Natalie Raven and Dagmar Schwitzgebel – Sackcloth and Ashes (2016)
By David LaGaccia
The spectators were asked to sit in one of the four squares at the
start of the performance, each separated from the long white fabric,
sackcloth that formed a cross; Natalie Raven and Dagmar Schwitzgebel
stood on opposite ends of the vertical line holding up their hands with
palms facing out. The two walk towards each other and meet at the
cross-section of the cross with their bodies contrasting in physique.
Their hands meet in force with their arms raised like a steeple; they
both get on their knees, pushing back and forth in opposition.
Schwitzgebel stands up and picks up the fabric cutting a hole in
middle and placing it over her head and covering her body like religious
robes. In the middle of the cross, a pile of ashes or soot is exposed,
reminiscent of ashes normally used to form the cross on the face for Ash
Wednesday. Raven picks up another piece of fabric and does same, but it
becomes clear that she wears the garment looser, with her feminine body
fully exposed. Both go into their actions, defining their identities
Although no specific meaning was discernable from their use of
Christian iconography and religious gestures, it was clear that Raven
and Schwitzgebel had used this iconography for their own symbolic
purposes: carefully considered actions and images of the cross, baptism,
religious attire, and prayer could all be seen throughout this
performance. Performances dealing with religion as their subject
(specifically Christianity), tend to have a moral stance on the issue of
belief or non-belief (or institution), but rarely do you see a
performance show the artist expressing their own conflicted attitudes,
adding their own perspective to the conversation rather than dictating
it. Raven’s actions were more sexual and opposed to the religious
beliefs. Her breasts and clitoris were freely exposed for the spectators
to see, making gestures in the air that suggested masturbation,
slamming her head into the pile of ashes, and spitting it out when it
got in her mouth.
Opposing her was Scwitzgebel, who wore the sackcloth draped over her
body like a robe covering her female body. Her actions were filled with
religious piety and silent prayer, kneeling and forming a cross with the
ashes, gently rubbing it on her face and bringing her emotions close to
tears. After the performance, one viewer asked me if there was anything
personally significant about the ashes: “Was it someone she knew?”, he
asked, “or something that was close to her that brought her to the brink
of tears?” I couldn’t say.
When the ash pile became smaller and smaller with use until it was
gone, the two women stood together on the stage side by side. Raven took
a tin pale filled with water, and gently cleaned Scwitzgebel’s ash
covered body and face. Scwitzgebel did the same for Raven, gently
cleaning her arms and face. The performance began with the two women in
opposition and open hostility towards each other, and now they end with
an embrace, with the two women becoming one soul.
Dagmar and I performed Sackcloth & Ashes at Theatre Utopia in Croydon, UK. It was great to perform in London... We met some generous people and witnessed some incredible art. I was talked into an undercut, but more about that later...
Many thanks to all the TF team for all your support.