Suzanne Lacy

The Crystal Quilt

1985–7

On loan

Queens Museum (New York, USA): Suzanne Lacey: The Medium is Not Only the Message

Artist
Suzanne Lacy born 1945
Medium
Cotton, 35 photographs, C-prints and black and white on paper, printed paper, video, colour, video, colour and sound (stereo), audio (stereo)
Dimensions
Overall display dimensions variable
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the Tate Americas Foundation 2019
Reference
T15536

Summary

The Crystal Quilt is a major participatory performance project by Suzanne Lacy that aimed to bring to visibility older women whom, in the artist’s view, are generally marginalised by society. The title of the work derived from the name of the Crystal Court shopping centre within Minneapolis’s IDS building, designed by Philip Johnson and completed in 1974. Lacy’s work comprises a patchwork quilt, a 16mm film, thirty-six framed colour photographs, a signed poster, a soundtrack and documentary video. The pattern on the quilt was inspired by Native North American quilting practices traditionally carried out by women.

The original performance was held on Mother’s Day, Sunday 10 May 1987, in the Crystal Court, and 430 women over the age of sixty became performers in an hour-long tableau that was broadcast live by KCET public television. The work was a large-scale participatory performance with a stylised choreographic aspect, comprising mass action, spoken word and sound. Around 3000 people attended the performance, which was staged on an 82-foot-square rug with tables placed to resemble a quilt, which had been designed by painter Miriam Schapiro (born 1923). The accompanying soundtrack by composer Susan Stone mixed the voices of seventy-five women talking about aging. Participants all wore black and engaged in simple actions using their hands, manipulating tablecloths to create a ‘quilt’ pattern that created a large-scale spectacle of participation. Recordings of the women’s own voices mixed personal observations and reminiscences with social analysis about the unutilised potential of the elderly. The event was staged within the open, public space of the shopping centre, with a live audience standing on the balconies around the work.

While the audience listened to the soundtrack, real time conversations between the women echoed the same themes. At ten-minute intervals, a loon cry or thunderclap rang out through the space, signalling to the women to change the position of their hands on the table, thus changing the design of the quilt. At the end of the performance, the audience flooded onto the stage carrying hand-painted scarves, disrupting the austere order of the quilt design to create a crazy quilt of colour, and greeting the triumphant performers.

The original ‘event’ for The Crystal Quilt was in itself part of a research and development project with a community of women that was titled ‘The Whisper Minnesota Project’ and took place in 1985–7. Lacy worked with selected women participants who were trained as ‘leaders’ in the run up to the Crystal Center event, and who each took responsibility for organising sub-groups of participants on the day. Lacy also organised classes, art, mass media and community events as a part of the research process. Her interest was not simply in the successful choreography of the event, but in the transformative process of this leadership programme and related educational events for the participants themselves.

The sponsors for the project were Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs and the Minnesota Board of Aging, with support from institutions such as the Walker Art Center and At the Foot of the Mountain Theater. Lacy and the participants also worked with a team of over 150 local people to create actions and programmes with the dual purpose of exploring how the media portrayed aging and the role of older people in public life. Included were two classes at MCAD; a lecture series at Carleton College, where Lacy taught; a premier screening of the video of Lacy and Sharon Allen’s 1983–4 performance ‘Whisper, The Waves, The Wind’ at the Walker Art Center; a coordinated media campaign throughout the state that produced articles featuring older women; a photo series by Larry Fink commissioned by First Bank; and the Humphrey Institute Leadership Program. Subsequent to the performance, a state-wide leadership training programme for older women and two major exhibitions of documentary photographs were funded. Lacy was interested in multiple levels of dissemination for the piece in order effectively to communicate her message. The Crystal Quilt can either be displayed in full with all of the elements present (photographs, 16mm film, video, soundtrack, the quilt itself, poster and programme), or individual elements such as the quilt or the film can be displayed alone.

The Crystal Quilt is one of the most well-known and widely publicised of Lacy’s works from the 1970s and 1980s, her most significant period. It can be seen as the culmination of her projects of the late 1970s that involved participation on a smaller scale. For example, in 1977, with collaborator Leslie Labowitz, she combined performance art with activism in Three Weeks in May. This event combined a performance piece on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall with self-defence classes for women in an attempt to highlight sexual violence against women. Lacy has established an international reputation in the historical field of feminist art through such participatory performance and protest events. Her works have a basis in live, often collaborative action, but are often accompanied by drawings and texts, as well as photographic and video documentation, meaning that they have a life both inside and outside the gallery. A core aspect of Lacy’s practice is a concern with collaboration as a means of exploring and challenging assumed socio-political realities. She has frequently worked with other artists and with groups of volunteer participants to explore questions around notions of the female body, as well as using workshops, conversation and teaching as methods of engaging an audience in her work.

The artist observed after The Crystal Quilt event:

We interviewed several of the women afterwards, and they were just so high. They loved the experience. They understood that they were being honored, that they were special, and there was a deep connection to each other they expressed. I remember one of the Native American women saying to me in the interview afterwards that there was something very powerful about the spirituality of women – that she felt it very palpably in that space.
(Moira Roth, ‘Oral History Interview with Suzanne Lacy, 1990 Mar. 16–Sept. 27’, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 16 and 24 March and 27 September 1990, https://www.aaa.si.edu/download_pdf_transcript/ajax?record_id=edanmdm-AAADCD_oh_215585, accessed November 2011.)

Although the artist spoke about the work in terms of the specific theme of women and aging, the wider significance of the piece lies beyond just its feminist import, and in its exploration of relational participation and social choreography. From a contemporary perspective, Lacy’s interest in social engagement, in enabling self-organising groups, and in the use of public media to expand awareness of her practice, can be seen as influential in a way that is beyond the specific political themes she set out to address.

Further reading
Moira Roth, ‘Suzanne Lacy’s Minneapolis Crystal Quilt’, Art in America, March 1988, vol.76, p.162.
Diane Rothenberg, ‘Social Art/Social Action’, Drama Review, vol.32, no.1, Spring 1988, pp.31–7.
Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Local Identity, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2002.

Catherine Wood
November 2011

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