I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Blessed be Catholic performance artist Linda Montano and her life/art. Amen.
As Linda Montano states in her book Letters from Linda Montano, “Performance Art’s ability to de-automate the artist and viewer makes it a worthy vehicle for mystical transformation.” As the world submits more and more to the abstractions of capital, the interconnectivity of digital networks, advertising overload, and consumerism, there also appears to be a reawakened interest in visionary perspectives, the language of mystery, or the freed language of what we could call faith. In contemporary Western culture the liminal space of the transformer, the oracle, the innovator, the deviant, the mystic, and the mad is often occupied by the performance artist. Linda’s work seems more pertinent than ever in its attempt to dissolve the border between art and life through intricate ceremonies, some which seem to not only hold the duration of years, but of a lifetime. Her art and life are characterized by exquisite risks—paradoxical, personal, bodily, artistic, egoic. Her current position as a Catholic artist is tense as it positions the limits and restrictions placed on Catholic practitioners against the questioning of limitations inherent in performance art. A letter to Pope John Paul II, written by the artist, movingly illustrates this:
It is with a heart filled with contradictions and paradox that I address this letter to you. It is a letter of public admission of my position as a Catholic Performance Artist. The title is almost a contestable oxymoron. How can they both co-exist … the vocation to be a performance artist and loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church? This is mystery.
I was originally introduced to Linda’s work by Frank Haines, who saw parallels between the tarot art-healing sessions I was doing in the store front window of The Heliopolis Project and the tarot art/life counseling that she had done in the 1980s in the storefront window of the New Museum. Despite her renouncement of tarot-reading and palmistry upon rejoining the Catholic faith, I signed up for her Performance Art Saint Camp a few summers ago to learn more about her integration of art, life, and healing. I was instructed to write a seven-page autobiography before traveling to Kingston, New York to her Art/Life Institute. From there she prescribed a day of grueling improvisational solo performances that were based on an unflinching look at my personal taboos. What I learned from Linda that day was art through direct experience, a determination to suspend judgment, that trauma transforms once it comes out of hiding, that endurance creates focus and space, that an exploration of the self is key to one’s liberation, and that this process can be shared for the benefit of others. I called her up the other day to inquire about her latest body of work; as we spoke she brought the conversation back again and again to lessons of compassion.
Rene Daumal once noted that, “One hasn’t understood unless one has transmitted one’s understanding—however small—if one hasn’t realized it in an action, in an undertaking of some kind. And each new understanding awakens new questions.” Linda’s work takes us on an expedition that winds its way toward our own infinities—the most secret, the most terrifying—shifting between the realms of art and life, beyond the ordinary boundaries of intention and purpose.
In honor of Linda Montano I would like to invoke a prayer written by Yves Klein:
Let everyone without exception see the supernatural that is in Art so that faith, the new faith of Art, may enter into them all, and all men may enter into a great new worldwide civilization of the beautiful. So be it.
Eliza Swann One of the reasons I contacted you in the Fall about doing an interview was that I was feeling all this frustration about being really far away from the Occupy Wall Street movement and not being able to contribute my body to it. I thought a lot about you, and other teachers, that taught me to make change by simply taking up space with intention. To use the body as a starting point for great transformations. What’s going on with your body right now? What kind of issues are you examining with its help?
Linda Mary Montano If you go on YouTube and look up “Dystonia Linda Montano” you’ll see sort of an image or a fairytale version of it. After I took care of my dad for three years 24/7 I noticed that I had not been taking care of my body, that I was using it wrong, and I developed a movement disorder because I had also gone on an anti-depressant. One of the side-effects of the anti-depressant Zoloft is body issues, neurological issues. So I developed a neurological phenomenon called dystonia, which is in my neck, but really twisted my whole body intensely. As an artist I ask: what is this? How do I feel about it? What do I want to do about it, and how do I create a transformation out of it? How do I make art about it? When I was down low and all twisted I said to myself, I feel just like Mother Theresa. I had shrunk, and I was old, and aging, and twisted and so I started performing as Mother Theresa. What I can say about my body is that at all times I consider the steps I can take to transform my body into a transfigured art phenomena and an artist palette.
ES Mother Theresa and saints throughout the ages have used suffering and control techniques to propel themselves toward transcendence. Do you feel that you employ those same techniques?
LMM Because I was raised an extremely strict Catholic, and that was my model and mentoring paradigm, I have in the past borrowed those recipes and have literally created suffering in order to create ecstasy. Now that I’m in a different mind state I feel that there’s enough suffering to go around, that I don’t have to create it. I’m looking for compassion as the road and compassion as the vehicle to the same goodies and ecstasies that I got by creating suffering or inviting suffering.
