“In John Sturgeon’s Conjunction/Opposition II a number of binary relationships are dramatically developed from various conditions of antimony or incomplete order into harmony and balance. The primary terms are sexual, and at the center of the work is the male consciousness’ attempt to accommodate the complementary but opposite forms of the female. The sexual relationships invoked are however not primarily social or personal (though they certainly incorporate these), but rather the dominant metaphors by which essential structures of human consciousness in general may be phrased. Appropriately then the basic oppositions and conjunctions are projected in images recruited from other symbolic languages which have historically been the means of deep psychological investigation (such as alchemy, astrology and Egyptian mythology) as well as from the more personal resource of Sturgeon’s own dreams. Using these languages, Sturgeon develops proliferating patterns of antithesis (e.g. square/triangle; desert/water; personal/public; temporal/timeless), rich in both the density of their internal cross-reference and in the texture of their separate occurrence, which parallel and amplify the basic sexual metaphors of the piece.
As a result, the piece presents several different kinds of problems to its spectators. On the one hand, it is extremely literary in that within the different vocabularies used – not only those of the magical traditions but also those of drama, video, dance and sculpture – the iconographical and symbolic references are both extremely precise and also largely recondite. Which is to say that since aspects of the piece speak in languages that are no more current in the art world than among the population at large, a substantial element of it requires detailed interpretation. On the other hand, Sturgeon’s use of esoteric languages is, for want of a better word, extremely sensual, and though a response to the piece which is simply sensuous and intuitive cannot finally be adequate, nevertheless such a response can be both satisfying and coherent.
Like the dream – a primary art form that is constantly invoked – the piece draws the spectator imaginatively into its world and also presents information that can be rationally considered. The recurrence of elemental, archetypal motifs, the evocation of ritual in the choreography and the unpredictability of the action generated both the emotionally charged atmosphere and the intense perceptual presence of dream. But the same elements which produce this overall enrapture themselves have very specific meanings. At the beginning of the piece, for example, Sturgeon enters the polyethylene tent, an energy center which is the thematic and spatial focal point of the performance and the means whereby transitions of all kinds are made. Passing through a triangular slit in the tent he approaches a large, square black mat, one of the piece’s four major performance areas. With a piece of white chalk, he draws a circle around a black cloth on the mat. Removing the cloth reveals a woman (Aysha Quinn) who rises, and the two performers draw a series of signs around the circumference of the circle. They knot together two strings which run from a triangular glass beaker and a pitcher positioned on opposite sides of the circle, pick up the two containers, walk around the circle and then re-enter the tent.
Already, even an uninitiated spectator has many points of access available. An immediate sense of conjunction is established by the male’s awakening of the female, and one’s own recognition of this conjunction may be extended to include a sense of the symbolic function of the beaker and the pitcher, a sense of the implications of their being united across the circle, and possibly a sense of some further significance of the male and female dancing around the circle. At this point one is in a position to begin to incorporate the sensuous, intuitive response into some larger analytic pattern. But what the spectator cannot know is that the marks made around the circle form a chart of the constellations of the planets at the time of Sturgeon’s birth and of their positions on the day of the performance. What appeared as merely a ritual action, satisfying by virtue of its design, is for Sturgeon a means of symbolically placing himself in the present, of setting his own ‘astrological clock.’ This opening section thus does more than establish a mood; it establishes the terms in which the performance will operate and also establishes Sturgeon’s own position within them.
As such, this introduction supplies a lexicon of basic elements which the piece as a whole analyzes in greater detail. Upon re-entering the tent, the two figures remove their clothes and subsequently they explore the issues and the materials which have been introduced. Quinn, for example, takes the beaker and places it on a stove in the middle of a circular bath of water activated by dry ice. During the performance, the water in the beaker eventually comes to a steady boil, again one responds sensuously, to the mingling of the ‘essence’ of the beaker’s content with the steam from the ice, or to the contrast between the firs and the water. But one can also be aware that these elements maintain and continue in both their form and their content, the dialectics introduced in the opening scene.
