Tatiana Berg speaks to performance artist Anya Liftig about the embarrassment and humor inherent in her work—and what it feels like to lick a cactus.
On Friday night in Bushwick, a crowd drinking three-buck-chuck out of plastic cups stands watching a woman carefully lift a large cactus and place it onto a silky red tabletop. After giving the audience a deadpan stare, she lovingly turns to the cactus, places her lipsticked mouth onto its thorny surface, and gently fellates it. The room instantly breaks into a collective, hysterical giggle and then trails off, quietly fascinated. We are at the Grace Space, it is open bar, and we are watching artist Anya Liftig perform her latest piece, entitled Produce/Procreate.
Molly Lambert recently said, "There is literally nothing worse than bad theater, but when theater accomplishes its goals it is one of the most transcendent experiences life permits.” This is overwhelmingly true of performance art as well. The potential for collective embarrassment is inherent in the exquisite agony of watching any live performer, with humor (and sometimes an open bar) often the only thing making the entire absurd practice bearable. Anya Liftig’s painfully funny work deftly provokes that state between laughter and sheer mortification.
I previously interviewed Anya Liftig for BOMBlog following her infiltration performance The Anxiety of Influence, where she showed up at the MoMA dressed as a Marina Abramovi? clone, sitting across from her doppelganger all day. Checking in on her work almost a year later, I asked her to speak with me about Protect/Procreate, and the role humor and embarrassment plays in contemporary performance.
Tatiana Berg So you and fellating objects! I’ve noticed you’ve repeated this action with other objects in your previous work, making out with a large fish, a stick of butter, and going to town on a tree, for example. Can you talk about where this originated from, and how it has become a repeated action in your work?
Anya Liftig Yeah, I do fellate a lot of objects! In my head, I think of it more as “making out.” The first reason for this is that I went to high school and college in CT and New England Yankees are into prudish euphemisms and secondly, I am attempting to connect with these objects. For me, human experience is essentially lonely. It is so hard to break out of our own minds and bodies and reach out to each other. In many ways, the inanimate and natural world is much more friendly, even though it can’t “love” us back by giving us heart-shaped candy boxes and diamond rings. (Blech to all that anyway).
As far as the licking and sucking, the mouth is an enormous instrument for obtaining knowledge. As a child, you learn about the world by sticking objects in your mouth and slobbering on them. Dogs can tell whether something is safe for them to eat by testing the food in their mouth. Inserting objects into the mouth is a very primal, very dangerous action. Clearly, it is also one that is very sexual. Yet, while it may lead to a reproductive act, licking is in and of itself, an anticipatory gesture. One that often requires complete selflessness. The mouth and tongue are another way to know more about the world and I always want to know more about the world.
TB So why a cactus this time?
AL Well, a cactus is a really stupid thing to put your mouth on–like putting your hand on a stove or walking on hot coals. After an instant, you should figure out that it is a terrible idea and retreat. However, a cactus is also beautiful and it wears its thorns for protection. It is a smart, evolved plant—safeguarding its precious resources. It has built a wall around itself, much like a person does when they feel vulnerable. I really empathize with cacti: we both have clear boundaries and we are both alive. Oh, and this cactus really looked like a huge penis. So that was cool.
TB LOL. I’m wondering how you chose those props for your performance—the tablecloth, your lipstick, the actual cactus. Do you find yourself already conscious of the creation of the photograph as document as you begin a piece?
AL Most of my formal visual art training is in photography and in graduate school, I studied it co-currently with performance, so I think that at some basic level, they are inextricably linked. When I am thinking about a piece, I never consciously think about what the photographic result might be. For a long time, I shot my own performance documentation. That was sort of a nightmare. It took a long time for me to trust that other people were able to see what was going on better than I could. The people who have made the best photographs of my performance work are very close friends, because they understand my impulses.
TB To what extent is the aesthetic an impetus for your work, as opposed to the performance or action? Where does the idea originate?
