Performance artist Linda Montano, curious about the influence childhood experience has on adult work, invited other performance artists to consider how early events associated with sex, food, money/fame, or death/ritual resurfaced in their later work. The result is an original and compelling talking performance that documents the production of art in an important and often misunderstood community.
Among the more than 100 artists Montano interviewed from 1979 to 1989 were John Cage, Suzanne Lacy, Faith Ringgold, Dick Higgins, Annie Sprinkle, Allan Kaprow, Meredith Monk, Eric Bogosian, Adrian Piper, Karen Finley, and Kim Jones. Her discussions with them focused on the relationship between art and life, history and memory, the individual and society, and the potential for individual and social change. The interviews highlight complex issues in performance art, including the role of identity in performer-audience relationships and art as an exploration of everyday conventions rather than a demonstration of virtuosity.
Performance Artists Talking in the Eighties
Part Three: MONEY/FAMEInterivew with Eleanor Antin Montano: Your characters are heroes and heroines, famous people with missions, performing all kinds of fabulous moral deeds--the ballerina, the nurse, the king. Their visions are large. Did you have dreams of being famous as a young person?
Antin: As a kid I was always dreaming about being great people. Many great people. When I read about some hero marching through a city in triumph--after saving it, of course, not conquering it--the tears would roll down my face. And when an audience applauded a performer after years of despising her, I would get all choked up. The pleasure of victory was painful. It hurt. Kids are like that, I think, aren't they? Like all helpless groups, they dream of victory, of power.
I also had this fantasy that I would give up my life--be dead even--if only I could go back in time and spy on the dead people I read about in books. I would be invisible; they wouldn't see me. But I would watch Keats die, walk with Michelangelo through stony Gothic streets, watch Cleopatra making it with her slaves. I was jealous of the past. I would think, "How dare it exist without me?" On the other hand, if I had been born in ancient Greece, I would be dead already, and that was something of an advantage to a scared kid. I had so many complexes; I was a classic case of everything. But if I had lived already, I wouldn't have to go through the trouble of living anymore. I wouldn't have to go out and look for a job. I wouldn't have to study for classes. My life would be safely over, and it would have been a great one--that was certain. If I had lived in ancient Greece or in Charlemagne's castle, my life would have been terrific. I would have been a great queen or savior maybe. Or some kind of artist. Somewhere back in my childhood came my first desire to be an artist. But I had a misfortune. I had more than one talent. I could write, dance, act, paint, draw. I flitted from one to another. Just another proof that I was neurotic, said those analysts I was always going to, but I held out against them. There was this light in me; I could feel it. Sometimes I thought I saw it. It had something to do with art.
Montano: Now you've brought all of your interests together and do performances as historical characters. How do you find characters to portray?
Antin: First, I have to find my time period. Before the representation can emerge, I have to find a style to receive them, to make them happen. Teaching here at UCSD [the University of San Diego] is great because I have the library. I take out hundreds of books. Sometimes I go wrong. After several months I may see that I'm in the wrong time frame. No problem. It was fun. Probably something will remain. When I did Antinova's ballet Before the Revolution, I studied the great revolutions, the French and the Russian. I live out in the country, and I would sit there on the porch hanging out over the canyons of sagebrush and chaparral, reading biographies of nasty cavaliers or administrative reports on the murky conditions of roads after taxes in eighteenth-century Amiens. Out of this work my representations will come. At first they're shadows. I move toward them, and they come toward me. We are careful, polite. We don't know each other yet. Then there are recognitions, surprise appearances, emergences. I recognize a stance, a petulance. We come together. I change. We come together. Myself and myself.
Montano: How do you feel about becoming famous while representing the famous?
Antin: Antinova isn't famous. She's been forgotten by history. Her friends are dead. Her art discourse is gone. Because she was black and a woman, history dropped her. She remembers having been a famous artist and then she wakes up one morning to find nobody knows her anymore. Only she's still alive. Recollections of My Life with Diaghilev is about that. A handful of artists are adopted by history while the others are dropped. History is perverse, random, and mercenary. It creates these freaks--like Picasso. Where would he have been without that fantastic intellectual, creative scene of artists, writers, musicians, dancers? Nowhere, that's where! The famous freak show of traditional academic art is a lie. The natural condition of the artists is loneliness and random persecution.
Montano: Was fame difficult for you?
