Ritual Alchemy: On Rabyn Blake’s Mudpool
Splatter. Plop. Plop. Plop. A dribble of thick liquid spatters down into a growing mound of silver sludge. Then the scene changes and we see insects, a toad, and other small life-forms sitting patiently as their ecosystem awakens. The ground begins to move as human bodies slowly start churning liquid earth into a slurry of dirt that coats their skins. This is how Rabyn Blake’s revolutionary video artwork Mudpool (1976) begins.
The work is as sensual as it is strange. As the eight-minute black-and-white video progresses, we see figures emerging out of a primordial soup, then resubmerging their naked bodies in the silky mud. A reclining man sits up in the sunken pool, syrupy mud pouring down over his face and through his long hair and beard. The camera pans closer, closer, as corporeal forms roll and tumble, their movements and shapes evocative of concrete mixers, classical reliefs, lovers in bed, slow-motion mud wrestling. We can feel the suction as the thick liquid blanket sleeves over their trunks and limbs. It is strange in its uncanny familiarity; it feels both timeless and ancient. We are watching Mother Earth devour bodies and return them to their origins. It is burial and rebirth. It is an attempt to bond the body with the elements of water and earth. It is ritual alchemy.
Understanding the context of Mudpool has been, for me, like picking through the tufts of a floor carpet, searching for small crumbs that escaped the oblivion of time—the great existential vacuum cleaner. Very few of Blake’s artworks are extant. Next to nothing is archived online, and the community of people who knew her is fading away. The lack of information plagues much early video work, and of course most performative and participatory happenings that were experiential and pre-internet. It is also no surprise that Blake’s work has not received greater acknowledgement in what was (and is still) a male-dominated field.
In many ways I can only experience Mudpool as a stranger. But, bit by bit, I have been learning about the artist and her work through a series of synchronicities, as if she is guiding me by messages whispered through the ether. I first heard about her during the pandemic, while—like many people—I maximized my downtime with my nose in a book. As part of a different research for my own art practice, I happened upon a reference to WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing (1976–81). As I am particularly interested in bathing practices, “gourmet bathing” sounded downright tantalizing, and I went quickly down the rabbit hole, seeking more information about this special piece of Los Angeles art history and about Rabyn Blake.
Developed and published by artist Leonard Koren, WET sought to explore this evasive and provocative—indeed absurdist-sounding—concept, treating it as both delightfully ridiculous and at times a serious inquiry. It was birthed in Los Angeles and was both a child of the burgeoning beach culture and a design trendsetter (its synthesis of art and bathing was in fact influential in the development of Hamam).
The fifth issue, released in winter 1977, featured an interview with Blake entitled “Mud Mama” and a cover photograph of two figures spooning in her mud pit, shot by Guy Webster. This issue is one of the few venues I’ve found where Blake’s words and mud-related work are documented, and it’s only available on eBay or at repositories like LACMA’s Research Library. Bodies bathing in mud pits were certainly in alignment with the magazine’s philosophy of gourmet bathing as described by Charlie Haas in the May–June 1979 issue:
Scattered throughout California there are certain latter-day saints—a dangerous number of whom seem to be artists, photographers, or writers—who seem to get the joke of gourmet bathing without having it explained. Which is fortunate, because the concept is so evanescent and mercurial that to attempt explanation is to risk overkill. . . . Then again: gourmet bathing is a willingness to be silly (along with being naked and loose)—it is, even, a science of silliness. . . . Gourmet bathing is a watertight case for the beneficial impact of sensuality on human affairs.
Blake lived and worked in Topanga, a mountain town just north of Los Angeles known for attracting musicians, hippies, and health gurus with a penchant for communal, naked healing practices. It takes twenty-five minutes (on a good day) to drive into Topanga via the narrow, curvy road that turns inland from the Pacific Coast Highway. Access is limited simply through inconvenience, which is perfect for the Topangans who want their privacy and to “live and let live.”
In the 1970s, Topanga was literally and figuratively very open and free, with few fences but numerous trails for people to get from place to place on horseback. Alternative lifestyles abounded, and everything was funky. Right at home there, Blake was an artist, environmental activist, and naturopathy practitioner who transformed a former horse corral in her backyard into a mud pit, which was used for mud bathing rituals as well as part of her art practice.
Blake’s mud pit was two to four feet deep and seven feet in diameter, and was excavated by her lifelong friend and artistic assistant, David Allan. The dirt he removed was sifted through smaller and smaller screens to remove twigs and pebbles before being returned to the pit. “I then added water and mixed it well until it felt something like wallowing in chocolate pudding. Very satisfying,” said Allan in our recent email exchange. The pit was maintained by adding water (and a couple of cups of bleach every week or two) and stirring to aerate the mud. Blake described the mud pit as “a sculptural environment incorporating us an inanimate sculpture . . . a social earthwork”—a combination of painting, sculpture, and dance that was both a sensual experience and a ritual for holistic well-being. Of her friend David, she observed: “He enters the pool on his back, head first as though he were about to receive communion.”
