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The Architecture of Honey

Joan Dickinson

at Dickinson's farm, McHenry County, May 16

By Carol Burbank

The first sounds I heard when we clambered off the yellow school bus were the wind and the birds. It was dusk in the Illinois farmland, and our voices seemed muffled by the quiet and the green intensity of trees; the fresh grass swept in waves, some of it neatly mowed, but most of it rising up long in the supple fields. After the gritty clutter of the street outside the former Randolph Street Gallery, after an hour or so bumping down the highway on the bus, this transition into grace was sudden and dramatic. It was as if the dislocation established an expectant, peaceful envelope around the audience gathered for Joan Dickinson's one-night-only The Architecture of Honey.

Dickinson based the event on images from pagan antiquity, linking them to the Illinois landscape with seeming relics from homesteading: a rusty bed, a stained quilt, a rocking chair. In the program she tells the story of the Gundestrup Cauldron, a Celtic ritual vessel unearthed in Denmark in 1891; in the performance, she evokes images of ancient mysteries, referring obliquely to the vessel's symbols. The link between the story and the images is a cronelike character, Angurboda Hag of the Iron Wood; she appeared with the first signs of sunset. Dressed in a belted brown sack, with small brooms at her back, leaning on a carved stick shaped like a divining rod, and wielding a yellow-and-black wand that made her brown pointed hat stand up or sink like a signal, Dickinson was a mysterious and almost comical figure.

After gathering in a garden and eating bread pudding, we followed the Hag single file through a thin band of trees onto a wide, mowed path at the edge of a gentle hill. This section, "The Illuminated Garden of Anna Thomina," suggested an initiation. We walked past nine beekeepers with brightly colored hives on their heads, adding a foot to their height. Veiled and dressed in white, they watched us file past, turning toward the straggling line when everyone had passed. This first sight invoked ancient myths of bee goddesses and offered a visual notation for the honey of the title. As we passed through the field, the land itself became the architecture.

The Hag led us through a cheap plywood stagecraft gate painted with spirals and watched over by a woman with an armful of flowers. I later discovered in my press kit--an artful box full of stories, sunflower seeds, and pictures--a photo showing the same scene, a solemn young woman near an iron fence. In the program she's identified as Katrina Larson, the daughter of Anna Thomina--an American pioneer who'd lived as a girl on the Danish land where the cauldron had been found. But these details weren't as important as walking, following the slow exposition of a secret, spiraling visual collage. We passed through the gate into a landscape of Dickinson's own making. For the work to succeed, we would have to make it our own.

This wasn't as difficult as it might seem. The images in the field before us were simple and beautiful. A red wheelbarrow filled with dirt sheltered antlers, a jawbone, and strange, wide bones that might have been scapulae or pelvises. A rusted iron bed held an image of the dessicated, mysterious corpse of an Iron Age sacrifice, Talman Man, discovered in a peat bog. A white-and-yellow quilt was folded as if to warm him, and a yellow chair sat on the other side of the path as if we'd interrupted a death vigil. A scarecrow in black tails angled up over a rise; a rocker sat in a sea of grass. At the top of a hill we settled on quilts and rugs, looking out over the path we'd just taken, the chairs, bed, gate, and beekeepers stretched out like a living painting.

In many ways it didn't matter to me what these images meant. Although I was interested in their ritual meaning, and in fact waited for understanding, I never wanted to be told a conventional story. The idea of an "illuminated garden" was enough. That's why Dickinson's monologue as the Hag was so disappointing. After we'd gathered on the hill she circled us, leaning on her staff, and blandly told a story about a grandmother's house (hers? I wasn't sure), family dogs, and a vision of a rainbow (echoed by the waving heads of the beekeepers across the field). She delivered the story in a cursory, almost sullen way. She got a laugh when she talked about Cindy Beagle and Cindy Boxer, the grandmother's two "best dogs in the world," but the monologue as a whole felt like an interruption of the lyrical scene she'd just set.

