted Summer Prince by the people for his dazzling dance art. When June becomes artistically involved with Enki, he becomes the catalyst for her questioning her artistic ethics regarding, for example, art’s ownership, the cost of artistic defiance, and how to perceive  cultural patterns when society is changing so rapidly. Together, June and Enki make political art. Or is it authentic art, which happens to speak to the people in a political time?

Is The Summer Prince at heart a story of the struggle to balance freedom and security? Is it a profound love story, with an array of multicultural characters as the Lovers? Is the core of the story an artist’s coming of age about the power of her craft? Is the Summer Prince a parable about the responsibilities of power? Yes and yes and yes and yes. Besides life as art, other high concepts in this novel stretch the reader in regard to gender, sex and relationship boundaries, about death and aging, about technologies that augment and modify but ultimately destroy the body. There are plot point confusions, but for me, the energy of the imaginings easily lifts the story past them. I look forward to more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.