in conversation with Vincent Honoré

Vincent Honoré     You have been one of the first artists to investigate the traditional limitations of gender and race by inventing a cast of characters you would activate yourself, including the King, the Nurse, and the Black Ballerina. In 1974, you described these impersonations as part of your interest in the transformational nature of the self: “I was interested in defining the limits of myself. I consider the usual aids to self-definition—sex, age, talent, time and space—as tyrannical limitations upon my freedom of choice.” Can you expand on this?

Eleanor Antin     Since I was a little girl, I have always invented worlds. I used cut-outs. They were sold all over, thin cardboard figures of movie stars or iconic figures of the time with paper pages of clothes which you cut out and put on your doll as she or he went about living the adventures I invented for them. As you know from my work I continued to make use of paper dolls as they were called, in a number of my artworks, drawing and painting both the cardboard figures and their clothes.
I think that in some ways I was not unlike the Brontë children who joined together in a magical world they created throughout their childhood. Only the biographies never tell you what that world was like. Who inhabited it? Did they always agree with what was happening? Were there differences between the brother and the larger number of sisters? But this is not the same as my experience which was totally my own. I did not have to share reality with anyone but my creations. And they led very complicated lives that I thought were as close to an adult reality as I could imagine, a rather dramatic reality that included love, family, work, death, sex, etc. The stories continued from day to day and ran concurrently with each other. I played with my überworld for years, even in early high school. So when I grew up, I thought I should be an actor, but my possibilities in theatre turned out to be too constraining. How could a small pretty young thing get a role like Hamlet to play? Luckily, the art world was undergoing the major changes of the ’60s and ’70s. I could be a conceptual artist and in a sense do everything. Act, write, perform, make images, early video art opened up to eventually allow filmmaking. It sounded like being an artist would be a seamless entrance into the real world. It wasn’t. Life never is. Take CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture (1972).

VH       CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture was produced in 1972. It is made of a grid of 148 five-by-seven-inch black-and-white photographs. The grid is made up of 37 rows, each comprised of 4 photographs that show a naked woman, you, from the front, back, left and right sides. The background for each image is a door. Each set of 4 photographs documents a day. Together, the 148 images map the woman’s weight loss, as a result of a diet you undertook for 38 days. Can you explain the context, both personal and general, that prompted the creation of this work?

EA       I just had my MoMA show ending my 2 ½ year old road movie when 100 BOOTS entered the museum and became Art. Then the Whitney Museum asked me to be in their sculpture biennial show. After all aren’t boots three-dimensional and sculptural? I assume they didn’t know that, unlike Christo, I would not cover the earth forever. I thought their system at the time of alternating their biennial exhibitions with sculpture, one year, and painting, two years later, was very traditional. So I decided to give them a traditional sculpture. I would carve myself into a nude, as beautiful and perfect as was possible for my small body and scoliosis disturbed spine. When I sent them the resulting 148 photographs, they wrote back that it obviously wasn’t “sculpture” but “conceptual art.” This was in 1972. By the way, the two curators who rejected my sculpture were women. Well known and respected as a matter of fact.

VH       Could we see a paradox in CARVING, at once celebrating the power of women to transform themselves, and yet submitting to external norms of seduction? There is also the possible disappearance of the woman, who gets smaller.

EA       For sure, both CARVINGS are amusing takes on our acceptance of the beauty norms invented by men. But I am especially interested in your idea of “the possible disappearance of the woman who gets smaller.” That is a brilliant take on the work I recently completed, CARVING: 45 Years Later (2017). I believe I sent you the text that will precede it on the wall:

CARVING: 45 Years Later (2017)
This sculpture began with cheating. I weighed 141 lbs. At this time in my life I am about 5 foot high, perhaps a bit less. But about this too, I always lied. I told people I was 5 foot 2, after the pop song 5 foot 2, eyes of blue, lips like cherry wine. I do have blue eyes but I don’t wear lipstick and I was really 5 foot 1½. When I began carving this sculpture, it was the early winter of 2017. The system was to be the same as I used for the original CARVING, 45 years earlier. I would perform a strict dieting regime and photograph myself naked every morning, front, back, right and left profile. The only change would be a daily fifth photograph, in which I wore a bra, since my breasts had grown larger, preventing a clear view of my torso, especially from the front position. I had also been born with scoliosis and by now my body was more visibly twisted than when I was younger. However, heavy exercise every morning on my mat followed by a mile walk on my treadmill would hopefully straighten my torso somewhat. I asked my doctor what diet I should follow. “Eat anything you want,” he said. “Just cut the carbs.” “You mean, I can eat bacon and eggs in the morning?,” I asked. “Sure, anything, but not more than you feel you need and remember—no bread.” “Two pieces of bacon?,” I persisted. He thought for a few seconds. “One,” he replied.
But I was too vain to start photographing myself at 141 pounds. So I began without photographs. It was amazing. I lost 11 pounds in about 5 or 6 weeks. When I was down to 130 pounds, I decided I didn’t look too bad and began taking my daily photographs. But now it took forever to lose a single pound. I had reached the fat that was closest to me. It held on for dear life, it loved me.
Meanwhile a little round bump began to appear a few inches above my belly button. “Calm down, it’s not a tumor,” my doctor laughed. “Apparently a little hernia’s been hiding under that excess flesh, probably for years.” Curiously, I didn’t mind. I began to feel almost affectionate towards my secret tenant even though she made my belly look bigger.
It took me something like three months to lose the next 9 pounds. I would have continued to battle away a few more pounds though I was beginning to understand that after the rapid shedding of excess flesh at the beginning of the sculpture, the remaining flesh closest to my body would not leave unless I literally starved myself. I believe that my old body was in a valiant and existential struggle to prevent its transformation into the skeleton beneath the protecting flesh… death.