Other parts of the piece are similarly specific in developing the motifs introduced at the beginning. At one point, for example, Sturgeon draws a series of smaller squares and triangles inside another of the square mats. Watching him, we are aware of certain visual puns and also perhaps of the contrast between the severely angular shapes of his design and the more fluent, organic forms of the materials that Quinn is simultaneously employing. But when we know that Sturgeon’s diagram is of an Egyptian locational devise which in the 16th century became a standard matrix for astrological charts, then we are able to perceive his act as one of more than graphic or choreographic significance. Later when Quinn, standing inside a polyethylene obelisk, breaks a piece of clay into four parts and hands the parts to Surgeon, we are aware of a number of textural ands spatial interactions; her nude body is strangely luminous inside the tent, and as she breaks the clay we may more of less have some articulate sense of a primal earth goddess passing Adamic clay to a male who puts it is order. But these intuitions are considerably enriched when we know that the clay is more than a material; it is also a writing tablet of a kind, for on it are inscribed certain important planetary conjunctions which Sturgeon must position very specifically for his statement to become coherent.
All parts of the piece have this in common, then: while their initial appeal is to the intuitive, the pre-rational, they lead the spectator beyond this level of apprehension to one of highly specific statement. The parts are gradually articulated into the recurrent patterns which we recognize as characteristic of language.
By using his languages to signify in relation to a world apart from themselves, Sturgeon’s primary accomplishment in Conjunction/Opposition II is to introduce the spectator to a reality which, while not autonomous, is nevertheless more profoundly real than the experience of either logic or materialism. By investigating the personal on the level it does, his work becomes more than personal, for the areas he explores and represents are those where the differences of our individual and private histories are submerged in the universal human. At the end of the piece, the male and the female figures meet and, facing each other, place their hands successively on the other’s forehead, heart, solar-plexus and genitals. This dance for arms and bodies, symbolically marking the resolution of those tensions which have organized and shaped the piece, also marks the unification of all parts of the human body and mind into one harmoniously interacting entity. As such, it signals the completion of the piece and the completion of our entry into the world in which the meeting takes place. By virtue of the insistence – the coherence and the intensity – of its affirmation of this level of existence where we all meet as equals, the piece as a whole transcends self-reference and produces a context for itself that is, finally, metaphysical.
In this way Sturgeon’s art may appear as radically un-Modern. For while the formal characteristics of Modernism (multi-locational perspectives, open form, non-linear construction, temporal displacement, etc.) are used, the teleology of Modernism is subverted, its techniques not used reflexively or as a means of exploring the nature of the piece’s materials, but rather as a means of ontological affirmation. While the experience of Conjunction/ Opposition II is then initially one of radical dis-place-ment, it can lead to a re-place-ment, a coming home to the place from which all journey’s begin and to which they inexorably return.”
“The two performances of Conjunction/Opposition (1976-77) serve as catalogues of Sturgeon’s ideas, as they represent a synthesis of figurative subject matter and formalist attitudes only now on a large scale. Thematically the narrative remains the same as the Trilogy (1975-76), with the addition of a few signs and symbolic references. The work gains strength from the particular uses of sound and video, together with the introduction of spoken language. Our ability to perceive the overall spatial reality of the work is altered by the isolated specific details of the drama contained within a succession of video images. Through the mixing of live and pre-recorded images Sturgeon distorts our sense of time and space. The performances engage the spectator in questions concerning his position in front of the picture plane, an issue that has faced artists throughout the twentieth century. That is not to imply that Sturgeon, as with many other contemporary artists, is applying a new technique to ‘maintain continuity with the modernist intentions of the rest of the visual media’.* To the contrary, we are not asked to comprehend a parody of abstraction, but to confront our hierarchical frame of references. Innovative work forces us to establish new terminology and redefine our descriptive methods to correspond to the new object of our attention. In Conjunction/Opposition II the texts not only serve as aesthetic devices but also provide reference to the importance of language within the work. In this way John Sturgeon pays homage to the origins of his questioning.”