If you were a club hopper back in the ’70s and ’80s, you undoubtedly took a journey through the deliciously demented dreamscape of perform ance artist JOHANNA WENT , who tossed around goop-’n’-gore everywhere: at Club Lingerie, the Starwood, Club 88, the ON Klub, the Music Machine, Theoretical parties. She tapped deep and darkly humorous into the visceral — and sometimes into the viscera, with sausages fashioned into intestines — using grotesque inconographic masks, props, costumes and buckets of her special-formula stage blood in her intensely physical shows. She babbled whatever pre-verbal sounds came out of her mouth, a kind of speaking-in-tongues that directly accessed layers of emotions while conveying multiple meanings, all to cacophonic trance music. In short, hers were big, sloppy, stinky, noisy performances that weren’t for those afraid to get a little blood splattered on them. “I have an appreciation for chaos — it’s challenging,” says Johanna. “The chaotic elements represent change. It’s an abstraction of reality, the same as a child daydreaming while look ing out a window and seeing a person walking on the sidewalk, and wondering, ‘What if a car hit that person?’ It’s the imagination running amok.”
“After joining her band,” recalls our colleague Greg Burk, “I saw most Johanna performances from the rear. I was not safe there from the stage blood, which nearly ruined a new suit I foolishly wore. Then I got out my old John Travolta white polyester Saturday Night Fever suit, which she ceremonially baptized with great lashings of blood. I just let the layers of gore build up in future shows. My sax was permanently spattered with red.” Longtime musical collaborator Mark Wheaton routinely had to cover his synthesizers with trash bags.
She shared a bill with Bates Motel and the Plugz at her debut L.A. appearance in 1978 at the Hong Kong Café, and often teamed up with the Dead Kennedys and the Mutants in San Francisco, and with Fear and the Germs down here. “I wasn’t embraced by the art community, but by the music community,” says Johanna, who has also done cameos in indie films such as The Living End and Grief. “The performances that affected me the most were the sweaty little shows at somewhere like Al’s Bar, the places that were really intimate, seedy little joints, where people who didn’t go to galleries were packed in, pushed up against the stage, because they wanted to be there. They were the lively crowd, the ones who understood the value, who could feel the emotional outlet.”
We were chatting with Johanna about her 20-year career — which includes more than 300 shows in the U.S. and Europe, and an investigation by Jesse Helms into an NEA grant she received (the only NEA grant she ever got) — at the opening of “Possessed Possessions: An Installation of Performance Paraphernalia,” an exhibit of objects that have survived Went’s legendarily messy shows, at New Image Art, an artist-run gallery with a DIY enthusiasm (the exhibit runs through April 25). “I spent years of that time cleaning up, making props and hauling them around,” she jokes, noting that it took weeks to create the striking props and costumes — often fashioned from cast-offs found in dumpsters, thrift stores and garage sales — for each performance. “I’d build my shows around dreams, with symbolism and characters. I’d find objects that’d speak to me, and somehow they’d get incorporated into the show. I don’t want to give messages out. The audience could interpret the show itself. I don’t like to rehearse. I like spontaneity. I want to surprise myself as well as the audience.”
None of Went’s early performances was videotaped, though there is a clip from a 1988 piece included in the recently released documentary Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance. “It’s too bad there aren’t tapes,” she says. “Now it’s just memories, but that’s the spirit of what performance art is — it’s about the moment. You can’t capture that spirit, that experience between performer and audience. You can’t put it in a frame, you can’t put it in a lucite box, you can’t sell it. People remember, and that’s the art.”
In 1974, Johanna was working in a pharmacy in Seattle, where she grew up, and spending her eves in underground theaters trying to figure out what she wanted to do. She met Tom Murrin, a.k.a. the Alien Comic, who invited her to join him and his troupe, who’d been putting on all sorts of absurdist shows: Theater for Dogs, Theater That Doesn’t Get in Your Way. She and Tom then hit the road and spent two years crisscrossing the U.S. as The World’s Greatest Theater Company, playing street fairs and small theaters. “I’ve gone from little balloons of blood to gallons of blood,” Went says, recalling a 1976 street performance in New York where she shocked the crowd with a magic-store razor trick that made it appear as if she’d cut her nipples off.
Complications from a broken leg in 1990 have pretty much kept Went from performing for the last few years. While laid up, she began using silk-screening to create lightweight props; she turned the development of that technique into a successful business, creating luxe objects for the home such as lampshades, pillows, tea towels and picture frames under the label Johanna Went Handprints, which is sold nationwide. But she does have a garage full of costumes she’s hoping to get onstage one of these days.
“Part of the payoff for me — I certainly wasn’t making a lot of money from the perform ances, and I was working part-time at a wallpaper warehouse, spending my earnings on shows — was the psychic interaction with the audience, and the dedication and devotion of the audience. That kept me going as I was struggling along. They understood the work, and they cared about it.”
We’re thrilled to announce that JENNIFER TILLY and PATRICIA MANTEROLA are among the hot-hot-hot hosts of the fun-tabulous fund-raiser the L.A. Weekly, the Conga Room and designer EDUARDO LUCERO are throwing to benefit AIDS Healthcare Foundation on Wednesday, May 13 — call (213) 993-3577 for more info . . . The glitterati, including JULIAN SCHNABEL , DENNIS HOPPER , BOB RAFELSON , MICHAEL CIMINO , JOHN SINCLAIR , JEREMY THOMAS and Gwar singer DANYELLE , turned out for the opening of writer-director JERZY SKOLIMOWSKI ’s exhibit of paintings at the Zero One Gallery last Sunday eve (the show runs through May 2) . . . And down the road at the El Rey, little goth heads were swirling and twirling when KEVIN HASKINS , DAVID J. and PETER MURPHY showed up together at Coven 13, prompt ing some to wonder if the long-rumored Bauhaus reunion is about to become a reality, and others to wonder if Daniel Ash’s absence puts the kibosh on such talk.
And that’s the low life — Bela Lugosi is still dead.