VH       “The early conceptualists were primitives. Contrary to their belief, documentation is not a neutral list of facts. It is a conceptual creation of events after they are over. All ‘description’ is a form of creation. There is nothing more biased than scientific documentation. It presents a non-psychological image of the ‘natural order’ with no more claim to ‘objective’ truth than William Blake’s symbolic universe,” as you declared. What does the restaging of a piece ironically playing with documentation, as in CARVING: 45 Years Later (2017), imply?

EA       My husband, the poet David Antin, had died several months earlier after a long illness. I had to discover who I now was without my partner of 56 years. What life would be like. What my older self would be like as it navigated through the world. And alluding now to your earlier suggestion about “the possible disappearance of the woman, who gets smaller” perhaps as a desire to escape myself, to lose myself even, so I could create the new self I now needed to be, or perhaps even something of a punishment for remaining behind when my lover and closest friend had already left. I believe there is a complex set of personal metaphors and hidden meanings in my choice to redo this piece at this moment, 45 years after the other one.

VH       The body, the flesh, becomes the unstable production of ideological constructions: you borrowed, juxtaposed, mixed different artistic traditions from Renaissance sculpture to early scientific and pseudo-clinical photography and films (I personally thought of Charcot’s studies on hysteria) to Minimalist and Conceptualist aesthetics. Could you explain the title of the work, CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture (1972)?

EA       This work was carved during the period between July 15, 1972 and August 21, 1972. The material (the artist’s body) was photographed every morning in four positions—front, back, right and left profile—to depict the process of “carving” down during a strict dieting regimen. The work was originally intended to include a regimen of exercise also, but this proved unacceptable in practice to the artist who appears to have lost her former skills at this technique. The work was done in the traditional Greek mode: “The Greek sculptor worked at his block from all four sides and carved away one thin layer after another: and with every layer removed from the block, new forms appeared. The decisive point is, however, that the Greek sculptor always removed an entire layer right around the statue. He never worked just at a leg, an arm or a head, but kept the whole in view, and at every stage of the work the figure itself was a whole. No detail was allowed to obtrude during the work, the eyes being as important as a lock of hair or a big toe… Thus the same figure which started as a block was worked over in its entirety by the sculptor at least a hundred times, beginning with only a few forms and becoming increasingly richer, more rounded and lifelike until it reached completion.” When the image was finally refined to the point of aesthetic satisfaction the work was completed. This artist may have a different aesthetic for the female body than Greek sculpture exhibited for the Korai but it should be kept in mind that two considerations determine the conclusion of a work: (1) the ideal image toward which the artist aspires, and (2) the limitations of the material. As our great predecessor once said: “non ha l’ottimo artista alcun concetto c’un marmo solo in sé non circonscriva” or to paraphrase in English: “not even the greatest sculptor can make anything that isn’t already inside the marble.”

VH       You were and still are politically active, participating in antiwar protests and involved in the civil rights and feminist movements. Do you consider your art, and especially CARVING, as political?

EA       I also consider the new piece even more political than the earlier one in 1972. That one was an amusing put down of the dull, fake literature that comprised the early work of the “conceptual boys” from England and the US. Personally I liked Joseph Kosuth but to read that nonsense was a bore. Luckily he stuck a real “live” chair on the wall and became an artist again. CARVING: 45 Years Later depicts my belief that the older body is to be respected and admired. After all, it made it.

VH       In your oeuvre, which can be described as a life-long self-portrait, you have produced works that constantly interrogated spectatorship. Spectatorship, in particular related to the Internet, holds a renewed interest for emerging artists. One could think of the work by Amalia Ulman for instance. Did new technology inform your latest works?

EA       I use my computer the way I used to use my telephone or typewriter. It’s an important part of my life. I may use it in the planning stages of a work but I would never use it as an art material.

in conversation with Vincent Honoré

CARVING: 45 Years Later (2017)
Courtesy: the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York

Cover Image: Constructing Helen from “Helen’s Odyssey”, 2007
Copyright the artist. Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery

ELEANOR ANTIN works in photography, video, film, installation, performance, drawing and writing. One-woman exhibitions include the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum and her retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

VINCENT HONORÉ is Senior Curator of the Hayward Gallery and Artistic Director of the Baltic Triennial 13.