Rae Davis: Four Decades of Invention by Barbara Sternberg


Rae Davis was born in New Jersey in 1927, came to London, Ontario in 1957 and then to Toronto in 1987. I first met Rae Davis after she had moved to Toronto from London where the largest portion of her work was written and performed. We met out of our mutual interest in Gertrude Stein. Davis had just seen a film in which I used some Stein excerpts and she told me of her staging of Stein's work in a performance called Pink Melon Joy. Gertrude Stein Out Loud.


I will start by listing some of the titles of Rae Davis' performance works (because I love them and because they speak succinctly and give a hint of the artist's mind ):  Simple Activities; Paul Muni Rides a Bicycle to Haydn; Daily News from the Whole World: 1. Transistor; 2. Projector; 3. Dissector;  ECCE, or Greece as seen through a natural environment kaleidescope; Five Fugues for Isaac Newton; Sinking under lightness; 10 minutes with the same question; Ivy's night, Edna's days; Putting yourself into it; Lying Low; Ghiberti's Doors; Taking the Plunge; Vanishing Acts; Getting what you see. Note the use of present participles and action words, references to science and art, direct and simple declarative descriptions. The whole world as it is lived everyday is available for consideration, informed by readings in science, literature and the arts and filtered through the frame of performance. These and many more produced and un-produced performance pieces were written by Davis starting in 1963.


Davis' approach to art-making is conceptual and literary, as the titles suggest. Her degrees in English plus her background in theatre, directing Beckett and Ionesco among others,  support this conclusion. While other performance artists were pulling objects from their vaginas or otherwise dealing with body and image, Davis' works were theatrical but not theatre per se; they were more like works by Robert Wilson and the Judson Dance Theatre. Davis found what was happening backstage, in the wings and in rehearsals - the possibilities, the chance, the messiness, the inclusivity- more interesting than what was on stage. And so, breaking out of the play, Davis constructed performances that came to be called 'performance art.' From Breaking out of the play , written for 20 Cents magazine, May 1966:


     The stage is a place. A space. Or a series of places and spaces.

     It could be a hill or a hole. A plain. Or perhaps a thicket. 


Davis' hybrid form—stage collages of text, images, objects real and constructed, movement and light—used ordinary people of varying ages as performers along with some trained actors and dancers. Participants were called upon to improvise within a set conceptual structure. Once Davis had the ideas and structure firmly in place, an important aspect of her process allowed for  individual body types, personalities and experiences of the performers to be given scope. In Monochrome (1969), the second fugue of Five Fugues for Isaac Newton , an actress, under a white spotlight, delivers a long monologue. Whenever the light changes to one of the colours of the prism the monologue is interrupted and the actress goes into an improv of any form and duration on that colour.  In the re-mounted version I saw in 1999, Randi Helmers, under the yellow spot, told a story of her yellow organdy party dress and sang Yellow Bird which her mother had taught her to play on the ukelele. From Monochrome: 


Now that you are here-and of course you can leave at any time—I don't care—I am going to reveal to you what my life is all about. You couldn't care less. And why should you? What am I to you, or you to me for that matter? I'm just expected to say or do something, to amuse, enlighten, anything really to pass the time engagingly.  I'm an actress. I can't cover that up, can I?  I've actually sat down and memorized all this, every word that's come out of my mouth so far. (Here the actress will improvise on the colour red.)

Do you remember that scene in Gone With the Wind—the film-a very great scene. Always stayed with me. The men are out killing—revenge, murder. The terrified ladies are sitting together, tafetta rustling. One opens a book and reading aloud says, " I am mborn." You see the pages, a mellow light. David Copperfield. The voice goes on. Fear.  Story.  Silence. "I am born." Those are impressive words. So austere, so momentous, so final. They belong in a frame really, if you see what I mean.


When Davis graduated from university she thought she would be a writer, a poet. Many of her performance works use her writings, in which observations of daily occurrences, ideas from her reading, and references to film and TV fill out and particularize the concepts of a piece, personalize it without defining the material as autobiographical. The cadence of the writing is very much her. 


