Rachel Rosenthal: Performance Artist

Interview with Rachel Rosenthal

By Lauren Raine, MFA

Society for Ritual Arts, 2017 Artist in Residence

This interview took place November 17, 1988.

“The kinds of sounds I began producing were sounds I never knew I had.”

Painting of Rachel Rosenthal by Lauren Raine (1994)

            In 1987 I received my MFA from the University of Arizona, an experience that left me with questions that graduate school was not able to answer.  What did being an artist really mean – personally, culturally, socially, and most importantly to me, spiritually?  And so I began a three-year “vision quest”, travelling around the country to interview different artists.  I was not able to find a publisher for my manuscript, and many of the interviews were never published.  I think the time is now to share them.  The following is an interview so kindly given to me by one of the premier interdisciplinary performance artists of our time, Rachel Rosenthal, in her studio in Los Angeles in the fall of 1988.



Rachel Rosenthal was born to a prominent family that was forced to flee Paris in 1940 to escape the Nazi invasion.  She came to live in the U.S., and as a young woman became part of avant-garde theater in New York, as well as dancing with Merce Cunningham.  After moving to Los Angeles in 1956, she created the Instant Theatre, an experimental theatre company.  Her pioneering involvement in the women’s art movement also led her to become one of the founders of Woman Space in Los Angeles.  By the mid ‘70’s Rosenthal made a transition into performance art by developing autobiographical works about her life.

Performance art is a re-definition of the boundaries of theatre and art that began in the 1960’s.  The boundaries are indistinct – and in some of Rosenthal’s performances, the audience has been recruited as an active co-creator.  Her autobiographical works Charm (1977) and My Brazil (1977) questioned the meaning of “public” and “private“.  Intensely personal, the performance was a revelation for the audience, but also a spontaneous revelation for the artist.   Within this “autobiographical porthole”, as she called it, the “ocean” becomes at last visible, a “raindrop in the ocean of time”.  In Rosenthal’s work transformation was always a core dynamic and a central concern.  As the story is told with its many layers and juxtapositions, a ritual or rite of passage is also being performed – and thus the motion of expansion and evolution can continue to occur.  In the 1980’s Rosenthal shifted to more global concerns, although the autobiographical was always a thread woven throughout her work, as the personal is also the universal.  The Others (1984) reflected her concern for the mistreatment of animals, and Was Black (1986) confronted the specter of nuclear disaster.

In her later works, Rosenthal became dedicated to “healing the Earth through the arts”, and influenced by the Gaia Hypothesis of James Lovelock with his collaborator Lynn Margulis, Rosenthal produced a number of works dedicated to Gaia.  She became the “Voice of the Planet”.  L.O.W. in Gaia and Pangean Dreams  speak with the voice of Gaia, Her long, long story, and remind us of our context as we live “within the Body of our living and evolving planet.  Rachel Rosenthal died in Los Angeles in 2015 at the age of 88.  For more information about her life and her students and colleagues that continue her work:   https://www.rachelrosenthal.org/

Lauren Raine: I was privileged to see your performance Pangean Dreams (1987).  What inspired the piece?

Rachel Rosenthal: I’ve done various works about the Earth.  Some of them were about Gaia, and the problems we have created on the planet.  Increasingly, I’ve wanted to present from a very large perspective.  In order to understand the Earth, you have to go beneath the surface.   The idea of continental drift and plate tectonics was the most exciting, sexy thing I ever heard!

I began to see it as a central metaphor for the formation of not only the crust, but also the continents themselves, and the kinds of societies those continents would eventually produce.  I wanted to investigate the question of whether geology is truly destiny.  Because it seemed to me we can use these geological events as profiles for a civilization a certain continent had developed.

In addition, I always try to bring in the violent and the dark, because that aspect is so negated, so pushed under, and it is creating havoc.  What could be more extraordinarily violent than the Earth both devouring Herself continually and regurgitating Herself continually – which is what is actually happening? She is continually re-creating Herself.

LRIn your statement about Pangean Dreams, you wrote: “since all things are interrelated, and plate tectonics plays such a vital role in the life on the surface, couldn’t our interference with that surface life affect the deep workings of the planet?”  You suggest that we are “surface dwellers” on many levels because we are unaware of the forces we are part of.

