At a moment when conversations about love and intimacy feel rare, Janine Antoni pushes her viewers to engage with closeness and belonging. We spoke to her in her studio about her early work, her pursuit of embodiment, and about her 2016 retrospective Ally at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia.
Asteroids & Asterisms: Janine, your work has stretched across different mediums and material. Yet a commitment, or an interest in closeness- maybe even intimacy- appears continuous. Would you mind speaking to this?
Janine Antoni: My feeling is that we come into contact with things everyday, yet we have no idea how they work, what they are made of, or who made them. For me, that’s a very alienating way to go through my life.
I make my work to not only feel that I’m in the world, but also to arrive into my body in connection to the things around me. Making the work becomes a way to locate myself in relationship to the materials we are all in contact with. That’s why I keep reframing everyday activities as sculptural processes.
A&A: This feels especially explicit, in a work like Loving Care (1993) in which you mop the floor with your hair, or Eureka (1993), in which you created a cube of soap from the lard displaced by the weight of your body in a bathtub.
J.A.: In the early days what I would try to do is start with a material, a process or an everyday experience -like taking a bath.
With a piece like Eureka, I tried to think...well I take a bath everyday and I use soap. And I would ask myself, what is this thing, really, and what am I doing- how can I think about daily rituals and how are they different or similar to what I do in the studio.
In the act of bathing, I’m cleaning my body, but I’m also shaping the soap. There’s something about using my body capacity in fat to make the soap-and fat is the material of the body. If you think about it I am washing myself with myself.
A&A: Despite a prevailing feeling of care, some of the actions you engage in to make the work are quite intense.
J.A. The reason I’m doing those extreme things, like dunking myself in lard or chewing on 600 pounds of chocolate, is because I believe that if I go to an extreme that you can feel it in your body. I can elicit empathy because you can imagine what I went through to make the object. And because it’s extreme, it asks for a very visceral response, rather than an intellectual one.
Of course I am a meaning maker and one can certainly read the work from a more analytical perspective. But I’m interested in that first response you have, like ‘Oh my God, she did this? Why would someone do that to themselves?” And what can emerge from that initial shock.
A&A: It’s telling that we need this level of extremity to remind us that our daily actions- taking a shower, using soap, sleeping, dreaming- are experiences of the body.
J.A.: I often wonder what has happened to a culture that has gotten further and further away from the object, from making, and from the body. What has that done to us?
The story I’m trying to tell is an experience of being embodied. I think the alienation from material is synonymous with being alienated from our own bodies.
A&A: Where do you think this alienation is coming from?
J.A.: I have a lot of theories. I think it’s painful to be in your body. It’s glorious. It’s sensual. But it’s also painful. And I think that being in one’s body is also being connected to an emotional state. When we feel emotions we feel them through the body. So if we are afraid of those emotions we separate ourselves from our bodies in order not to feel.
The repercussions of this, is that our bodies become the servants of our minds. We act as if they are just the vehicles. And if we treat them like that, how will we treat other bodies? How will we treat material? They are just servants for our needs. Going further, this behavior also has ramifications on our environment.
So in the viewing experience if you can come back into your body in the presence of an object, if you can feel yourself perceiving through the body, that could be an offering.
A&A: Do you locate this contemplation of the embodied experience as coming from a particular moment in your background?
J.A.: You know you tell yourself stories, I don’t know if they are true or not. But I grew up in the Bahamas with a very close relationship with the environment. I didn’t wear shoes, I made a lot of sandcastles, I collected things on the beach. I particularly loved collecting things that had been transformed by the ocean and watching how the ocean tried to take things back to itself.
On a kind of visceral, material level, my father is a doctor and we did a lot of fishing together. He would dissect a fish in front of me and show me the inside- he was in total awe of the beauty of the body and the way it works. Also he was an island doctor, so people would come to my home with their ear half off and he would sew it back on in the backyard. I didn’t grow up in fear of the body, in fact it was opposite.