Blake’s backyard hosted artist gatherings, mud pit happenings (including a WET “Mud Matinée” circa 1976), and poetry readings. The artist was a generous host, and she began documenting bodies slurping around with her Sony Portapak video camera, purchased with borrowed funds. Throughout the mid-1970s, Blake captured friends, her husband and children, and other artists encased by and churning in the mud pit, leading up to her revolutionary artwork Mudpool.
Blake was a pioneer in video art at a time when many Los Angeles art school faculty were still resisting the then-new medium, still preferring traditional painting and sculpture. This meant that the Long Beach Museum of Art, or the “Vatican for Video,” as Blake affectionately called it, was an especially important facilitator for video artworks; it exhibited, collected, and broadcast them, and rented equipment to artists. Two of Blake’s videos, including Mudpool, were included in the fourth installment of the Southland Video Anthology’s six-part survey exhibition that the museum organized in 1975 and continued into 1977. Those works are now archived for posterity at the Getty Research Institute. Blake was indeed in good company; the other featured artists included now-titans Eleanor Antin, Chris Burden, Barbara Smith, Suzanne Lacy, Nam June Paik, Lynda Benglis, Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari, and Paul McCarthy. The significance of this collection can’t be understated; it is a time capsule of the dawn of a new era in the visual arts. And any reader today will immediately register the significant proportion of women artists in the list. Blake’s stepdaughter Nadia Lili offered a credible theory in her 2016 article about Blake: “Women were represented more equally in video, perhaps as the absence of master canon offered a kind of freedom coinciding with that era of feminism.”
Yet despite this good company, Blake’s work is relatively unknown today. The familiar challenges of being a woman artist and a mother, as well as filling the roles of community organizer and activist, perhaps contributed to her lack of greater recognition. Blake’s artwork was deeply connected to her love and respect for the Earth and sense of loss and urgency regarding its preservation. She was a staunch environmental activist, and I can readily imagine that her political efforts competed for her time in the studio. In a 2007 artist statement she mused: “The artist experiences creation flowing, sometimes wrested, from her imagination. Will we act upon divine inspiration from that great source—the human imagination—and attract forces to rescue the earth? There is finite time for accomplishing this work as we glide to the final destination.”
Blake—protector, mother, and watchdog—was known to walk around with a Geiger counter, ferreting out plutonium contamination. A respectful connection to the Earth was for her imperative, and the mud bath gains new significance in this light. It was an opportunity to commune and become one with nature quite literally, immersing the body in its warm arms. And of course, beyond an intriguing activity for artists and a groovy party scene for hippies, mud bathing has many recognized health and hygiene benefits utilized by cultures going back thousands of years. Cleopatra reputedly maintained her beautiful skin through bathing in Dead Sea mud, with its twenty-one minerals.
The most obvious reason today for indulging in a mud bath is the benefit to the skin. Innumerable day spas include some form of mud experience on the menu, whether a mask or full-body submersion. The minerals in mud, which may include sodium, bromine, sulfur, potassium, and magnesium, exfoliate and smooth our outermost layer. Its anti-inflammatory properties alleviate ailments such as arthritis and joint pain, and are believed by many to help with even deeper pains such as PTSD, digestive issues, fevers, and infections.
In the past year and a half, the ubiquitous hand sanitizers and germ-killing alcohol wipes at every store entrance have made quite a dent in our healthy microbiome. The dirt in our yards, parks, gardens, and natural spaces is host to millions of microbes that are beneficial for human health. They enter our systems via our food and our pores to create a rich ecosystem of good bacteria and other microorganisms. Mud, such a seemingly simple combination of earth and water, is anything but. Soaking our bodies in its properties brings life into our systems. Regarding the melding of art and practice, Blake quoted Philip Booth: “I strongly feel that every poem, every work of art, everything that is well made, well said, generously given, adds to our chances of survival by making the world and our lives more habitable.”
Viewing Mudpool in 2021 feels both like unearthing an ancient script and also like simply watching a contemporary performance work. While recognition was never Blake’s primary goal, I think she would have welcomed more acknowledgment prior to her passing in 2018. Remnants of her life and practice remain, but far more of her story is lost, reminding me yet again that I am a stranger here.
Blake explained in the 1977 WET interview that in most languages, the words for “earth” and “matter” stem from the words for the big mama: mater or matar. Mudpool ends with two figures lying in the grass, coated in mud that dries out into a cakey skin through an editing move that alternately expands and compresses time. The bodies are returning to the earth. Sleeping. Awaiting another awakening, another rebirth from the warm womb of Mother Earth, from the Mud Mama.
* Unless otherwise attributed, all quotes come from Nadia Lili, “Rabyn Blake,” Artillery, January 5, 2016, https://artillerymag.com/rabyn-blake/, or “Mud Mama” (interview with Rabyn Blake), WET Magazine, February–March 1977, 12–15. See also the exhibition catalogue for Echoes: Women Inspired by Nature (Santa Ana, CA: Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 2007).
Magazine Spreads courtesy Hamam Magazine, Issue 5: Strange
Pages from WET Magazine, Mr. and Mrs. Allan C. Balch Art Research Library, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, digital images courtesy of LACMA/Museum Associates