AL It’s just an impulse. It’s just a desire to know something. What does that thing feel like? What would doing X be like? I think about what Garry Winogrand said when he was asked why he photographed. He responded, “I photograph to see what things look like photographed.” When I was a photography student, I never understood that. I was obsessed with the Cartier-Bresson notion that you photograph to preserve a “decisive moment.” But once I started performing, I understood exactly what Winogrand meant. It is a sense of exploration. The feeling that in art, you can do whatever you want. You can be whomever you choose. You give yourself permission to experiment with every material. It is just my personality that I have impulses to do things that seem really goofy.
TB Over time I’ve come to really value how freaking funny your work often is. I felt like you have an extremely successful control over the audience’s reactions with your pacing, eye contact, mugging for the camera, and the slow, deliberate narrative you established. You’re being confrontational, but also entertaining, which is generous of you. Is getting your audience to laugh a goal of this performance?
AL You know, most of the time, I am just exposing my own weird sense of humor, and performance is just a manifestation of that inner weirdo. So I am always cracking myself up. I think it may be taboo to say, because I think that the sense is that performers are supposed to go to any length for their audience, but I really feel like in my best work, viewers see me indulge that inner freakster, without reservations.
TB So does it bother you when no one laughs?
AL The inner freakster spends most of the day with no one laughing, so…no. It bothers me when people say, “I have a cousin who is also a mime.”
TB Did those needles hurt? I’m talking about how funny you were, but it was simultaneously excruciating to watch.
AL All these pieces are uncomfortable or painful in some way. But when I am performing, I never really think about it. I know it is going to happen ahead of time, I know that I am going to be the person in control of it, therefore, any pain I experience is really just my own creation. Two days later when I went to the doctor to get blood drawn, I cried like a baby. It is all relative.
TB I overheard an onlooker say, “Maybe she should have hurt herself more,” which makes me wince, but doesn’t really surprise me. Do you feel like sometimes contemporary performance has become an exercise in rubbernecking for the audience? I can’t tell anymore.
AL I think that all performance artists, when they start to figure out their concerns and aesthetic interests and really commit to the medium, have to contend with whether they want to work with violence or nudity. Many test it out to see if it feels right. It is part of finding your voice. Certainly, when you take your body as your instrument, violence is going to be an option. I think that it is no longer a surprise if someone does hurt themselves during a performance. Conversely, the absence of violence can surprise people. Just because it is violent doesn’t mean it is good and just because you are naked doesn’t mean it is good. It took me a long time to learn that.
TB While watching Rafael Sanchez perform earlier that evening, I remember you saying to me, “This is what I love about performance—it’s pure play.” It made me suddenly conscious of the fact that here we were, a group of adults huddled together on Friday night watching a man playing in a sandbox. I found I was enjoying myself more after that. Are you playing when you perform?
AL I am definitely playing. I am a child playing with adult toys and ideas. My impulses are very basic, very young. I am not bothered by things going wrong, I am confident in my actions. I am confident that play, that exploration is a valuable activity. It takes me a long time to trust my voice, my voice is always metaphorically “cracking” but when I get up the courage to trust my inner freakster, I am completely confident that my vision of the world as an upside-down cake is valid. Otherwise, I would not get up in front of people.
TB Are you also deliberately provoking our collective embarrassment in doing so?
AL Provoking embarrassment is an essential activity. It forces you to question your morals. How will you behave if something does go wrong? How will you react? Is your thinking in line with your actions? Are your mind and body aligned? My favorite pieces, the ones that I feel are most successful, are where you initially laugh at something I do because it is ridiculous, or looks outrageous, but over time, your reaction changes, you become uncomfortable, revolted, angry, horny. Why does she go on doing this? What is wrong with her? Should I laugh? Should I tell her to stop? How do I act? I am still going on about my business, but the viewer looks inward.
Tatiana Berg is a painter and one of BOMBlog’s art editors. Her work can be seen here.
You can find out more about Anya Liftig and her body of work on her website.