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Dan Graham: Rock my religion

A spiritual journey into the mosh pit.

by Renata Bomtempo

When I say the ‘80s, what do you first think about? Maybe, Molly Ringwald in the numerous films about adolescent love. Or does the song, " Lets get physical, physical…." ring a bell. Need I go on? Oh, one more thing, Flock of Seagulls haircuts everywhere! But when the ‘80s come to mind, religion does not come into that category. But Dan Graham decided to take the 1980s and incorporate religion, phallic symbols and women as minorities in the hard rock and punk scene. Dan Graham has been an important artist in the art scene of the ‘80s and one can see some of his works at the Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue.

Dan Graham’s video titled, "Rock My Religion", was viewed last Saturday at the Whitney Museum with Robert Mapplethorpe’s " Still Moving" and Robert Franks’ "Summer Cannibals". " Rock My Religion" is an intriguing view into the world of punk bands and hard core bands that one might of never have thought of before. In his film he talks about two women Ann Lee, which was one of the pioneers of the Shakers, and Patty Smith a true rocker of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. He compares Ann Lee as a goddess and Patty Smith as Mary Magdalene, the prostitute that changed her ways when she encountered Jesus Christ and found Christ’s empty tomb after he was resurrected. Dan describes the Shakers related to punk and hard core music. The Shakers used to dance in a circle and scream out " Shake, Shake the devil".

Dan describes this in a visual correlation to the mosh pits in punk and hard core concerts, where there is a circle in the middle of a crowd where people are dancing and "shaking the devil out". (Its hard to grasp at first, but stay with me.) There was a song that was sung in the film by Sonic Youth that included lyrics that rang out "Shake, Shake, Shake!" Then the camera shifts away from the band and to the crowd where they are rampaging around in a circle and shoving away. But why is Ann Lee a goddess to Dan Graham is a fascinating question. I do not think that I quite capture the relationship in the term goddess to Ann Lee towards rock music.

The definition of a god is a being that is supernatural, omniscient ruler of the universe and worshiped by a people. With this in mind one might see Ann Lee as the creator of the "Shakers" and worshiped by rocking teenagers dancing to the music of punk music, while they are reliving the traditions of the Shakers. But, I am sure that most of these teens do not even know who the Shakers are. But, it is fascinating to see that the teenagers are involved in much the same manner as the Shakers did when they massed together and chanted against the devil. In much the same way, one can see this in the mosh pit.

Dan also uses Patty Smith in his film as a Mary Magdalene. Patty Smith’s Jesus Christ was her guitar. She has said that the guitar felt so right on her hands and she knew what she wanted to be when she first played the guitar and she found her path through the guitar. Dan also presented the fact that rock can be very phallic, the microphone, the stereotypic image of male rockers and Dan also incorporated the moves of Elvis. Patty Smith has said that she wanted to be a man, because she wanted to be a rocker and women were not rockers in the sense of punk and hard core music until Patty Smith came into the scene.

She is the Courtney Love of the ‘80s. Smith wanted to be thought of as a rocker, but the idealized image of a woman was evident in the late ‘70s and singing and sweating out on stage wasn’t one of them. Dan used the art form of the video and media to enhance the politics of music. The film was conceived with clips of the shakers and the ‘80s rock scene and intertwined with narrators and music that hold a theme of religion that was never looked at when it came to music, which appears on the surface , so polar to religion.

The next film was from Mapplethrope’s "Still Moving". This black and white film was shot in 1978 and it is Patty Smith amidst curtain hung over a wall and sitting among bundles of cloth. She is under the influence of MDA and she is moving around that corner of cloth. The film is a correlation of photographs that are being taken at the same time as the film is being shot. Thus, the final project is a combination of photos and film. It appears as a documentary of personal experience and discovery and it is best to see it first without knowing that she is under the influence of a drug. One sees her going through experiences of fear and touch, a video looking class into the eyes of Patty Smith.

It was a perfect idea to show the two films together so as to get an inside look at different aspects of rock and women. Patty Smith’s performance piece, "Still Moving" was a provocative approach to the senses and an emotional journey into her art world.

"Rock My Religion" is part of "The American Century: 1900-2000" an exhibition at the Whitney where one can see the likes of Jackson Pollack, Jeff Koons and of course Any Warhol. If you have not gone to see that show yet, it is closing on February 13, 2000. I definitely urge that every student, and I do not just mean art history students, go see this exhibition. It contains such potent portraitures of the American way of life and the military influence of middle class Americans.

The clarity that Dan Graham’s " Rock My Religion" brings to this exhibition is a formulation of pop art and awareness that the ‘80s were not just Debbie Gibsons or walkmans, but the involvement of spiritual celebration. One that sometimes is not seen at first glance, but I do not think that I can ever look at punk and hard core music again without thinking about a religious ceremony of shaking out the devil.

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