When we first met Janine Antoni, she was a captive in her own installation at the SoHo branch of the Guggenheim Museum. One of six finalists for the inaugural Hugo Boss prize in 1996, she performed Slumber (1993), sitting by day at a roomsized loom, weaving the undulating lines of an electroencephalograph recording drawn from her sleep in the museum. Chatting amiably with anyone who had the nerve to approach, Antoni industriously produced a long, sinuous blanket, which then would provide cover during the nocturnal portion of her residence. At this point, the reputation of her works as canonical examples of third-wave feminist practice had yet to be established. In fact, third-wave feminism in the artworld was just taking shape generally and fomented intense debates about the goals and methods distinguishing artists of the boomer and post-boomer generations. At this juncture, Antoni’s work garnered an unusual amount of disparagement for not explicitly stating a didactic political standpoint. Instead, the artist engaged with a subtler politics by investigating the ideologies of materiality, embodiment and relational processes. Slumber, a low-key yet unnerving work, brought together fairy tales and myths of endless labor, reconsidered the stereotypical place of the feminine in dreams and craft, foregrounded the intrusive surveillance of women by medical technology, and framed the museum as a living space. Yes, she occupied the installation for the duration of the performance, but it was a deliberate gambit that alternated between agency and self-objectification. The perpetual cycle of day/night, sleep/wake, active/passive, person/object defied easy resolution or interpretation—we were transfixed.
Antoni’s vulnerability and commitment were striking. Not only did the performance encourage spectators to talk with the artist as she worked, with all of the unpredictability that a New York audience might bring, but she also slept in the museum. Being watched during the nighttime hours by the eyes of (probably male) security guards added another level of tension to the performance. Her bodily presence countered the traditional ocularcentrism of the white cube gallery and bravely claimed space in the then predominately male domain of museums and art history. In looking at the photos or reading the description of Slumber, one understands well enough the concept motivating the work. Yet, visiting Antoni in the museum, observing her concentration in weaving the blanket, connecting with her in (albeit brief) conversations, and imagining what it must be like to be so intimately exposed by living in the museum 24/7 brought a dynamism to her installation unique among the works by her fellow award finalists. Despite the performativity infusing the assembled works, the live dimension of Antoni’s piece sustained a relationality palpable in the experiences of both the artist and the audience.
At the time, we were independent curators residing in New York researching and preparing for a project based on the concept of “living display,” a term we proposed for artworks that operate at the intersection of an exhibition and event. Such works incorporate the performance of live individuals in scenarios evocative of bodies in sculptures, installations or other static mise-en-scènes. Relative stillness and affective presence form the basic principle, as opposed to performances that rely upon action, narrative, storytelling, monologues or the use of a proscenium. Living displays harken back to traditions such as medieval living creches, Renaissance royal entries with living architectural elements, and Lady Emma Hamilton’s “attitudes” that staged live versions of classical sculptures in the eighteenth century. The most popular precedents of living display are tableaux vivants, prominent in the nineteenth century, often as a form of aspirational or moralizing entertainment. In the same era, exploitative displays of human beings were presented in carnival sideshows and colonial showcases, exposing a darker, more problematic side to this exhibitionary practice. Our curatorial project, CounterPoses (1998), aimed to rethink the ideological and political assumptions of the genre of living display by commissioning contemporary artists to create challenging and self-reflexive variations.
This interview was conducted in 1997 in New York City, and continued in 1998 and 2019. In a candid discussion about her process and experience of making and performing, Antoni touches upon topics that continue to resonate today: subjective inquiry, feminist agency, relational interactions and self-reflexive creative practices. More than twenty years later, Antoni’s early works provide relevant touchstones for considering how material and conceptual strategies intertwine in feminist post-performative art.
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