A photograph of a person surrounded by loose pages that they have torn from a book with their mouth. They are leaning against a wall, seated on the floor. Their face is entirely obscured by a mouthful of pages. They have shoulder-length brown hair and wear an apron covered in mud.


Beyond the visual: Johanna Hedva’s Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain

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Myrrhia Reed as UNRAVELER in Motherload (2012), CalArts, Santa Clarita, CA. Photo © Wojciech Kosma
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As live arts migrate to the screen, Claire Lefèvre wonders whether a book might more fully register and reawaken the aura of live performance

What do you miss about attending a live performance?

Is it really about seeing something? Or about sensing, imagining, congregating? For me, it is the way goosebumps rise on my forearms when someone’s voice hits a note that pierces right through my bones. Or the scent of cigarette smoke and niche fragrances rushing through my nostrils as I hug my hip artsy friends hello. Or the magical way artificial smoke transforms any black box into an enchanted place.

While it is currently impossible to gather in a dark room with a bunch of savvy strangers, most theatres have switched to online programmes, offering a plethora of digital and mostly free content. Video formats, both live and pre-recorded, seem to be the substitute of choice for theatre and dance performances throughout the Covid-19 catastrophe. However, the monopoly of the visual realm can greatly flatten the multi sensorial experience of spectatorship. Moreover, video documentation isn’t always the best choice to archive more experimental formats such as durational or participative works, which require the kind of focus one can hardly muster from across a screen.

While some viewers are eager for more advanced technologies to replicate the experience of live art, such as 3D glasses and other Virtual Reality experiences, others desire to detach from the digital world all together.: In case you too miss performances but could use a break from staring at your laptop, I recommend Johanna Hedva’s latest book Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain, a razor-sharp and visceral substitute to visiting the theatre in person.

A writer, artist, musician and astrologer living in LA and Berlin, Hedva is well known for their ‘sick woman theory’ essay as well as their performances, their novel On Hell or their widely shared disability access rider. A retrospective of the last 10 years of their work, Minerva feels like a detailed archive, a performance study textbook rich with countless gems on making art, an intimate journal and collection of spells all at once.

Especially striking is the textured and graphic precision with which Hedva depicts past performances. Descriptive paragraphs are juxtaposed with archive photographs, illustrations by Isabelle Albuquerque and blank pages, giving readers plenty of time to breathe and to imagine the work in their minds, to let the words and pictures resonate in their skulls.

A photograph of a blond man with a shaved head holding a plaster sculpture of Johanna Hedva’s face against a wall and kissing it. His eyes are closed. On his neck is a tattoo of a Native American archer pointing an arrow at a star. His fingers and wrists are tattooed with letters and wavering lines, and he wears a ring on his left index finger. Pinned to the white wall around him are pages from the script of Motherload
Clay Gibson as KISSER , in Motherload (2012), CalArts, Santa Clarita, CA. Photo © Wojciech Kosma

When describing their work, Hedva infuses their summary with insight on the intimate, and at times disastrous, relationships they weave with their co-workers – ‘the only performer who’s appeared in all four plays is Claire Kohne. (She and I don’t talk anymore)’ – with tragic personal stories – ‘When I started the Greek cycle I was just divorced, fresh out of the psych ward, and bleeding black dust from a deceased uterus that had killed the only child I’ll ever have’ – and with reflected self-criticism: ‘I wholeheartedly believed that I could make a neutral, ahistoric ground upon which the work could emerge, newborn, pure, limitless. How beautiful and stupid youth is.’ The reader dives right into the creative process with the artist, witnessing the intricate way they weave together personal and political: there is no palatable work-life balance in sight, and this way of shattering the line between what is labour and what is not is possibly what transforms Minerva from a contemplative catalogue to a tender, poignant and radical read.

‘what I needed to make Motherload (an inconclusive list): tragedy, Euripides, Anne Carson, the Noh theatre, lots and lots of paper, being involuntarily hospitalized by a boyfriend, flowers, the history of Western civilization, a miscarriage.’

Blue Quote Mark

It feels like the artist is giving you a guided tour of their brain, showing you where all the memories are stored, where the juices flow, visiting the softest place inside of their bones and exiting through the guts.

Blue Quote Mark

In Minerva, it becomes clear how Hedva’s political essays, which challenge patriarchal, capitalist and ableist systems of oppression, translate in their artistic practice as well: sleep is work, grief is work, healing is work, eroticism is exhausting, heartbreak is as valid as rehearsals in making a project come to life, being joyous in a gender-fluid body is a political protest.

Archiving not only the performances themselves, but also the entire process of making them come to life, Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain feels like the artist is holding your hand gently and giving you a guided tour of their brain, showing you where all the memories are stored, where the juices flow, visiting the softest place inside of their bones and exiting through the guts. Hedva’s book gives a perspective on their performance work that video documentation could never capture: through their vivid recollection of events, they offer a delicately raw glimpse into their practice. By awakening the sensual imagination, it becomes a vivid, embodied experience that takes the reader behind and beyond the scene. And while it may not be live art, but it is nothing short of spectacular. 

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A black book placed on dry rocky soil. On the cover there is a drawing by Isabelle Albuquerque. A human-like figure straddles an ouroboros, a large snaked coiled in a circle, eating its tail. The figure has a hard cock, breasts on both sides of its torso, long black hair, and three faces.

ISBN 978-1-953189-00-4
E-ISBN: 978-1-953189-01-1
September 2020, English, 194 pages, b&w, softcover
Audiobook: 47 tracks, 4 hrs 46 min
Available from Parrhesiades

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