Antin: I never knew I had it--I worry about the future. It's out there waiting to do me in. Like all artists, I worry that my work will disappear. Now, they're redoing those early constructivist pieces. They look like ghosts, those revivals. Like disembodied creatures torn loose from their surroundings. Like Rip Van Winkle.
Montano: Writing a book about your work helps?
Antin: Yes, I had to write that book. It's about that life performance when I lived as the black ballerina for three weeks. It's an attempt to take hold of the transitory, to arrest it for a moment before it disappears forever. That's why I kept the journal in the first place. Because life slips away from you. Without the journal I would have been like poor Antinova--a ghost. So even if a lot of my friends hate me for violating their privacy by putting them in my book, I'm glad I did it. It was worth it. I've forced my memories on the world.
Montano: Tibetan Buddhists have a spiritual mythology that teaches the participant to merge with their gods and goddesses. And after the visualization of merging, they suggest that you dissolve yourself along with the mythological figures. Are you working on past lives? Does that relate to your work?
Antin: Once someone called me the Bridie Murphy of the art world.
Montano: Have you discovered other ways of defining fame?
Antin: I think about greatness, not fame. I want to do great things. That idea of Andy Warhol's of being famous for fifteen minutes is repulsive. The idea of fame is repulsive. I want to save the world. My king is always trying to lead armies to the promised land. And he always loses. Maybe that's why people don't like him very much. He's a loser. They think he's stupid. Who is this hippie king coming on like a ham actor in a third-rate stock company? So how else would they save the world? Do they have a better way?
Montano: Has there been anything that hasn't been comfortable about the place you've achieved?
Antin: What place is that? You never wake up in the same place twice. Who can say they've achieved anything? You bend down to tie your shoe and you get run down by a kid stealing a grocery cart.
Montano: In order to say that education doesn't matter, it's important to have had one. And in order to move beyond fame, it's important to have first had it, to be famous. Is that true for you or true at all?
Antin: Ted Berrigan once said, "I want to be a famous poet before I become a good one." Both wishes were granted. He became a famous one, and then he became a good one. Who knows if he's famous now, but he's still a good one. I don't think it's fame we need. What we need is a space, a public space into which we can put our work so that it can do its work. Nobody gives it to you. You have to grab it for yourself. And hold on to it, so the cumulative effect of your work may finally help you to be understood. And then you owe something to this child of yours, this work that never lets you rest. My definition of an artist is someone who never goes on vacation. And the larger the space you have to work in, the more people will be touched by you. Maybe.
I'm a political person. I've always wanted to change the world. There's this old piece of mine, a king piece, The Battle of the Bluff. I probably held on to it too long. It was time to put away my sweet hippie tale of how I led the old people and the very young people of Solana Beach against the developers and almost won. But I thought it was politically important. I insisted on giving people the message even though they didn't want it anymore. It was about having to keep human communities small. No king should have a kingdom that he couldn't walk through from one end to the other on any given day. Then he could govern by rules that he could change as the real problems and situations come up. He knows everybody, so every problem, every person, is a special case. Everybody is an exception to the rule. Fixed laws are wasteful and unnatural. They violate ecological principles.
I brought my message to a large auditorium in Montreal one Sunday morning. The little audience huddled before the huge apron stage. What were they doing inside on such a warm, sunny day? We were victimized together--they by their original decision to come and me by my appearance on this sleek alien stage. It was a great opportunity for revelation. Later an editor of some Canadian art magazine said, "Oh, she's so naive. She believes that childishness she's saying." What does that mean--I believe that? Of course I believe that. Like Sue Daken running for president on an artist's ticket. Does she believe that the Democratic convention will nominate her? My position as an artist is absurdist and impossible. It is a paradigm for the human condition. I'm a political person. I want to change the world. I began passing the hat around after that performance. Every penny counts.
Eleanor Antin, an artist and filmmaker, has worked for many years in installation, performance, writing, drawing, photography, video, and film. She has had one-woman exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Wadsworth Athenaeum, as well as major installations at the Hirshhorn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Jewish Museum in New York. Her retrospective opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in February 1999. Antin is represented in major collections, has written two books (Being Antinova and Eleanora Antinova Plays), and has written, directed, and produced numerous narrative films, including The Hunger Artist (in collaboration with David Antin). In 1997 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Antin is professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego.
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