Cataract, a 1992, 60 minute performance with no live performers (slides projected onto a billowing sheet went from totally out of focus, passing through the point of focus, to out of focus again;  two videos played real-time footage, one of Niagara Falls and the other of clouds) used an hour-long taped reading of text written according to pre-determined methodological strictures in an approach similar to process music. Davis went to her studio daily from 10:00am-1:00pm. and "whatever I happened to write that day, on writing days whatever was written was used. I did this for a year, which meant that there was a lot of variety—not all of the fragments were written in the same style- different days, different experiences."


     It makes you think of all those moments

     when something changed, you knew irrevocably.

     A brief blister punctured, all the water running out.

     You look at it, try to reconstruct, but the moment

     had come and gone and besides, what does it matter -

     the skin will soon be smooth again and just the right colour.

     Recovery acts like that while you're not looking

     cells signalling to cells going about their evolutionary business,

     making do when necessary.

     ......If you've had a serious case of poison ivy, you know what I'm saying

     your skin a topographical map of the Ural Mountains (are they

     wide and rolling?) the surface slightly inflated and puffed.

     When you move, something breaks somewhere,

     your whole body weeps

     And you realize at the time that the state you're in

     is theatrical and symbolic

     if you wanted it to be, otherwise just matter-of-factly

     in a high state of trauma, take your pick.


         ...There's a question about the density of my bones.

     I'm picturing them like lace,

     looking like the white filigree

     of the Bahai Temple in Wilmette, Illinois.

     You could take your fingernail and break a line

     through the tracery.

     But that's not right. Didn't I hear that

     these delicate-looking architectures are amazingly strong?

     Didn't my math teacher tell us that

     the George Washington Bridge

     was actually balanced on a point the size of a pin head?


         ...Scanners, I've learned, have

     specific architectures for specific tasks.

     One that builds a picture of spine and hip

     in shades of grey to black

     depending upon mass

     is minimal in structure-

     a pipe and a box-

     you lie under it in a small airy room

     where technicians move about

     freely, talking about last night's booze-up

     while keeping an eye on the monitor

     where your hip assembles slowly.

     A piece of cake.


The language may be straightforward, direct, but one is drawn, almost without noticing, into emotional depths. And all the while the audience is trying to identify what the blurred image will prove to be in 'reality', in the brief moment of focus, trying to make sense of it, take a reading. In the text, themes and images recur, are picked up, turned over, seen from another perspective; other tangential or unrelated threads, seen later to be interwoven, expand and complicate. In the end, everything is related.


Not only does recurrence operate in the text of Cataract, but also across the body of Davis' work. Mapping (in space and through time), architecture, technology, movement, questions of the framing of reality, of representation in films, in pictures, in books, in science, in dreams, through our senses, in our minds, descriptions of her body, of life lived in a body with all its mysteries and betrayals, and, of course, language - these key concerns figure in all her works to some degree or other.  The elements in a work, the constellation of ideas, are floated in the space and over the duration of the piece, bumping into each other, rubbing off on each other and otherwise being assembled.


Some of the works consist in a performer or two doing simple actions—for example, in Simple Activities (1963) two people wrap a mannequin, one tears a large sheet of paper into bits, one person is turned on a wheel by another, one punches holes in cloth on a structure, and two engage in a tug-of-war. A significant number of her works, however, not only involve many performers but also large architectonic structures and considerations of space. Vanishing Acts (1986, 90 minutes) utilized the reflecting pool of water in the London Regional Art Gallery1 behind which Davis had constructed a plywood slope 35 feet long and 6 feet high, with a 10 foot inclined surface. Some of the action took place on a 4 foot wide area at the top of the slope as well as on the raked surface and in the water.  Electric Blanket 2: for Stella Taylor (1981, 70-80 minutes) was divided into an open space and a smaller area wrapped in plastic.  Some of the physical structures (a 10 foot tower, a bridge) in Ghiberti's Doors (1983, 85 minutes) were on wheels so that they were incorporated into movements enacted by the six performers. Mid-way through the performance, the long, narrow performance space was shortened as all the moveable parts on the floor were stacked together blocking off the space and hiding the performers behind this now-in-place wall. Then, a sandbag, swinging through from behind, breaking through suddenly, opened the space up again.


