The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Janine Antoni emerged in the early 1990s as an artist capable of reconciling performance with the object, and empowered feminist thinking with post-’80s artworld ambition. She arrived on the scene with Gnaw, two 600 pound minimal cubes (one chocolate, one lard) that she aggressively bit into eroded architectural fragments, using the mouthfuls to generate other objects (45 heart-shaped chocolate packages, and 400 pigmented lipsticks).
By setting up situations that force her lithe body into contact with malleable materials and spaces, she establishes tongue, eyelashes, and hair as evocative replacements for chisels, pencils, and brushes. Her often irreverant activities are kept in check by a loving respect for art history and groundbreaking predecessors, though she does put gestural painting and classical portraiture through the wringer.
Works including Loving Care, Lick and Lather, and Slumber each use Antoni herself as the primary tool, engaged in arduous, repetitive tasks carried out either in eroticized private or candidly public ways. In Slumber (1994), the artist prepares to sleep in a museum or gallery. She is connected to a polysomnograph machine, which records her rapid eye movement during dream activity. When she wakes up, she uses the machines printout as a pattern for weaving, seated at an elaborate loom of her own design. During the day (interacting with the audience) she works, producing an endless blanket using pieces of fabric torn from her nightgown. The blanket covers her as she sleeps, dreaming the next day’s template. This “studio-sculpture,” which has been performed/shown several times around the world, is classic Antoni; a charged relay from mind to body in private and public. With Swoon, her recent video installation at the Whitney, Janine steps into the shadows a bit. Gone are the movements and markings of her own body. Instead, a new choreography for the dance of life.
Stuart Horodner People feel close to you because of the body-generated work you have done, and yet your work doesn’t reveal autobiographical information.
Janine Antoni When you are with my objects you are with something I have, literally, been intimate with. The work doesn’t necessarily reveal anything personal. You come to understand the work through your own body.
SH I was thinking about the artists you are historically linked to— Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneeman, Ana Mendieta—people who politicized their naked bodies in dance, performance, and photo pieces. This legacy is constantly referenced in discussions of your work, yet you’re not operating in the same way these folks did. Whether it’s Tender Buttons, the brooches of your nipples cast in gold, or the image one constructs of you bathing or licking self-portrait busts, there is this sense that one is with you in the moment you are forming these objects, but of course, one’s not. There’s a great familiarity and at the same time a great distance.
JA For me, that removal is a generous act, in the sense that it creates a place for the viewer. Imagining the process is so much more powerful than watching me do it. Imagining is much more provocative and makes each viewer’s story slightly different. By imagining me, the viewer’s experience turns out to be about their own wish fulfillment. It is an effort to connect. It’s a crazy thing—to remove in an effort to connect—but I’m interested in that fine line between how much information I give and how much information I withhold, and my whole body of work plays with that. The key word for me is empathy. Its something I think about a lot because I want to put the viewer into a particular relationship with the objects. That’s different from how we have traditionally learned to approach a conceptual work of art. Traditionally, we stay objective and go through a process of decoding information to make meaning. I’m much more interested in the viewer empathizing with my process. I do these extreme acts because I feel that viewers can relate to them through their bodies. I realize it’s charged. The viewers can be analytical, but about their own responses.
SH Where does the interest or focus on empathy come from?
JA I don’t know. Maybe it’s something that interests me in my life in general. In terms of the way I try to approach the things that I don’t understand in the world or the things that offend me. When you know where someone is coming from, you put yourself in their position, even if it is a really difficult thing to do, it helps you open up and gives you access.
SH Because when I think of performance and installation art from the past 20, 30 years, I think of work that is much more hostile towards the audience—Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci—the desire to push the audience to an extreme. A gesture designed to alienate them, piss them off, make them nervous.
JA Certainly it’s not my goal to push the audience away or be aggressive. I am interested in extreme acts that pull you in, as unconventional as they may be. Personally, I want to broaden my audience, and I choose seduction over hostility.
SH Can you talk about two quotes from past interviews? One, the idea that you “give yourself an experience.” That you structure a project around the desire to go through something, to give yourself that which you can’t think through entirely to satisfaction. And two, your comment that “if the object doesn’t change me, then it’s not finished.”