RR: That is the big picture.  Did you know, for instance, that they are injecting poisons very deep into the Earth?  There is an area of waste disposal they call “deep injection” disposal.   That method is so dangerous, to the water table and perhaps the equilibrium of the crust… we are doing some very dumb things, without knowing what we’re doing.

We do the same thing with ourselves.  We don’t go deep, we’re afraid of darkness, we are afraid of holes, afraid of anything that will take us away from the sun side.  This is occurring on a global level.

LRYou have been called a “shaman” in the art world.  Have you studied shamanism and other spiritual traditions?

RR: I did study shamanism.  Shamanism is very close to how I feel about the Earth, and animals, and plants, and the interconnectedness of everything.  The seamlessness of being, which is reflected in Zen also.

What I really like about it is that it is also so creative.  Every person who drums and journeys can create, on a spiritual level, their own work of art.  The journeys were astonishing and really connect you to the Earth.

LRIn Pangean Dreams you use some truly evocative, almost primordial sounds, sung and chanted.  I was shocked to hear your speaking voice after the performance because it is so soft in contrast.

RR: The kinds of sounds I began producing were sounds I never knew I had.  For decades I thought I had no voice at all, just a rather, small, faint voice.  When I began to drum, I began to chant, and I became aware of vocal possibilities that just happened in trance.  I’ve incorporated some of them into my work.  This exemplifies the range we each have, which we almost never tap into except on the most superficial levels.  To me, the potential of each person on the creative levels of art, sound, movement and so on are… well, it’s almost like manure for the Earth!  Compost!  You put it back in.  Such creativity is healing and nourishing, and this is the best of us.

A group of Tibetan monks came to UCLA recently.  In their chants they use a voice that actually is a chord, covering two or three notes at the same time.  They create a resonance that is very potent.  I had been creating those voices; I discovered them on my own, just by chanting them.  I did not know that there was a Tibetan order using this as their discipline.  If I can do it, anybody can do it.  It’s just a question of allowing the body to become available to channeling these forces because these forces are available to us.  The problem is we’re so skimpy and stingy, so timid about asking.  The Universe is willing to give; it’s there for the asking.

When I work, I feel that ‘seamlessness‘ very much, because half of the time I don’t know where the ideas actually come from.  They come in all kinds of forms.  An idea can be formed in a sound, or in a very articulate kind of language… but it’s all part of the same thing.  This comprehension of holism is very important at this point in time.  I think it is also very important to the planet for us to be able to think in those terms.

LRWhat is shamanism?

RR: Historically it is one thing.  Contemporary views and practices are a bit different.  It is an Earth and magical spiritual discipline predating any of the organized religions.  Usually, shamans are found in small communities.  A person, man or woman, emerges as a shaman in different ways, either individually or as descendants of a family of shamans.  They may learn the teaching from their elders, but many are also spontaneously called to the profession.  Usually, that call is painful and has to do with illness, some kind of trauma, an accident, whatever.  Because of this experience, new kinds of perceptions spontaneously emerge.

A shaman is one who has the skill to move between worlds, at will.  This is, I think, something to be made very clear: the shaman is not someone who is possessed, who like many mediums or “trance channels” is unconscious.  A shaman has the skill to go wherever she or he wants to go and can switch transpersonal realities at will.  They have the ability to make a bridge.  If a soul is lost, or ill, they will make the journey to heal in some way.  And some of them are not healers.  Some of them are just magicians who manipulate other forces in ways that are sometimes very self-serving.  It depends on the person.

LRHow do you relate this to art?

RR: When people ask me “are you a shaman”, I always say no.  As for the artist being a shaman, well, semantics.  Some may think so, some may not.  Those artists who feel they are acting as “go-betweens” may feel themselves to be within that tradition.  Sometimes that is what I feel – like a go-between, and I facilitate from that stance.

LRMany artists I have spoken to talk about some process outside of themselves that occurs within their creativity, an interface.

RR: That’s what I mean by a go-between or a facilitator.  A person who interprets the chaotic and unformed forces, putting them into a form that can be absorbed and shared.   Because there is always the face of the Medusa and people must protect themselves against that.

LRThe Medusa?