Life is full of change, shifts, sudden or slowly evolving. Nothing that is living stays the same. The movements of the performers in Ghiberti's Doors (chosen by themselves in interaction with the various structures in the space -wooden bed frame, trapeze, cement blocks, a post and lintel construction, bridge-on-wheels...) change in kind and in speed throughout.  Davis: "What I am interested in is scan, flow, shift, interruption, re-vision of memory and experience—the present always using its history changeably." 


In Electric Blanket 2, the continual slowing of a repeated cycle of movements until stasis is reached (entropy) echoes the struggle and eventual defeat of the swimmer Stella Taylor 2 and contrasts with the gaining energy of the performer in the wrapped space (the trajectory of evolution). Changes from scripted to improvised action in Monochrome are signaled by lighting changes from white to colours of the prism. In South Pole: Mysteries of the Landscape (1976), a twenty minute work based on the melt/freeze cycle and produced in collaboration with electronic music composer Philip Ross, organist George Black and ten other performers, there are seven simultaneous activities in which an orchestrated change occurs in each at a specific time. For example, a sunbather lies on a tilted plane and at minute ten shivers and turns from her back to her front.               .


A plastic rabbit, a very old, caked and cracked pair of work-boots, a model scale house frame, trouble lights, lumber, plastic sheeting. Mundane objects, things that happen to be in her studio, raw materials, are attended to and when put into a performance take on larger significance. Perhaps Davis' interest in objects is a holdover from her days working with stage props. In any case, she has become attached to these objects and used some over and over in the formation of her body of work. For the most part these objects are not exotic—but then there's the wedding cake with lights worn as a hat in Ghiberti's Doors and the miniature lit city in Vanishing Acts.


The workings of space and architectural forms give the pieces their formal armature and function as physical analogues for temporal structuring. They may also, along with considerations around the warm/cold poles that recur thematically in various works, refer to that most iconic of structures, 'house'—shelter, inside/outside, domestic space—a space Davis has been acutely attuned to throughout her life.


Davis told me the story of how, as a child, she went down to the swamp not far from home (she wasn't allowed to play there). For a huge up-rooted tree she got an old green curtain from home and erected a tent-like structure suspended from the roots. Inside, from scavenged discarded lumber, she made a table on which she arranged rusted cans and stones - a secret place, hers - and her first performance construction.


Rae Davis' mind and approach to making art and to living  are considered and exhuberant. In writing about the experience of making Pink Melon Joy. Gertrude Stein Out Loud. (1974), Davis says, 


This experience became one of the most illuminating of my life and career because it went right back to the basics of language, image and communication. It called into question every convention of the theatrical practice and forced me... to find a way to say it and do it. I found that way by using the simplest, barest, most minimal means possible...When you get down to subject, verb, object—or even preposition—in terms of performance, you're down to construction bricks. You understand then what "making" is. You understand that the act, the most familiar act, is full and requires your full concentration. You understand that meaning is fickle and depends on context... I learned these things viscerally, through action... As they say of dancers, I have a muscle memory of it, and if the mind is a muscle, as Yvonne Rainer would have it, let's include that, too.  



1 Now known as Museum London, London, Ontario.

2 Stella Taylor was a marathon swimmer who failed in her attempt to swim from the Bimini Islands to Florida.


Barbara Sternberg is a media artist who has made two collaborative works with Rae Davis, Surge (1998), and  Glacial Slip (2003).


Originally published in Caught in the Act edited by Tanya Mars and Johanna Householder, YYZ Press, 2004