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O.C. ART REVIEW : Looking at Life, Culture and Death From Rite Angles

July 05, 1994|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the key features of contemporary art is that it is meant to be "completed" by the thoughts of an intuitive and knowledgeable viewer.

Unfortunately, many museum visitors don't feel adequate to the task. But when an exhibition deals with the traditions surrounding birth, coming of age, marriage and death, suddenly everyone's an involved "expert."

Granted, on a purely visual level, "Rites of Passage in America: Traditions of the Life Cycle"--at the Fullerton Museum Center through Aug. 14--is pretty much your standard-issue didactic presentation.

Organized by the Balch Institute for Ethnographic Studies in Philadelphia, the show consists of four walk-in booths stocked with photographs, costumes, accouterments (ranging from a prayer shawl worn by a boy at his bar mitzvah to a pocket-watch chain made from the braided hair of a deceased person) and a few videos of actual ceremonies.

But rather than operating on the lazy assumption that the beliefs and behavior of every member of an ethnic or religious group are identical, the show focuses on specific individuals who follow or adapt traditions to suit their own needs. (The catalogue enlarges on this approach, with numerous "case histories" that demonstrate, among other things, how traditionally "male" ceremonies have been modified to include females.)

What makes "Rites of Passage" truly compelling, however, is the fact that we all have directly relevant personal experiences to compare and contrast.

My moment came when I saw a photograph of a troubled-looking young Hmong man standing beside the hospital bed of an elderly woman whose face is cruelly disfigured by tubes and bandages.

According to the text, the Hmong believe that "any intrusion into the body at the time of death provides a conduit for evil"--a viewpoint painfully at odds with modern hospital procedures.

I saw in place of that elderly woman the face of my own mother, who quietly battled various forms of cancer for 20 years. Surrounded by diverse images of death and mourning, I relived the anguish of watching her die and the incredibly sad, frank and funny moments of the ceremony my family devised to honor her memory. (Related story, above.)

Not surprisingly, the most affecting images in "Rites of Passage" are the ones that seem to be transformative or at least deeply meaningful to the people portrayed.

In a video showing moments from an Apache girl's "sunrise ceremonial"--a public rite marking the onset of menstruation--the girl has a rapt expression on her face as she leads her godparents to a ceremonial tepee where she is visited by "mountain spirits" in tall headdresses, blessed by the community, has her face painted with sacred clay and runs around a bonfire symbolizing the gods' release of all troubles to the four winds, before returning to the camp alone.

Compare this to the ritual of being herded into a junior high school A-V room with only the female members of your class in order to watch a cloying movie called something like, "Your Special Day," in which a wide-eyed teen-ager has an unbelievably perky conversation with her TV-housewife clone mother.

Other memorable public ceremonies excerpted in the show include a videotaped mehendi party (wedding shower). A Pakistani bride-to-be living in New York sits among a large group of clapping female friends while her hands and feet are painted by an expert with squirts of henna creating delicate lacy designs. (Traditionally, the rest of the bride's body would be veiled in fabric.)

Even if the strict purpose of the ceremony has lost its relevance, the embracing communal feeling it evoked seems well worth the effort.

One of the warmest moments in the show is the shot of a young blond man in Cambodian dress smiling up at his mother--a dead ringer for Doris Day--as she ties ritual strings on the wrists of his Cambodian bride.

(The couple, who also had a Baptist wedding, put their own spin on tradition by minimizing the role that alcohol usually plays in the Cambodian ceremony and substituting candy for the usual cigarette favors.)

A 1929 silent home movie of a wedding unwittingly recalls the era before the video revolution turned happy events into intrusively over-documented ordeals.

We see the bridal veil being adjusted in a garden, shiny black cars disgorging formally dressed guests, people entering the church, and then--cut!--we're at the outdoor wedding feast where the athletic bride jokingly wields her cake knife like a ceremonial sword.

To be sure, we never would know about the Apache coming-of-age ceremony had it not been faithfully documented on video. (The problem of intrusiveness--whether the transgressor is a single outside observer or a crew of camera operators--has always dogged ethnographic studies.) But in this instance the camera keeps a respectful distance that seems to give everyone as much breathing room as possible.

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