JA If I don’t have an experience with the object, how can I hope that the viewer will have an experience with the object? I start from that place. Making something is like a fight. I start out with an idea of what I want the object to be, and I try to impose it on the material. Usually the material resists me all the way. If I can stay open and have the courage not to hang on to my original idea, the material starts to speak back and tell me what it wants to be. A lot of meaning comes out in the fight that I couldn’t have known before starting. It becomes this back-and-forth relationship. When my work takes my body to a physical and sometimes psychological extreme, it becomes a complex relationship. It makes me face certain things about myself which are hard to deal with; I find something incredibly valuable about bringing the body to that edge. Something happens physically in the work, but also psychologically that I believe in and count on. There is a point where I’m actually feeling the repercussions of the object on my body. My hope is to have that happen psychologically as well. Then it’s almost like the ideal relationship—not only in art. (laughter) So that’s what I’m looking for. Because a lot of my work is repetitive and accumulative, many people ask me, “When do you know something is done?” It has nothing to do with the way it looks or formal composition. Its done when the work embodies this complex relationship.
SH Can you give me an example of something you’ve made that was unpredictable? Many of the pieces feel prescribed and very set. In Loving Care, when you finish mopping and painting the floor with your hair, you leave the room and there are remnants of empty hair dye bottles and buckets. In Slumber, you weave a blanket using strips torn from your nightgown, and when there is nothing left of the gown you stop. The duration of the act is very logical. When in any of these pieces, did the thing tell you something that you might not have predicted at the get-go?
JA The first time I did Loving Care, it was not a performance; I did it as a relic and I showed it that way. It didn’t work! I realized that it wasn’t like Gnaw where the history was on the surface of the object and a viewer could re-create how it was made by looking at it. While making Loving Care, I realized that the power was in watching me mop the floor. The audience is the wild card. I am collaborating with them and I’m never sure how they will respond. For the piece I’ve just completed, I placed two 600-pound boulders on top of each other. For five or six hours a day, I pushed a horizontal pole that moved the top rock around like a mill. The idea is that these two forms carve into one another and at some stage the two forms marry. I wanted a sculpture where I had two objects that resisted and gave into each other at an equal rate. And I had this idea in my mind that it would be finished when I created a completely flat surface between these two rocks where, visually, these two forms would become one. This flat surface would be about the relationship. As I worked, I realized one rock had parts that were harder than the other. It wasn’t becoming flat. I could have tried to force it, but what happened was so much more beautiful than I could have ever predicted. The bottom of the top rock started to curve like an upside down bowl. And so on one side you have a ball and socket where the rocks grip each other and then a beautiful arch where you can see straight through. On the other side the rocks touch ever so gently. The relationship is so dynamic, so full of potential, and much more visually interesting than two flat surfaces. The rocks from afar look married; then when you bend down to look at the place of contact … it’s really a pretty complex relationship. This made me rethink the piece; it’s about how some parts of us are stronger than others, and how in relationships there is a balance between the strong parts and the weak parts. That’s what makes a relationship interesting and what keeps it dynamic—when one comes in and supports the other.
SH It sounds very much like the dancers in Swoon. The issues of codependency, physical and emotional force operating on two entities. An arbitration.
JA Articulating a relationship. I started the rocks right before Swoon, but completed them afterwards; they were a bookend to the experience of making Swoon.
SH What have you learned from repeatedly showing and performing some of these pieces? You’ve done Loving Care several times. Slumber has had six incarnations and Lick and Latherhas been widely shown. Each prompted some intriguing responses.
JA Slumber was the most interesting experience in understanding the audience because I showed that piece around the world. It is a pretty unique experience, talking to your viewers as they are looking at you and your work. The first time I showed Slumber was in London and because the English have a great knowledge of literature they came to it from that angle. They would quote Shakespeare, or The Lady of Chalot, or Greek mythology. Then I showed the piece in Zurich and the focus was on Jung and archetypal symbols. But in Zurich, the people were incredibly shy. It’s all been a bit of a lesson on how to get people to talk to me. Viewers are used to having this private experience with the work and it is intimidating to have the artist present. I call it my bedside manner. (laughter) I went from Zurich, where everyone had been afraid of me, to Spain. I didn’t want to make people feel uncomfortable, so I had lots of little ideas about how to put them at ease. But there was no need for anything like that in Madrid. People were touching me, touching the loom, sitting on the chair next to me. It was intimate and it didn’t matter that I couldn’t speak Spanish. People just spoke to me and we communicated in any way we could. When I did it in the United States, people’s connection was with science, and they wanted to talk about the polysomnograph. What could the machine tell you about dreams and sleep? And in Greece, the public made a connection between the loom and Penelope. The most fascinating was how self-revelatory people were. They would tell me their dreams, their fears of sleeping alone. I haven’t quite figured out how to assimilate that kind of information in terms of what I make. In my early work I was concerned with pinning down meaning and communicating as directly as I could; I was trying to understand visual language. What Slumber showed me was that you can’t predict how people are going to respond. Of course, artists want to hit a specific chord in people, but the experience of Slumber made me much more open-minded and not so obsessed with pinning the meaning down.