Maybe another factor is coming to America and realizing that I use my body in a way that was culturally incorrect. At the beginning, the way I used my body was misread.
A&A: Earlier, you spoke of wanting a viewer to have empathy for the impact of your body. Do you locate this empathy as coming solely from your mark, or does the object through its encounter also begin to gain, so to speak, a kind of life force?
J.A.: I think those earlier works were shaped by the belief that if I do it enough, that if I’m intimate enough with something, if I love something enough, then it will come alive and somehow accrue it’s own power.
A&A: Accrue power. How?
Maybe we should bring up the notion of touch. We touch with our hands, but we touch also with our eyes, we touch with our brain, and we touch with our thoughts.
We have an example like the Mona Lisa (Leonardo Da Vinci, 1503). Is the Mona Lisa important because of who made it? Because of the subject matter? Or because of the subject matter’s smile? Is it in the relationship between the maker and the model. Or is it important because of its movement through the world, it’s history? What happens to an object that is looked at all day, everyday?
What happens to a painting when we have to put it behind bulletproof glass because it has accrued so much power and it that it has become vulnerable? How does that happen and is that kind of power located in the object or is it in our relationship to it
And why do some objects continue to speak to us over time? Is that the power that they have- a kind of malleability to be projected on? Or is something inherent in them? I don’t know the answer.
A&A: It’s not just the literal touch of the artist that makes an artwork, but also how the object moves through the world, gaining experience, the sight of others. As if the initial responsibility of the maker is to shape an object into some kind of vessel for these moments of untraceable energy to find form.
J.A.: That’s my question. A really big question. That’s always the intention, but it’s always curious and miraculous if it actually happens and how.
A&A: This feels very related to your retrospective at the Fabric Workshop (Ally, 2016) in which you perform a dance originally choreographed by Anna Halprin, while surrounded by crates filled with your previous works. Can you talk about how the idea for Ally originated?
J.A.: I had the honor and blessing to find a mentor. I have been on a journey to learn how to live a more embodied life and as I explored I found Anna Halprin. I was blown away. I realized she was in San Francisco and that she was doing workshops, so I went straight to meet her and through a series of experiences we got to know each other.
When I asked her to collaborate, right away she said to me, “I know exactly what to do. I have this brown paper from my piece [Parades and Changes]. You can explore with it.” I think in her wisdom she knew I was a sculptor and that I wouldn’t have to worry about my movement if she gave me a material to work with. I could do what I naturally do in the studio. I could just make and feel at home in this process
A&A: Parades and Changes?
J.A.: Parades and Changes is one of her seminal pieces, which she made in 1965 when I was one year old. What was interesting to me about it was that at 96 she could take a work from 1965 and remake it through my body. And reignite it and let the piece move into a new place.
A&A: And what about the decision to perform surrounded by your previous work?
J.A.: When I started to think about the Fabric Workshop, I realized that I could rethink my work from the place where I am now. I could re-contextualize it in order to make a new piece. If Anna can do that with her old work, so could I.
A&A: The often passive re-contextualization of the institution of retrospective becomes an active engagement.
J.A.: The problem is that all the energy of the art world is focused on how to freeze the work in time, rather than focusing on the ideas behind a work, which are always evolving.
My work challenges this presumption by working with ephemeral materials. I’ve always said that change is part of the process and meaning of the work, but people tend to resist it.
Because of the fragility of the work, and because I want it to be in the world, I have maintained artist proofs of most pieces, so that I can keep them circulating in a way in which they can be interacted with.
But when I suggested this to the museum, everybody tried to dissuade me. They kept telling me, “If people will sit on the crates they may fall through the crates. How will they know they can’t touch the unpacked work when they are allowed to touch the crates.” etc. etc.
It was fascinating to me. This was something that I wasn’t thinking of at all. And this is a real difference between dance and visual art. Dance is always in the moment and is fleeting.
A&A: Did your movements relate the paper to the works in the crates? How did the present actions of dance bring forward your past works?
