With a Bang: An Interview With Eleanor Antin

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Within the next few years, everybody was working similarly to how I had been working, but I had already moved on to my next interest. I would always remain something of an outsider in my new world. ‘What the fuck is she doing now?’ By the way, I never use the term “tableau vivant.” I’m telling stories – not so much to the world as to myself.  
Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2004) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). As the crow flies, I live about a quarter of a mile from the Pacific Ocean. But these stories are very visual, as well. ANTIN
Our arrival on June 5, 1968, after a ten-day car ride from New York to San Diego, began with a bang that never ended. But “narrative” wasn’t, until recently, a respectable word in the postmodern art world. I wonder if my books confused the literary world because they always included drawings and photos; while the art world knows I’m one of them – my rep says so – “so what’s this book doing here?” That’s what I always rebelled against – a neat package of things called literature in books, a stack of photographs like Ansel Adams, or a set of drawings and prints by you name him: the list goes on and on. Such interests seem to be at odds with the ultra-politicized performance of artists like Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci during the height of the post-68 period. Although the Romans were smarter, I think. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of overbuilding and so-called “development” here where the US ends, just about 30 miles from Mexico. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York
In much of your work there is a kind of poetry of placeness – an interesting pull between the “vertical” histories of Europe and the “horizontal” landscapes of California. My Carving: A Traditional Sculpture (1972) has what looks like a minimal system. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York
Feminist autofiction has become a very important genre in the millennial era of social media, fan fiction, third-wave feminism and I Love Dick. I always had a passion for ancient Greece. Neither, of course, was it in the modern literary world which was the home of my husband, David Antin, who died last year. Even our ocean is different from New York’s ocean. David and his friends are still poison to the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books. It does. And 24 hours before, Andy Warhol had been shot. Those guys still think Richard Wilbur is a poet! The times weren’t so minimalist, after all. His literary works were built out of his performances, his improvised talking before an audience; until recently, he was not called a performance artist but an avant-garde poet and writer, which he was too, of course. Eleanor Antin, The Artist’s Studio from “The Last Days of Pompeii” 2001. INTERVIEWER
I want to begin by asking you about some of the unifying themes behind the autumn exhibitions in London. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York
In a series like The King of Solana Beach (1974-1975) – which was featured as part of this year’s Frieze Masters – there is a strong sense of the Baroque in the way you reinvent the sleepy and remote beaches of San Diego as a sort of quixotic, medieval kingdom of imaginary subjects. Eleanor Antin, King with Paint Brush from “The King and His Subject”, 1978. Vito and Chris   were very dramatic artists. It’s like a closed book waiting for me to open it. That is what is so interesting about the past. Antin’s relocation to the purlieus of San Diego in 1968 contributed to her particularly Californian blend of theatre- and stage-arts and autofiction, while the   native New York she left behind remained dominated by the more politicized tenets of minimalism. Eleanor Antin, Constructing Helen from ”Helen’s Odyssey” 2007. But the possibilities of this life/art piece are various, potentially dangerous, funny, boring, whatever. Eleanor Antin, A Hot Afternoon from “The Last Days of Pompeii”, 2001. Our one-year old son developed a high fever the moment we arrived and we cured him within a few hours with the sweet juice from the oranges trees in our garden. Following her appearance at the Serpentine Pavilion on the eve of Frieze Masters, Antin spoke to me via email about the significance of narrative in her artwork, an ominous adventure to the West Coast and the literary world’s importunate conservatism. A Hollywood of my own making, funny,   absurd, sad – and always, deep down, deadly serious. But even an extra should have some identifying mark that is only hers, no matter how insignificant, because it will announce her and not the person standing next to her. Now they would live in this world. Indeed, in my life. Though I live in a rural area so it is still, more or less, that same brilliant, sun-lit California we arrived in. She was inspired by the techniques of Yiddish theatre and Michelangelo Antonioni as well as   those of Marcel Duchamp and Fluxus. My culture and my education was sophisticated European with leftist immigrant parents and some great public schools thrown in. ANTIN
