Important Art by Gina Pane
Pane's first major stage of work focused on her interactions with the environment. Here, in a work whose title is translated as Ideal Situation: Earth-Artist-Sky, Pane stands firmly with her feet on the brown, freshly tilled ground, silhouetted against a pale blue, cloudless sky. Her hands are in her pockets, and her stance is comfortably contrapposto, meaning that she gently rests her weight on her left side and places her right foot slightly in front of her. She is a strong vertical presence contrasted with the strong horizontality of the image, which is evenly divided between ground and sky. Pane commented simply of this piece, "Between two horizontals: earth/sky, I placed my body vertically to provoke an ideal situation."
Pane was working within the landscape at the same time as her American peers, but many of them were making bombastic, mostly permanent, and sometimes aggressive pieces. This included Michael Heizer's Double Negative, which consists of two massive, deep cuts into the earth and displacement of 240,000 tons of dirt; Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, which shapes 6,000 tons of earth and rock in the Great Salt Lake into a spiral; and Walter de Maria's Lightning Field, which features 400 stainless steel poles fixed in the ground, to name a few. In contrast, Pane's work was much more cerebral and spiritual. Critic Dean Daderko suggests that Terre-Artiste-Ciel is about the artist "[becoming] the connection between terrestrial and celestial realms." However, there is also the underlying discomfort manifested in the artist taking the "landscape's immeasurable magnitude" and "[compressing] it into the frontality of a photographic rendering," as Elisbeth Lebovici notes. Rather than the landscape achieving primacy and visual power, the figure of Pane does; her physical form mediates the image. Thus, the relative simplicity of the image is belied by the potential for multiple interpretations, all of them centering on the relationship of (wo)man to nature.
Set in a studio, this performance features Pane ascending a metal ladder with sharp bits on the rungs. It is documented via dozens of close-up shots of her bare hands and feet on the rungs, and a red rose clenched between her teeth. The event lasted about thirty minutes, the point at which Pane was too exhausted to go further. Francoise Masson photographed Escalade according to detailed and precise plans laid in place by the two beforehand. The lighting, the angles of the images, the exact position of Masson's body moving around Pane were all methodically planned out. Though there was no audience for this piece, the resulting documentation was created with the viewer in mind.
Pane conceived of this piece as a political statement, writing in her notes that it was ultimately about "American escalation in Vietnam" and that the "physical pain in one or several parts of the body" would demonstrate "internal pain, deep, suffering. Moral pain." In 1977 Pane explained in her article "Before May 1968" how she decided to use her body as a stand-in for the collective body and indeed, one can rarely see her face so she becomes a generic and universal symbol. She climbed the ladder with anesthesia, which is how she hoped individuals would begin to confront the horrors of Vietnam. Climbing, as Frederique Baumgartner writes, "signified both an effort to overcome an obstacle and an affirmation of free will" and as her physical self was being awakened, so would the viewer be from "an artificial sleep." The structuring of the documentary photographs, as well as their number and their repetitive nature, stresses the temporality of the performance and how Pane's suffering grew over time. The photographs reenact her suffering in order to "encourage identification of Pane's own body with the viewer's so that the viewer's return to consciousness would grow." Hopefully, then, the viewer consuming media images of the Vietnam War would be shaken and awakened to the trauma.
In The Conditioning Pane enters a room with a metal bedframe positioned over two rows of burning candles. She lies fully clothed atop the frame and does not move or speak. She commented later, "needless to say, the pain started right away and was very difficult to dominate." The evidence of the pain was in the wringing of her hands, which the audience could clearly see. When the event was over, she stood up and softly caressed her skin, explaining, "When, half an hour later, I was able to get up, I caressed my body very gently. There was no violence; my body hurt but I could feel my touch."
The documentation of this piece is scant compared to her later works, but the images that do exist "demand mental and emotional engagement with the sensate experience. In this way they recall the live [action]," as curator Jennifer Blessing writes. Critic Sam Johnson states, "the candles and the bed suggested ideas of sexual love and pleasure, the manner in which Pane positioned her body around these objects caused harm and surreptitiously threw up questions around the fixed notions of pleasure and pain." Pane uses her body as a stand-in for the sexual violence often experienced by women in the bed and in the world at large. Her pain reverberates through the audience and the viewers of the documentary images, opening up a psychic space for the recognition of the universal body-in-pain.