I was relieved when Dickinson walked slowly into the woods behind us, retreating back into the archetype she'd so successfully created in silence. Although many ritualistic pieces use ordinary stories or comedy to bring out a sense of community or of the leader's personality, the stories Dickinson wove together were dull. And they were told without commitment to a clear performance style or character, which would have set the narrative apart as a breath in the complex system of the piece as a whole. Instead this section broke the magic of the work, demonstrating how deeply private the performance was for Dickinson, excluding the audience except as an excuse to project her own ideas. The collaborative feeling created by the landscape, Dickinson's images, and the focused audience was weakened.

Some moments in the rest of the performance recaptured the pleasure and grace of the walk through the field, but mostly the unfolding events mixed cryptic punning with serious intensity, retaining the casual feeling of Dickinson's monologue rather than moving deeper into the images. In the sunset field, a raven-masked man with a black bird's tail fluffing out from beneath his tux played an Irish hymn, while a boy coyly named Goodman Charlie Brown (blending Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic short story "Young Goodman Brown" and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown) held a candelabra filled with unlit candles. As the hymn played, the woman at the gate slowly piled dirt on the bed; a second crone watched from the rocker. Someone carried a huge dog puppet (Cindy Beagle or Snoopy, I presume) across the field, pausing only to switch its head and tail so the beast could turn a corner without showing its unpainted plywood back.

The sun turned red and sank below the trees; as the evening settled in, so did the mosquitoes. The wind, the birds, and an occasional slap were the only sounds as the raven-man and the boy slowly receded along the path and the beekeepers trailed off, reappearing as "the Nine at the Top of the Hill," brown monolithic figures in a rough circle, reminding me of Stonehenge. The audience went through different silences: restless, peaceful, sleepy, pensive. Then Goodman Charlie Brown rang the little bell from the gate and shouted impatiently, "Come on!"

We walked back slowly, taking many paths across the field, pausing to look at the burial bed. We passed the watchful Nine with a mix of chatter and quiet, some of us still staring intently around us, others ignoring the figures entirely, gossiping or talking about the performance. Our final surprise was the raven-man's reappearance in a grove, illuminating four scrolls hung in the trees. One by one he shone a flashlight on lines from a poem, "The Modesty of the Carcass," which seemed like a spell, a burial invocation--ending the evening with a poetic mysticism that seemed excessive after the stark, skillful images Dickinson established in the field.

Once again, I felt the artist's private world intrude on the visual grace of her work. When Dickinson moved into verbal performance, The Architecture of Honey took on a self-importance that undercut the moving, mysterious experience she'd created. She clearly understood the landscape intimately and dressed it in images that, for the most part, became as evocative for the audience as the Gundestrup Cauldron was for her. But wanting to tell her personal narrative as well created a performance at odds with itself. If she wanted to speak a private performance language and hold herself apart from us, as her sullen, blank manner and cryptic wordplay would seem to indicate, perhaps she shouldn't have told such a personal story. It was puzzling to me that she set up a sacred space, then dismantled it with crude pop-culture references and language that was either bland or highly poetic and self-conscious.

This was my first experience of Dickinson's outdoor pieces, and on the whole it was an uneasy one. I entertained the idea that audience members more familiar with her work would have seen or heard references that made sense of her performance codes. But as we bumped back to Chicago on the bus, I realized that the unresolved puzzle of the piece made me distrust her motives as a performer. The Architecture of Honey is oddly self-protective, oddly cold, even for a dream piece.

Still, I was grateful to Dickinson for the sporadic resonance of this risky work. Ultimately my focused attention on the puzzle she set created a deep sense of peace and mystery, and finally I was content to have more bread pudding, let the iridescent day shift into blue gray evening, and climb back on the bus. The city was noisy and dirty, but I held The Architecture of Honey separate in my mind, as a time outside time I've since revisited with pleasure for its quiet, intriguing grace.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Architecture of Honey photo by Joan Dickinson.

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