RR: The Greek myth of the Gorgon.  Those who looked at her turned to stone.  This was a metaphor for looking into the abyss, and not being able to handle it.  Turning into stone means you go into a deep depression, you cannot function in the world; you are immobilized by the horror and the awesomeness of it.  When Perseus slayed the gorgon, he cut off her head and put it on his shield, which he then gave to Athena.  She carries the shield with Medusa’s face, but in a way that changes it, takes away its destructiveness.  We are always doing that, somehow shielding ourselves.

When people come close to the abyss, something in them instinctively tells them to stop.  Some people don’t stop, like Baudelaire who consciously went into madness, or Artaud.

LRA journey into the abyss, sometimes self-chosen.  Isn’t the idea inherent to this that by making the journey, when you return there is an important transformation of some kind?

RR: That is the myth of the Hero.  You are a Hero if you can make the journey, gather the treasure, and then come back.  If you get stuck, if you stay there, you are not a Hero.  The journey has to be the return as well as the goal.  So make the journey, but always leave yourself the thread of Ariadne, in order to come back safely.

LRYou say, “Gaia is constantly giving birth to Herself and devouring Herself in a circular dance”.  Are you speaking as well about the transformational nature of our lives?

RR: Pangean Dreams is a metaphor on all levels: a metaphor for a personal history, for an emotional history, and certainly for a continuum of change on the physical and metaphysical level.  It’s such a great image, Pangaea.

But ‘transformation’ is a tricky word.  What are you transforming into?  Change for the sake of change is not so interesting.  What we need to understand is that we have come to the point of mastering our own evolution.  We are not going to evolve physically much more: the evolution is in our minds, in our consciousness.  We need to investigate what kind of responsibility we hold… not only does that mean we are evolving, and we have choices, but it means that we are also transforming in context with our planet.  We are the central dynamic of change for the planet as a whole now, not simply another species.  So our responsibilities are all-encompassing.  That’s what I want people to start looking at.

LRWhat is Gaia?

RR: Gaia is a convenient archetype.  It has to do with several things.

One is the archetype of the Earth as a Goddess, which comes from ancient Greece and far beyond.  The other is the contemporary ecological hypothesis of Gaia, which is that the Earth is a living body, a self-regulating system, and biologically She creates optimum conditions for all life to exist.  If you accept that hypothesis, which I do, you then see that the body of the Earth is a very fragile being.  One being.  There are no borders, no boundaries – just one being with different cells and organs and metabolism.  Gaia is a personification of the Earth as a living body.

In my personal spirituality, I think of Her, the Earth, as a Goddess, as the Great Mother – because that is the easiest symbol for me to wrap a concept around.  In reality, I do not believe in a personal Deity.  Even though I pray to Her, I don’t believe she is saying “Oh, there’s Rachel praying to me, let’s pay attention!”  The prayer or the invocation is really to align me to the Earth, to put myself in the magnetic field, to be in contact and in harmony.

This is a simple way to do it.  To name something is to make it accessible in some way.  I do that, but in truth, I could very easily avoid any anthropomorphic personification of the deity.  For me, when I look at this (holding up a NASA photograph of the Earth from space) I am looking into the face of the Deity.  This is the totality, the globe, that incredible consciousness we live in.

I remember reading some comments from astronauts and cosmonauts.  They said things I’ve felt for a long time.  Apparently, for these people, the experience of seeing the Earth in space changed their whole outlook on everything.

LRThey literally got the big picture?

RR: They literally did!  It saddens me that those who need to get that picture will probably never go into space.  They have to get it some other way, and that’s why in my own very small way I want to create this kind of art.

LRWhy is the metaphor of Gaia so important to us?

RR: Because we are living in the Body.  Not on the Body, but in the Body.

And what we do to the Earth we are doing to ourselves.

It’s easier for people to anthropomorphize something abstract.  That is where the metaphor of Gaia comes in – it is easier to think of a mother, a nurturing parent.  By giving a name to it, you can talk to Her.  That’s the purpose.  Otherwise, you are lost in abstractions, and lose the emotional content of the issue.  It has to reach us on a gut level.

LRIn that sense, there is a degree of hope?

RR: There is a degree of hope, if we hurry.


Copyright, Lauren Raine (1988) Lauren Raine is an internationally known artist and mask maker. She is currently serving as Artist in Residence with the Society for Ritual Arts.