ES I was always chastised by my teacher at a Buddhist Monastery for being too attached to ecstasy! And then it was hard to come out of that nice controlled monastic environment … . a lot of your earlier art pieces had very strict parameters. Do you get attached to methods of control and the parameters you set up for certain durational pieces that you’ve done?
LMM I think in the 14 Years of Living Art, the first seven years were so controlled—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, white —four hours a day in a colored room, and three hours of listening to a sound, talking with a different accent each year … it was so intense and so over the top that I wore myself out and I saw the narcissistic ego implant that was propelling that concept. I got to the end of that piece totally discouraged by my parameters and discouraged about my boundaries and for the last seven years I wore the clothes but I let go of all of the egotistical “Look at me! look at how hard I’m working and how controlled it all is!” The last seven years of the 14 years was a ride down that slide. Basically I came back to Catholicism for this one message—a message of love. You know it says, somewhere in Corinthians, if you do this or that without love it means nothing. I didn’t have the compassion component! My focus changed because I’m aging, and I got sick, I got knocked off my Trojan horse … . I’m not trying to make art of everything, I’m trying to make love of everything. I’m trying to make compassion of everything.
ES I’m reading this fantastic book by Anna Halprin called Dance as a Healing Art. Haplrin creates dance rituals around psycho-kinetic visualization as a healing tool for immune disorders and cancer. Can you talk about the ways that healing figures into your own work, and how that operates for you and for other people?
LMM I read your interview with Frank Haines and it was so profound and so deep and I was so proud to know you both. That’s healing for me—knowing there are other people like you on that same path, that we’re sharing vibrationally that same journey. I think performance artists are shamanistically called, we’re public, we’re pulled out of the crowd and we’re vocationally called to be healers and to be prophets and prophetesses. Sometimes if our focus goes askew or our ego or our money issues or our fame issues come up things get off track we can get addicted to that public light and that public persona. Gratefully there are ways to pull back into the real reason for our vocation and the real reason for our creativity and our gifts and ways to share them with ourselves. Jesus would do 4,000 miracles and then get in a boat and go to a mountain and pray; I think that when we’re lucky enough financially and smart enough psychologically we can be of real benefit to ourselves and others.
Right now my focus is on presenting my aging body as a work of art: my wrinkles, my hair. In India there are these people called Nagas, these monks … it’s a dream of mine to be that spiritually ecstatic, that personally free, that open, and that willing to let go of this body shell. I didn’t appreciate my body when it was working and sort of attractive and not wrinkly—now it’s a performance! Every seven years is another chance for an aspect of performance. Marriage, jobs, no jobs, babies, there’s always an opportunity for a performance. Right now mine is sickness, old age, and death. Thank God I am able to do some of it with humor. I’ve been doing a nursing home piece, writing nursing home poems and a song called “Be Kind To Your Certified Nursing Assistant.” Aging is my current medium.
Hey listen, are you going to see Yayoi Kusama over at the Tate?
LMM I really feel that she’s just right now the epitome of all that’s good and all that’s true. Because she’s stripped of ego, and completely driven by this force and this madness.
Madness is a little too strong. Not madness … but there is no judgment of her push to create as a healing of her inner voices and visions. We often look at the market, look at our peers, look at the magazines, and the grants, and the art journals, and the history of art. I feel that she is spared that and is truly driven—which is hard to be—her focus is not obstructed by the world, or judging voices.
ES How might one approach art making with a sense of selflessness, devoid of narcissism? Particularly if art and life are fused; isn’t the ego then bound up in the presentation of your life and body as artwork?
LMM Just don’t look around at anyone or anything. The ego is OK and good to bring in but it must be balanced by prayer. It is just a duplication of the inherent beauty and truth that is already there. Ahimsa, non-violence, the duplication of compassion. This is wordy and utopian but I am yearning for this myself. I am not there yet.
ES I want to talk to you about your personality. You do all this mimicking, and all these voices—Bob Dylan, Mother Theresa … does that point to the personality being something not fixed or not real in a sense? That it can be discarded or changed at will? Or do you feel that you have all of these people inside of you? What is your idea of the self?
LMM I think it has a lot to do with early childhood and this kind of void of input and output. If I hadn’t had training in the arts I would’ve gone more toward a psychiatric institution—like schizophrenia or something—I call this creative schizophrenia. It’s also a discomfort with my projection of personality and self—that’s the negative take—which I’ll always lean toward because I’m Catholic and I’m always thinking about sin. The positive, the compassionate look at it is that because I didn’t speak as a child (I was a selective mute)—I didn’t speak, I watched, I wasn’t talked with as far as I remember, I was observing—I was so happy to be out of me that impersonating just became an ability. Jimmy Fallon is from Saugerties, New York too, and he’s really good at mimicking.
