Fritz Scholder, Ritual at the Ice House (1994)



 Fritz Scholder's installation at the Icehouse is an impressive, all-enveloping experience combining sculpture, music, architecture, space, light and darkness.


 The golden, illuminated, over-life-size sculpture of a woman spread-eagled on her back, is thrust above eye level into the semi-darkness of the towering architectural space. She is literally impaled on a three-tiered, candle-burning, black altar, offered to and flinging herself at God (or the Devil), as Scholder's music cannonades and thunders through the hall. The power of the work and the event comes not only from the artist's imagination but the evocation of primitive sensibility.


 The Icehouse interior itself is quite high (five stories?), a cube of empty space, uninterrupted by anything but Scholder's centralized work. The room's stained and mortar-encrusted walls reek of medievalism, monasteries, dungeons, Romanesque massiveness. It brings to mind windowless chambers where religious ecstasies and unspeakable tortures have been performed down the centuries. Dark, hidden places of underground ritual and worship, sanctuary and hell-hole unpenetrated by the light of day.


 Scholder's installation manifests the primitive and demonic in all its mystery, expressiveness and horror. It could have taken place eons ago in the jungles, caves, vast plains and dark forests long before so-called "civilized" man emerged, when bone and feather amulets were murmured to, and lone or clustered totems, immense carved heads and monoliths were erected to mark man's eternal duel with, and plea to, God.


 Scholder's expression is another in the long line of artists and works, since before Gauguin's first flight to Tahiti, seeking reconnection with our soul by means of the perceived (misguided?) "truth of the primitive". Like Gauguin, modern, technologically-crazed man, isolated from nature, life and self, seeks to re-establish contact with foundational reality.


 Scholder's female figure is a human sacrifice, participant in a dark mass, a witches sabbath, her body supported only from hips to upper back. Her eyes are blind-folded, mouth open, arms outstretched, spatulate, flopping fingers pulled toward earth. Her legs are stiff and pointing out and down in agony, reflected in the bunion-angled thrust of her left foot and telling, wedge-formed toes. Scores of candles burn on the lower and middle altar levels, the tracks and trails of dribbling wax like fluid exudations from her gleaming body, which is modeled in an expressionistic generality of form rather than detailed anatomical accuracy, except, interestingly enough, for the feet.


 The music roars and booms and reverberates, unique in itself, synthesized like much music today, but organ-like, rising at times to ever-higher, peaking crescendos of aspiration and exaltation, then collapsing in thunderous ruminations on the dark night of the contemporary soul. Like Igor Stravinsky before him in "Rite of Spring," Scholder, in his own way, expresses the surging, pounding rhythms of the primitive, foundational construction of the human psyche stripped bare of the veneer of civilization.


 Combine the towering Icehouse, a few spotlights softly trained on the altar, candles burning in darkness, two eight-foot fabric standards on each end, magical music, and you have a very powerful expression of the struggle to survive a dying civilization. It is a primitive mass, a savage ritual sacrificing the "virgin" in hopes of revitalizing and redeeming life and society. The piece attempts to exorcise man's fundamental fear of death and meaninglessness. It is a prayer that attempts to resurrect the dead or dying self, threatened, crushed by overwhelming forces that embody more death than life. It is a crucifixion without a cross, a cathartic, pagan cleansing of horror and a plea for redemption.


 Like Scholder's woman, there seems no end to our own perturbation and suffering. We need some major miracle, some lightning thrust of insight and understanding, withheld truth at last revealed, like a great hand that powers down through the Icehouse roof to rescue her and us from our impending fate.


Copyright by Don Gray


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