SH Tell the story of “the noses.”
JA The first time it happened was in Venice. Lick and Lather, self-portrait busts—seven in chocolate, seven in soap—were shown at the Venice Biennale. Halfway into the show, a young woman, a teenager from Czechoslovakia who was there with her parents on vacation, bit three noses off my chocolate heads! One after the other until the guards stopped her. The Italian newspapers went nuts, they had these funny little drawings of a very fat woman with a fork—with my nose on the tip. And they talked about the history of work being destroyed, like the Pieta. Another article talked about Stendahl’s Syndrome—how this teenager was so overcome by beauty she couldn’t help herself. I liked the fact that it was a teenage woman. You do work and you want it to be very seductive, you want people to be attracted to it. In a way what she did was an extension of my work. Lick and Lather looked like Greek statues with their noses knocked off. Conceptually her response was in keeping, and I had to make a decision of whether I should leave her marks. I chose not to leave them because for me, the interest lay in the licking and the washing as a gentle, loving act, and how that butted up against the fact that I was defacing myself. Lick and Lather is about me in relationship to myself. I thought that this unsolicited collaboration was a freak occurrence, but it happened again at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and in Philadelphia at the ICA. So it seems to be a recurring response. It’s hard to know how to take it. I’d love to talk to the people who have done it. Is it an aggressive act? Was it done out of frustration? What is the impetus behind it? I don’t know whether to take it as a compliment or a criticism.
SH In a Flash Art interview with Laura Cottingham, you said the bite interested you “because it’s both intimate and destructive” and it sort of sums up your relationship to art history. These people might share your feelings about art history and your art.
JA Babies put everything in their mouths in an effort to know it, and somehow through the process of trying to know it, they destroy it. It’s interesting to think about it in that way.
SH There is a legacy of interventions at almost all your shows. Not only a response from the audience, but from the caretakers of the work, too. People take a position, they claim it. When I was looking at Swoon, a guard saw me apparently uncertain as to how to proceed through the piece, so he told me what the breathing was. I knew what I was getting into, but by telling me how the piece unfolds he broke the magic of how it’s structured. He thought he was helping me and you. So there I am, moving through Swoon, disoriented at the beginning, which is where you want me … and this man comes to my rescue?!
JA I learn a lot from the guards. They observe the way art is viewed and understood. Whenever I show in a museum the guards give me information I cannot get any other way. A similar thing happened at the Guggenheim when I was performing Slumber. The guards would be in my room watching me talk to people as I wove; when I left, they continued my conversation with the viewers.
The works that I really love are things like Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy or Joseph Beuys’s I Love America and America Loves Me, or Chris Burden having himself shot. The weird thing is that I never saw any of these performances.
SH We’re about the same age and I have the feeling that I was at Acconci’s Seed Bed!
JA Right, right, exactly.
SH I think there is something about our ability to visit those pieces in our minds, and maybe even to misread them so that we can use them without being burdened by what they actually were.
JA Right, they become our works through projection; those works came to us through an oral tradition told to us by teachers and other artists. I’m interested in how stories get passed down.
SH I noticed in your catalog, called Slip of the Tongue, that you’ve written short descriptions of your pieces in fairy-tale language.
JA That’s funny. I meant it to be very personal. I’ve thought about how these pieces become props for storytelling. Slumber was the first time I incorporated fairy tales in the work. The retelling of the woman weaving in Slumber and how the story evolves and changes over time. My contemporary version incorporates the polysomnograph.
SH You spent this summer teaching at Skowhegan, being around young people. In the way that we’ve claimed some of these seminal performance pieces from 30-odd years ago, and used them to empower us. Can you imagine some young art student in the future who will have never actually seen your work but will look at photos and be able to use them in some way?