ES It’s in the water there?
LMM I think it’s in our drinking water, yeah.
ES My teacher in India always talked to me about my personality as a set of decisions, that I could change it at any time, that I was just one aspect of this greater unity and that the separateness could be nudged at, pulled away. You can just be. I was so resistant to that! I was was determined to stick with just who I thought I was, it was like staring into an abyss of psychosis thinking about not having a personality to return to.
LMM I love changing, I love getting out of me, I love being someone else. I have a courage when I’m someone else that I don’t have with me in my own self, I’m very shy, though I am trying to correct that. I am trying to let Linda have a little more of the balls that she takes on when she is a man, for example. If I don’t do that I am detracting from and obliterating my possibility to have a full life. Art is not enough—life is not enough—they have to be given equal weight with compassion as the tip of the triangle.
ES I was lucky enough to do your summer Performance Art Saint Camp at your Life/Art Institute a couple of years ago. I spent time training with this exorcist woman prior to meeting you. You both took me through this same process of learning how to grow up, this shamanistic journey of going back towards birth and beyond. Why do we have to work on growing up? Is it like Joseph Campbell says, that we don’t have rituals surrounding puberty any more and we have to create our own “second birth” to counteract certain neuroses?
LMM When we think about our parents who didn’t have opportunities for knowledge or psychological input or whatever it is, we have to forgive them their mistakes. Then we also have to go back and rescue this child from the womb to birth and look at the whole enchilada, the whole picture, look at what it was like to be conceived, what was the pregnancy like, what was mother eating, what was the birth like, what was the house like, what were the abuses or not, what happened, what input came in for this child, you go back and literally adopt this inner child. You work year by year by year with them. According to my current therapist we’re all stuck at a six year old running the show. Unless that six year old is held and nursed and receives love, compassion, companionship—a total adoption—she’s going to keep running the show her way. That’s the work! For example [Yayoi] Kusama’s mother would send her to spy on her father and his mistresses when she was a little girl, and it drove her crazy. She never had a sexual relationship—look at her eyes—she’s caught in this blindness of obsessively witnessing the father’s affairs and sex and these circles of passion and the mother’s dispassion. She’s caught in the middle of passion and dispassion. But I think we all are. We’re caught in the middle of life, sex, death, perversion, pedagogy …
ES One of my favorite pieces of yours is Mitchell’s Death. It confronts the grieving process unflinchingly. You told me this great story once about confronting death in Benares. What do you want to communicate about death and its taboos to people?
LMM I invite you to watch Starved Survivors. That to me is the keyhole to the liberation of being ashamed of evil, and being ashamed of death. What I did in that video was call to the surface every single boo-boo and every single horribleness! I think that death—until it’s looked at and seen and felt and talked about and grieved over—is a hidden boo-boo, a secret. I’m going to be scared I’m sure when I die, because as it is small things have happened to me and I’ve already gotten freaked out.
ES Yeah! It’s a big transition …
LMM Yeah! And these are all rehearsals, life is a big rehearsal. Death is on your left shoulder. I don’t know how I feel about death now. I’m completely devoid of heaven and hell, although I’m a practicing Catholic. I’m just interested in packing in the lessons of compassion before I leave the physical body. I’m thinking more about compassion than I am about death.
ES It’s intense being around all of those bodies in Benares at first, but there is something very normalizing about seeing so many bodies on funeral pyres. It freed me up to get on with living.
LMM At the end of the video Benares I’m sitting up on the steps of a ghat where there’s a saddhu doing a service and just at my feet there’s a cremation happening, and chanting, and smells, and people, and there’s a goat. And there were these young kids who, for their own amusement, are making sounds at this goat, and the goat starts having an erection. I started laughing. And that was it! That was the end of the spell, my death spell, it pricked the cloud of dark around death and, as you said, it made it just what it is.
LMM OK, now I say a prayer for you and then you do one for me, OK? Holy Spirit, bless us both that we can learn how to nurture our little girls inside us so that these children can become functioning, balanced—adopted by us as kind mothers and fathers. We ask this in Jesus’s name, amen. OK—now you.
ES Amen. May Linda Montano continue healing, teaching, transforming for everyone’s highest good, and may I some day grow up to be a great healer and teacher like Linda Mary Montano. Amen.
LMM OK, so tell me a story about you now.
For more information about Linda Montano’s Art/Life Institute and the residencies and workshops offered there, go here.
Eliza Swann is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York and London who has shown her work in the United States and internationally, most recently at Oxford Modern Art in the UK. She is co-founder of the Heliopolis Project, choreographer of the occult modern dance group The Bride of Fire Dance Troupe, and a tarot counselor.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee