The Artist Who Fell to Earth


I’m not a member of the sizable Janine Antoni cult, one of those who view this MacArthur-winning artist as a kind of aesthetic archangel. I am a fan, however, even if I know her work can be unvisual and overly cerebral. Still, I love Mom and Dad, her gender-bending photographic transformation of her parents; Mortar and Pestle, her terrifying photo of a type of kiss I never imagined (Antoni’s eye being licked full-on by a man’s tongue); Loving Care, in which she dipped her hair into dye, then mopped a gallery floor with it; and of course Gnaw, her chocolate and lard sculptures. When Antoni’s on, she laces material with a primitive mix of desire, pensiveness, petulance, and grit. When she’s off, there’s more to think about in her work than look at. Usually, when this happens with an artist, it means that the ideas exist outside the object. This troubling tick surfaced in Antoni’s celebrated 1993 performance/sculpture, Slumber, for which she slept in the gallery, recorded her rapid eye movements, and, on waking, wove strips of her nightgown into a blanket patterned on her dreams. When she was in the space, you could experience her shrewd circular logic, and the piece was magical. On it’s own, Slumber was a snooze. To Draw a Line, the huge sculptural centerpiece of her current show, has this problem, yet it also gives you so much to think about that it almost overcomes its dullness.

The sculpture is big, bulky, vaguely imposing, but ultimately inert, Ann Hamilton and Richard Serra by way of Arte Povera. Two huge steel reels rest on ramps linked by rope. Below them lies a sprawling 4,000-pound pile of raw hemp, a sort of super smelly über-Oldenbergian Golden Fleece. Strands extending from this heap become the rope that encircles each reel. Part of the rope was made by Antoni, part by machine.

This sculpture was the setting for a performance that only a handful of people saw. Before her opening, Antoni appeared atop one of the spools as the invitation-only crowd fell into rapt silence. Calmly extending both arms, she began walking this tightrope. Initially, she was wobbly. I thought she’d fall immediately. Soon she gathered herself and shakily then steadily edged on. At the middle of the rope, she intentionally stopped as if to say, “This far and no further.” Then she inched backward. After some rickety jitters, and after overcoming the whines and cries of babies, a cell phone rang in the crowd, Antoni fluttered back and forth, jerked to the left, tried to regain her balance, couldn’t, then gave in. Serenely, almost in slow motion, she bowed her head deeply and gracefully somersaulted into the hemp below. The crowd applauded and the person with the cell phone slinked out.

A lot more occurred to me in the 10 minutes Antoni was up there than I would have imagined. I thought about how affecting her stage presence was; how apt it was that the cell phone belonged to a theory-prone critic (“Theory brings you down,” I theorized); and how this entire thing was an elaborate metaphor for what artists do all the time: learn new skills, then try them out in public, risking failure. That Antoni only went halfway resonated, too. At 39, she’s just shy of the precarious period we call mid-career. Her reluctance to go beyond this point echoed that but also contained a more poignant aspect. Several years ago Antoni battled breast cancer. Her last show contained a photograph titled 2038, which may have obliquely addressed this: the topless artist lying in a water-filled animal trough as a cow nestles and obscures her right breast, as if to suckle from, conceal, or consume it. Antoni claimed the title, taken from a tag number on the cow’s ear, expressed “inhumanity.” I think it’s also a subconscious wish for long life: Antoni will be 74 in 2038.

Either way, the hemp feels like lost hair, and not venturing further on the rope suggests the idea of returning to home or family—prevalent themes in Antoni’s work. Also, the half of the rope Antoni walked on was the man-made part. The line gets funky where she spliced the strands together. Perhaps Antoni only went this far to show that she had linked the two halves or histories, or mastered the male portion of the rope and made it her own. The piece’s dimly defiant title underscores this. Whatever—when Antoni fell, she fell well, converting the moment of failure into a beautiful transition. This, coupled with the fact that her art broke her fall, gave the work a biting bittersweetness.

But you wouldn’t know any of this unless you were one of the chosen few at this performance. What you can get from To Draw a Line, beyond the obvious hard/soft, craft/industry oppositions, and the humorlessness of the piece, is the awareness that the indentation in the hemp was made by a falling body (Antoni loves leaving impressions); the way Antoni gets you to think with your whole body via the overwhelming smell of the hemp; her feel for materials, process, tension, and labor; and her desire to weave complex personal content into her work. To Draw a Line falls short because it doesn’t display her bewitching ability to make this desire evident in the material itself.

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