JA My generation is much more self-conscious about documentation. We have a better understanding of how information makes its way into the world. It’s not only through the object, but the way it’s been written about and the way the artists themselves talk about it. I’m really careful about what I show and what I don’t show. There is no documentation of me biting the chocolate in Gnaw, but there are other processes which I do put out there. There’s this core meaning which is in the object, and the peripheral information that informs the object.
SH How do you deal with people looking at you, the fear that they have expectations about the work? You told me once that you feel like you have to hit a home run every time. You have a post-studio practice; things don’t evolve out of a daily ritual. The work is project-driven, research is involved, its collaborative in terms of technical assistance and people you need to help you. How does this affect your freedom? What does it do to your sense of failure or risk?
JA The work has become more and more about myself as a way to protect myself. The one thing I know and trust is my own experience. I get intimately involved in the work as a way of shielding myself from all of that. I want to make a great work every time as much for myself as anyone else, but I’m much less worried about greatness now. I really believe that you learn most from your failures; you have to allow yourself to fail. Hopefully,it’s in the privacy of your own studio, but not always. If I look at an artist’s body of work that I really love, the works that I spend most time with are those rare works that didn’t get as much attention, the works that don’t have the finesse to sweep you away. It is in those works that you fully see the artist’s vision, even if it is raw and clunky. These are the works that I really cherish.
SH Which one of your pieces do you feel is revealing in this intimate way?
JA Wean was my first major breakthrough. I wanted to work with an evolution that begins with the body and works its way into the culture. And Eureka was a huge moment, where the narrative began and ended with me, my body. I made that circle bigger and bigger with Slumber.
SH What about the piece you did in Harlem called Beatrice Thomas?
JA Beatrice Thomas is a weird sore thumb, and so is Swoon. These two pieces along with the Shaker works seem to go together. All three pushed me so far from myself that I felt vulnerable. The context surrounding Harlem pushed me into a place that I would have never gone. Likewise with the Shakers, I got into territory I had never been in before. All three experiences made me grow because I was grappling.
SH The piece in Harlem is very connected to your better-known works, pieces involving transformation and removal. But it’s one of those pieces like Swoon in which your trace is not evident, a directorial piece that you’re responsible for, but it’s not so obvious who helped, or how.
JA And it’s not … it’s not about me.
SH Thinking about work that doesn’t use your body as an instrument, how do you plan to make future pieces? Do you expect to bounce back and forth and keep that open? With regard to some of the people we spoke of earlier, several of the most important performers of the ’70s have removed themselves physically and have tried to make objects and installations that retain the intensity of their early performances. Some have been successful, others have had trouble crossing over.
JA You know, we talked about empathy. The thing I am interested in right now is the experiential. I am exploring how to communicate through experience. With Swoon I really tried to push that; the viewer’s experience creates the meaning. That is the big difference, not that I am in it or not, but that there are different ways of communicating. So I will move back and forth between the two. My goal is to work in the broadest way possible, so that people won’t have expectations as to what material or form I work with. I want to have the biggest breadth of possibilities, whatever form is appropriate for what I have to say. Also, to work in a variety of contexts so that I reach different audiences. Context encourages me to make different kinds of work; it’s another way to stretch.
SH One of the things that impresses me about Swoon is how much in keeping it is with the spirit of your other work. In particular, that there is always something missing.
JA I’m so happy you say that.
SH Much of your art has this condition. However close one comes to it, one can’t get it back. It may be you washing yourself away, both loving and destroying, or the moment when a self-representation moves away—is no longer there. What Richard Brautigan called “things that disappear in their becoming.” And maybe it’s about love or empathy, or all of those things that are transitional or transformative. Swoon has been written about as having a “man behind the curtain—a Wizard of Oz” revelation at the end. I don’t see it that way. For me, each discreet room is incomplete, and all of them are different. The first room, a hallway of light and sound, where I am uncertain about what’s to come, is at the edge of an experience, the entrance to the theater, let’s say. I have certain information, the sound of breathing and the question of what I am actually listening to. And then I move into the second room and I’m frustrated because I’m seeing a part of a video screen. It’s luxurious, the velvet is sexy, this red-folded glowing material … and yet it’s preventing me from seeing what I want to see. So I turn around, the music swells and I’m stuck looking at myself in a floor-to-ceiling mirror, and I want to see what is behind me, and, of course, I’m getting in my own way. Then I get into the final room which reveals how everything is functioning, but there is only one place where the dance is pure, and it’s in the projection mirror. Everywhere else the dance is either reversed, or blocked. In the end room, all is revealed, but it’s backwards and I’m aware that it is a construction. The only place where it is whole but fleeting is where it’s stuck in the mirror, where the projection is reading right. It’s like a mirage. You can’t get it. It’s beautiful in its completeness. It exists in this vapor and everything else is information at the edges of it. The same way one thinks of your face in the bathtub being washed away or the residue of yourself on your tongue. The you that you have licked away.
