Suzanne Lacy’s moving public tableaux

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“Dialogue is my paint—and how it elicits emotional responses with the participants is my craft,” the artist says

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IN AN empty bull ring in Quito, Ecuador, man after man steps forward, his face sombre, to read a letter by an anonymous woman describing her experience of sexual violence. Captured on film, then projected onto large screens, each account fades in, then out. A bigger screen reveals the entire bull ring filled with hundreds more men reading the letters aloud. Candles flicker; music begins; in the stands above, still others quietly read terrible stories of abuse to one another.

It helps that Ms Lacy’s body of work, while rooted in social and political issues—feminism, race, media portrayals of youth, age, the working class—speaks powerfully in the language of art. From her first interventions highlighting rape in Los Angeles, to large international works that stage complex public conversations, she crafts powerful visual and polyphonic experiences for participants and viewers alike.

Her shift towards what one curator calls a “more operatic style” came with larger works modelled on feminist consciousness-raising circles. By then, Ms Lacy says, she had grasped that “everything we do is an exchange—we don’t exist in the world individually”. Her most famous work from this period, “The Crystal Quilt” (1987), involved hundreds of older women coming together to talk about erasure and survival.

Ultimately, “relationship is my medium” the artist said at the opening of the retrospective (which will travel to Manchester in Britain next year). “So dialogue is my paint—and how it elicits emotional responses with the participants is my craft.” Orchestrating conversations as an artistic practice can be a powerful tool for social progress, she says, “but it’s not without a lot of conflict”.

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