Yes, the literary world is way behind the art world in experimenting with new forms and ideas. In retrospect, how significant was the move to San Diego in 1968 for you in rethinking your place within the art world? Since I assume that all peoples are like us, an amalgam of personal desires, needs, revulsions, fears and their own version of bad luck, they are all different. I invented my own ways of working, but they were related enough to the going thing to be acceptable–more or less. It made the front pages of a tacky little newspaper in the small city where we stopped overnight   before tackling the early morning trek through the desert – these were the days when there was no air conditioning in cars nor cell phones. The Romans were more useful actually. As someone who had focused as much on the discipline of writing as on the arts, did you hope that your experiments in literature would gain as much recognition as the performance? He is a former lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles, USA, and the 2015 recipient of a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York
Do you think, as many avant-garde writers have commented in the past, that the literary world was decades behind the art world at the time you began combining these text and theatrical projects? Some are allegorical – cheesy allegories. But when they first saw those pictures, I saw the confusion, sometimes even the distaste, on the faces of artists, curators and other people I knew. I still can’t think of two places more divergent than Southern California and New York, where I was born and brought up. The night before we arrived, Robert Kennedy had just won the Democratic presidential primary in Los Angeles and then been killed an hour later. Eleanor Antin as The King, 1972. ANTIN
I had a growing reputation as an artist. Eleanor Antin, The Tree from “The Last Days of Pompeii”, 2001. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York
Eleanor Antin began her career as a stage actress and painter-cum-assemblagist in the late 1950s. Your various writing projects and performances as Eleanora Antinova appeared to have a profound influence in the art world but less so in the literary world – despite their appearances at the height of second-wave feminism. But its potential for complex personal and psychological meanings are there, especially for women. ANTIN
Yes and yes and yes. Sure, my scenarios – at least the earlier ones – sound simple, like choose somebody at random and follow him/her until she goes inside. Don’t misunderstand me – I know life back then was no less complicated or difficult than now; but I have a world of research and imagination about how   they lived their lives, how they died, how they loved, how they hated. Part of what becomes clear in looking through all of these very different works in photography, performance, writing and set-design is your recurring attention to the highly gestural, the whimsical and the “literary”. ANTIN
I don’t think anyone would argue with me now about the similarities between the American empire and Rome. I had arrived in the theatre of the new world. I had originally thought I was going to be a writer – I was an English major in college – but when conceptual art arrived, suddenly there was a feast of possibilities. Though I’m glad I wasn’t born here. This autumn’s Richard Saltoun exhibition Romans & Kings and Frieze Masters: Spotlight presented the first major London showcase of Antin’s oeuvre, including seminal series like 100 Boots (1971-1973) – often considered the defining entry of the “mail art” genre – and The Last Days of Pompeii (2001) and Helen’s Odyssey (2007), part of her larger, tableaux vivants collection, “Historical Takes”; as well as a reading from her ten-year cycle of performances, films, photos and writings as fictitious Ballets Russes ballerina Eleanora Antinova, which was collected in last year’s An Artist’s Life by Eleanora Antinova (Hirmer Verlag). I have a world of unemployed actors living in my head waiting to jump out onto the stage that I give them. How were these ideas received when you began working in earnest? So, I peopled this new land with the theatrical characters who had always lived in my head. But the bang I spoke of is literal. ANTIN
I only worked on what interested me, no matter how alien it may have seemed to everybody else at the time. I could make video and movies, act in my own written plays along with life-sized, painted puppets, collect blood from poets, choose my manner of distribution, wear a beard and lead a revolution against the developers. But then, later, I discovered how badly they treated women; and with the flick of a finger, I became an ancient Roman. Her   versatile   art practice was conceptual by design, though   leavened by black humor and pageantry. Since then her stylistic DNA has imprinted itself on a cross-section of literati and literary artists from Kathy Acker to Chris Kraus and Sophie Calle, fortifying her status as not only an archetypal feminist artist but an innovative writer as well. We won’t be hanging around as long. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York
It is difficult to imagine the theatrical “reenactments” of your “Historical Takes” tableaux vivants sitting alongside, or as a part of the same genealogy as, these minimalist performances of the 1970s. These were never arbitrary–my new methods were usually related to the narrative and discourse of what I had been working on earlier. Did Southern California represent a new stage-set for you to develop a form of theatre? Their empire gave me an “in” to our own growing empire.