JA I like this idea of the thing that is missing and I agree that it is consistent in all the work. In the idea of erasing, there is an element of destruction. With Swoon I deal with narrative, but I fragment it. While the viewers try to put these parts together, they are faced with this image of themselves—they’re creating the narrative, its about their desire. Something similar happens with the piece in Harlem, Beatrice Thomas, where I keep pushing past a threshold, and a threshold, and a threshold until one gets to the edge of the building … . You put your imagination into the room, but you can never enter it. It always becomes about one’s projection. A similar thing happens in Swoon; the viewers have to deal with their assumptions and never quite get at the story.
SH All of the pieces are like hosts for projection of true or false narrative. When you use the word relic, that is an appropriate term, because these works allow one to project histories onto them and they set the terms of that projection.
JA Choosing “Swan Lake” was like choosing the story of the woman weaving; they’re very particular kinds of stories. It is like choosing the kitchen of Beatrice Thomas for restoration. I am tapping into stories that, as a young girl, conditioned me or were the stories I fantasized about and to go back and face them, reconstruct them in some way.
SH It has a nice ring to it. “The Kitchen of Beatrice Thomas” would make a great kids’ book. Can you talk about the support and collaborations with your family … about friendship and love?
JA I would love to. I wouldn’t be able to do anything that I am doing without some key people in my life. Certainly my family has supported me in many different ways; they have let me torture them for the sake of art, which I appreciate greatly. They have also given me a lot of material to work with. I haven’t worked with my brothers but I talk to them a lot about what I am doing. Paul [Ramirez Jonas] and I have had a dialogue since ’87; that’s a long discussion and we’ve changed a lot over the years. I’m pretty apt to think out loud; I have a lot of friends who listen to me rant on and on about my ideas. All my projects have gotten much bigger than what I can handle, so many people help me in so many different ways. Every piece is a kind of collaboration. I’m obsessed with the viewer. I’m always interviewing those around me; and trying to understand how people see the work. I do this to get some objectivity on myself, and my friends give that to me. In the end, they’re the only people who really tell you the truth. You have friends who are close enough to tell you they hate it, but you can still be friends. I really count on them.
SH A barrage of questions: What are you reading? Where do you want to be? What are your models?
JA Well, the Shaker experience—I lived and worked in a Shaker community for a month—is definitely a model. It changed me. Ultimately, the Shakers are incredibly radical people, and their philosophy is quite challenging: the notion of celibacy and community. To live with them and be intimately involved in their lives pushed me into thinking about spirituality and art. I grew up Catholic and have been studying religion my whole life. I’ve secretly felt that all my art at some level came from that place. All the reading I have been doing recently has been on Buddhism.
SH How do you deal with success? You’ve had tremendous opportunities for the work and you have been able to use them to scale up and scale down your practice, which I think is the only way to keep options open and let them feed you. I wonder about how artists use what they have achieved to keep that going.
JA I just believe in the power of art, what it can do for our lives. I think if you stay focused on what art can do and don’t get distracted, you discover it is limitless. Somehow it seems like we don’t talk about the power of art in that way. Sometimes I think about Beuys; he seems so crazy to me, I miss that idealism. He believed that everyone was an artist. He really believed that art could solve all the problems … somehow we’ve lost that, or at least nobody is willing to come out and acknowledge it.
SH Obviously the art world of the ’80s, and other things that have gone on in the culture, have made us very cynical to that belief, and yet I think we all believe in how art functions for us personally. What I love about art is that it is a point of contact, it’s an opportunity for revelation and discourse.
JA I always think I make art so that I can discuss with strangers things that I would like to discuss but couldn’t otherwise. (laughter)
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.