Janine Antoni gets down to the nitty-gritty

“You follow the logic of the material. You start working with it, and sometimes it will just resist you and resist you and resist you, and then you realize maybe it’s trying to tell you something.”

Looking at the slight, effeminate figure of Janine Antoni, one is initially overwhelmed by the depth and sheer melodrama of her art. Over the course of an hour and a half presentation, we were able to explore Antoni’s artistic netherworld of sensuality. I left feeling that I had been exorcised of all my interests for life’s trivialities. I wanted to know what objects were truly composed of. I wanted to know what caused them to exist in their natural, physically beautiful states. I wanted, like Janine, to get down to the nitty-gritty. I too wanted to stick my hand in some lard. These are some highlights from Janine Antoni’s slideshow presentation last Tuesday evening.

Influenced by feminist art of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Antoni sites female artists such as Barbara Kreuger and Sherry Levine as influential in her career, and one can immediately see why. From gnawing at 500-pound sculptures that she made from chocolate lard to mopping a floor with her “Loving Care”-dyed hair, Ms. Antoni has expressed feminine issues by stressing women’s body concerns and rituals. Sculpture, performance and installations are part of her repertoire.

One of her more intriguing pieces, Slumber, has recently been exhibited at MassMoCA as part of the “Unnatural Science” exhibit, which attempts to demystify and poeticize science. Slumber is a performance piece that incorporates a loom, yarn, a bed, a nightgown, an EEG machine and the artist’s Rapid Eye Movement reading. Technically, it is part of the Dakis Joannou Collection, which remains in Athens, Greece, but whenever the performance/installation is shown, the artist lives in the gallery, weaving during the day and sleeping with an EEG machine which records her REM at night. The REM is an analogue to Antoni’s dreams. She weaves this pattern into the blanket that covers her bed while she sleeps. “In effect, I am sleeping with my dreams twice,” Antoni chuckles.

But no one is really laughing with her. There is an uneasiness that settles over the lecture hall as we try to comprehend her warped sense of dark irony, but we know that she knows that she’s got us hooked. In Slumber there is an uneasy, frightening truce that exists between contemporary medical technology, ancient myths of weaving and the mysterious world of dreams. Listening to her describing her completion of the final product is like sitting in the middle of an empty cinema watching the climax of the retro-horror film Frankenstein for the very first time. Antoni describes Slumber as a work that is always in progress; the process of dreaming could go on forever. More importantly, the art is delivered straight from the unconscious to the page. There is no interception on the part of the conscious mind here.

Antoni is disciplined and perseverant when it comes to exploring her raw materials. It is these characteristics that probably inspired her to produce the sculpture entitled and while she was staying on a Shaker settlement. She went out into the woods and placed two ordinary-looking, 600-pound limestone boulders down, one on top of the other. She then thrust a steel pole vertically through them and inserted another pole in the top rock parallel to the ground so that the structure would be able to rotate. Antoni pushed the horizontal pole in a grinding process for five to six hours a day (some workout!). She stated matter-of-factly, “I wanted to see if the two rocks would merge.”

In many of her pieces, Antoni stresses her interest in process, which she defines as “the meaning of the making.” She is interested in the process of how an object comes to be what it is, and how it takes on and retains its existing characteristics. “I believe people have lost a connection to where things come from, you know how the object came into the world. I think this is important because you come to establish a mutual relationship with the object.”

Also apparent in many of her pieces is her ability to incite the viewer to be empathetic with her creative process. In Eureka Antoni submerges herself in her art – literally. She makes a beautiful impression of herself in a yellow/white tub of lard. The audience is empathetic in that it can understand what it feels like to be submerged in a tub of lard and remain there, naked, for several hours. The audience comes to understand that Antoni is sacrificing herself for her art, as she wants to totally bring the viewer into the art with her. “I think I’m in love with the viewer,” she giggles, “although sometimes I have to remember not to disturb him.”

As one of her final pieces, and my favorite, she displayed Mortar and Pestle. This captures a very different mood, revealing in excruciating detail a man’s tongue exploring a woman’s rather reluctant eye. This photograph explores the issue of desire and the impossibility of its fulfillment. This intensely visceral image shows a tongue thrusting toward an eye as the eye retracts in either an effort to protect itself or in a gesture of ecstasy.

Janine Antoni’s images are intense, and the conservative might even label them perverse. She definitely exhibits a sense of sensuality that might someday be seen as ahead of her time. After viewing the image I must admit that I felt violated; Antoni has a way of probing into places the audience doesn’t necessarily want her to go. The funny thing is, we know that she already knows about our secrets and our desires – she knows because they are not ours alone, but rather, they are in all of us.