PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.1 (2001) 86-92
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Spinning Her Story
Marilyn Arsem, Stirring, Spinning, Sweeping, Kitchen Theatre, Ithaca, NY, March 20-21, 1999.
Marilyn Arsem left the constraints of her traditional training in theatre for the uncharted territory of performance art in the early 1970s. She founded Boston's Mobius Artists Group in 1975, and has been performing nationally and internationally ever since. Arsem's recent performance, Stirring, Spinning, Sweeping, is an exploration of "the continuum of the mundane to the mythical." 1 The performance investigates historical images of women's work: stirring the kettle, spinning yarns, and sweeping the floor, and how such images have been transfigured into icons of witchcraft. Through the course of Arsem's embodied performance, "What you see are those images being transformed."
The audience enters the redesigned physical space of the Kitchen Theatre, which resembles a cavern. Arsem meets each audience member at the entrance and hands her/him a section of raw lamb's wool. Colorful branches hang from the ceiling, piles of wool are arranged on the theatre floor, the lights are up, and the room is filled with the smell of lanolin. Onstage, a gray-haired woman (played by Arsem's mother) is seated, holding a broom, alongside a spinning wheel and a kettle. The structure of the performance is deceptively simple: Arsem recites historical facts about women's work and tales of her grandmother, a spinner. Woven into this performance is a carefully constructed manipulation of the audience. In Stirring, Spinning, Sweeping, the audience is led to question the imbalance between the representation of women in history and the facts of their daily lives.
While the audience is seated, Arsem continues to approach individual audience members, instructing them on the art of spinning. She encourages individuals to contribute to the conversation about the history of shearing, spinning, and dyeing wool. The meditative twisting of lamb's wool collectively connects the audience to the conversation and the performance. Participating in this simple repetitious act associated with traditional women's work, audience members become active "parts" of [End Page 86] history within the narrative context of the performance. As the threads of history's warp begin to unravel, Arsem is seated at a spinning wheel, spinning her own new yarns. Her factual presentation on spinning techniques at first resembles the popular amusement parks of living history, such as Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. She explains that, for centuries, women have been the household weavers, walking up to 20 miles a day while pacing back and forth in place, spinning thread. "Spinning and weaving were the single most time-consuming activities of the pre-industrial revolution. The women spent all of their lives making things which would eventually disintegrate into dust."
The artist's presentation of spinning techniques and facts gradually shifts from the "living history model" to family storytelling, focused on her grandmother, a spinner. This shift creates an "ambiguous moment" for the audience, Arsem explains, "when they're waiting for (the performance) to begin, and they find it's already begun." This moment calls the audience's attention to the importance of structure as it relates to storytelling and history, performance and theatre. Arsem recounts conversations with her grandmother, her great grandmother, and generations of great, great grandmothers, while the woman with the broom stands and begins to sweep a circle of white flour on the black floor. The sound of sweeping, coupled with the sound of the spinning wheel, lulls the audience into Arsem's carefully crafted spell. Although the style of the presentation remains constant, the details of the stories gradually and subtly shift from the factual to the mythical, spanning great distances of time and geography. At different points in the performance, significant features can be recognized as variations on fairy tales and traditional Northern European folklore. 2 It is this strategic and elusive blurring of time that encourages audience participants to question their perceptions of and investments in notions of history, veracity, and reality.
Arsem first performed Stirring, Spinning, Sweeping in 1992, and has performed it many times since, yet...