Some conversations never get beyond an introduction. Others endure, gaining momentum and interest as time goes on. I began a conversation with Janine Antoni in 2003, when she came to speak at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. Over the past six years we have continued to converse about many matters, from specific projects to existential themes to more general topics.
Born in Freeport, Bahamas, in 1964, Antoni moved to Florida in 1977 to attend boarding school, and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1989. Since then she has mounted major exhibitions throughout the U.S. and Europe and won prestigious awards (most notably a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998). Some of her earliest works—Gnaw (1992), Loving Care and Slumber (both 1993), for example—transformed daily rituals of eating, sleeping and washing into extreme acts: in Gnaw, chewing on two 600-pound cubes, one made of chocolate and the other of lard, until she was exhausted; in Loving Care, mopping a gallery floor with her hair saturated in dye; and in Slumber, sleeping on a bed in public, at night registering her brain waves on an electroencephalograph and, during the day, duplicating the patterns by weaving them into an expansive blanket. For To Draw a Line (2003), she tightrope-walked her way 8 feet off the ground along a 100-foot-long rope (which she made by hand) coiled around two giant steel reels and stretched taut; she eventually fell into a billowy heap of hemp. The one-time performance, which took place at Luhring Augustine, her New York gallery, required almost 16 months of intense preparation.
Antoni sometimes takes years to conceive and execute her installations, thriving on interdisciplinary research, and constantly developing new processes and methodologies. Striving to make her work accessible, she is nonetheless careful not to compromise its metaphorical complexity, balancing intimacy and universality, destruction and transformation.
I met with Antoni at her Brooklyn studio on Apr. 28, 2009, as she was preparing for her exhibition “Up Against” at Luhring Augustine. In that and subsequent conversations, we talked about ritual and performance, motherhood, the notion of the witness, how to prime the creative process and what it means to think with the body.
DOUGLAS DREISHPOON Let’s start with a flashback. I imagine you growing up on the pristine beaches of Freeport surrounded by sand and sky. And with this image comes another you mentioned in an earlier conversation but didn’t elaborate on, of you building sandcastles. Obviously, the Bahamas wasn’t a place with a lot of fine art. But there was, not to sound biblical, this primal material. As a metaphor for the performative art you eventually made, your childhood sandcastles seem significant.
JANINE ANTONI There are three things that come to mind when I think about my sandcastle-making days. First there is my love for process. The ephemeral just comes with the territory. Second is the miniature, which I was obsessed with as a little girl. And I like the idea that one thing can stand for another: a shell, for example, can be a door. I see my daughter playing the same imaginative games. Finally, you mention a primal material, which makes me think of Robert Smithson. I imagine that my relationship to materials is why I relate to him so much. I had a very sensuous, physical, visceral childhood. This influence is certainly reflected in my creative process, in some of the ideas and materials I gravitate to.
DD We tend to internalize earlier experiences as memories that may resurface years later in some other form.
JA Touch [a video produced in the Bahamas in 2002] is one of the few pieces that directly addresses my relationship to both the landscape and my childhood home. The video was filmed on the seashore in front of that home on the island of Grand Bahama. In it, I walk back and forth across a wire that is parallel to but slightly above the horizon. As I walk, the wire dips to touch the horizon. I balance there for a brief moment. This ocean’s horizon was what I looked out at through most of my childhood, and the image is deeply imprinted in my memory. I can still hear my mother saying, “Janine, you must go out and see the world, because this place that we come from is behind God’s back.” The horizon seemed to be the edge between our forgotten island and the world out there. I always thought of the horizon as a line that could not be pinpointed or in any way fixed; as you move toward it, it constantly recedes. I was drawn back to this impossible place. I wanted to walk along this line, which was essentially the line of my vision, the edge of my imagination.
DD It reminds me of Courbet’s painting The Edge of the Sea at Palavas , in which the artist contemplates the ocean as he salutes it from the shoreline. The painting captures a sublime moment. A mere speck at the ocean’s edge, the human being seems dwarfed and insignificant, but also elevated and somehow enlightened.
JA In Touch, rather than being dwarfed, I am a giant. I enter the frame like an apparition, walking along the horizon. I’m presently working on a piece that creates a similar scale shift, and which also happens to be triggered by a childhood memory. As a child in the Bahamas, I heard pirate stories that were more reality than fantasy. The islands were subject to bootlegging, blockade running, illegal immigration and drug trafficking. My brother told me stories about Anne Bonnet, an Irish-American woman who masqueraded as a male pirate in the Caribbean during the 18th century. One of the ways Bonnet deflected suspicion about her double identity was by using a ceramic apparatus that enabled her to urinate standing up.
As a young girl, I was fascinated with the idea of Anne Bonnet’s device. Recently, I encountered commercially made objects designed exactly for this purpose that brought back this memory. I couldn’t resist the complex implications of such an object. Like Anne Bonnet, I, too, wanted to live out the fantasy triggered by the use of this object. My fantasy, like most, took me to an unlikely place. Such is the unexpected journey of the unconscious.
So here’s the leap: What if the apparatus for peeing while standing up was a gargoyle? And what if I actually cast this apparatus as a sculpture and used it to pee off of a landmark building in New York City? Gargoyles fascinate me, not only as hellish creatures but because they signify the mythical, shadow side of our psyche. There’s no consensus on the source of their grotesque configuration. They are functional, though, designed to disguise a funneling system that reroutes rainwater away from a building. I chose to sculpt a griffin gargoyle, which is a hybrid—a mythical composite of different animals. It occurred to me that to use my invented apparatus was to make myself into a hybrid, because as a woman my anatomy doesn’t enable me to pee standing up.