I asked a former student of mine to come and document for me. Afterwards he told me that he saw every piece I ever made in the paper. I thought that this was just a clever thing to say, but when I went back to the images I realized he was right. It makes sense that if I’m improvising, what else do I have to draw from but my past?
Through doing the performance over and over, certain gestures accrued meaning for me. Usually because of the content of my work in general, whether it be feminist or identity. For example the paper acted like clothing or skin and so the covering and uncovering allowed me to shape shift.
A&A: Can you tell us an example?
J.A.: There were certain events that kept coming back like stuffing my bra or my orifices. These were separate events but one day after stuffing my bra I silenced myself by stuffing the paper into my mouth. It was a powerful idea. As we attain certain physical ideals as women we are simultaneously silenced. So those two sections remained together because they resonated so deeply for me.
But at the same time, by getting into that improvisational state, and listening to the paper, different things came to me. Not in a conscious way, not in the way in which I was trained to make meaning. Somehow I had entered into another space of meaning and making through listening to the paper and responding to it.
A&A : How did the audience fit in?
J.A.: I realize that the piece would become strong if the audience could see the material like I see it. I wanted to establish that he material has it’s own life from the beginning of the performance.
As I start the performance, I look at Anna’s video [which is playing in the background] and I turn it off. And then I go to the wall and pick up one of these rolls of paper. When I unroll it, I pull the paper which creates a ricochet that lifts the paper up. I never know what it will do and in that moment it takes on its own life. The audience can see at the onset of the performance that we are speaking to each other. Right away people don’t know whether to look at me or to look at the paper. Everything in the space has equal status. Anything can inspire creativity. And everything is material to work with. I make eye contact with the audience, I take on their seated position. I make a mold in the paper and then I remove myself, so that they are sitting in front of a mold of the physical position and I am looking at them both. And you’ll see that some people look at the paper with me, and other people want to look at me looking at the form. Which is more important? Where should the attention be?
I don’t know what to say about that except that there is something about the direct contact with the audience in the process. They are holding a space for me as they witness. It propels me and allows me to uncover myself.
A&A: Ally feels quietly radical because while most retrospectives are involved with looking backwards, you bring your past work forward into the present moment.
J.A.: I just got the extraordinary opportunity to meet Helene Cixous, [the French writer and theorist]- who told me about the objects her mother left behind when she died.
And she said something to me like, you don’t know if the ancestors are in front of us or behind us. Are they leading the way? She said as her mother was walking out of life or walking into death, she had to follow her, because her mother was going somewhere she didn’t know.
This is a beautiful idea. It mixes up our whole relationship with time. And that’s what the extraordinary engagement with Anna has done for me. She’s now 97. I’m 53. I think that she, given her life experience, could see what I was capable of in a way that I couldn’t. Because of this, she encouraged me to go into places I would have never had the courage to go.
A&A: A final question, do you think you will always make objects?
J.A.: I don’t ask that question as much as I ask myself- what am I capable of doing for the sake of communicating the things I need to communicate? I have always taken care to expand my making in terms of process, form and material. If I need to dance, I will dance.
I often think about Lygia Clark’s trajectory. How she could began with painting and end with a kind of therapy. But when you look closely her progression makes perfect sense.
For me, the big question is if my vision told me that I shouldn’t be an artist anymore, that there is another place where what I have to offer could be more useful, would I be capable of being led there?
I want to be able to say yes to that.
Janine Antoni (b. 1964, Freeport, Bahamas) graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1986 and received her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1989. Since then, her work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions at such institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh; S.I.T.E. Santa Fe; and The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. Recognized nationally and internationally for her entrancing works that bring together diverse media, Antoni has also participated in the Venice Biennale, Whitney Biennial, and the Johannesburg Biennale, among others. She has received many prestigious awards including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (1998), the Larry Aldrich Foundation Award (1999), the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2011), the Creative Capital Artist Grant (2012), and Anonymous Was A Woman Grant, (2014). Antoni is represented by the Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York.