Monday, February 2, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Magnificent Obsessions" (on Eleanor Antin's An Artist's Life by Eleanora Antinova)

magnificent obsessions

by Douglas Messerli

Eleanor Antin An Artist’s Life by Eleanora Antinova (read in manuscript)

At least since the early 1970s, when she first appeared as the King of Solana Beach, artist Eleanor Antin has involved herself with creating various personae whose lives she inhabits through numerous artistic mediums—performance, photography, painting, sculpture, mail art, video, film, fiction, drama, and various other ancillary forms that exist in the interstices of these larger categories. There are many artists who have developed similar pseudonymous realities. One thinks, immediately, for example, of Barry Humphries, who, as a popular performance artist, has spent decades in creating and inhabiting a larger-than-life suburban Melbourne wit and would-be world-class star, Dame Edna, whose most recent—and perhaps last—American tour was reviewed in today’s Los Angeles Times. Lily Tomlin spent her early years as a performer creating immediately recognizable and popular cartoon-like figures such as the eagerly naughty, all-too-honest Edith Ann, The Tasteful Lady, and her persnickety Telephone Operator, Ernestine.

      Few, however, have attempted to explore such generalized “types”—in Antin’s case, the King, the Nurse, the Stewardess, and, most notably, the Ballerina—in the depths which Antin manifests variations of these typologies. The Nurse, for example, might appear as a Florence Nightingale-like figure in her photographic reenactments of the Crimean War in The Angel of Mercy: My Tour of Duty in the Crimea of 1977; or in a performance such The Angel of Mercy in which in the drama of 1977 and a later video of that performance (1981), Antin played out situations of her life as a nurse; or even as a hijacked modern-day nurse in a child-like encounter with created cardboard figures and sets in The Nurse and the Hijackers (1977), intersecting with her Stewardess’ world.

     The Ballerina, the most complex of all of Antin’s personae, was not only represented in films and videos such as The Ballerina and the Bum (1974) and The Little Match Girl Ballet (1975);  in photographs such as Caught in the Act: Backstage Moments—Torn Ribbon; and—particularly encapsulated within the figure of Eleanor Antinova—in grand performances such as Before the Revolution (1979, performed live with actors in 2012) and Help! I’m In Seattle (1986) (works collected in book form as Eleanora Antinova Plays [1994]*), but in numerous writings such as Recollections of My Life with Diaghilev (published in journals and chapbook) and Being Antinova, a recounting of her experiences as an artist portraying an aged Eleanora Antinova discussing her life in New York. Along with her Antinova works, the artist has also created a rather large body of drawings, paintings, photographs, costumes, sets, and sculptures to accompany her performances and publications. So labyrinthine is her fiction surrounding Antinova that, at times, the Black ballerina encounters other Antin personas, such as the forgotten Russian-Yiddish film director, Antinov (one of whose two film-scripts has also been published**) and other ancillary characters. So complex are the various artistic manifestations of Antinova alone that, even if one were to ignore all the other fictional characters and other kinds of art she was created during these years, it seems hard to believe that it left Antin, the human being, any time to exist in her own life. Yet, of course, I knew her through all these years as a funny, very real and involved human being, raising a family, teaching, and enjoying intense friendships—to say nothing of being wife to one of the major poets and critics of the United States.
     It is this complete immersion in her characters’ lives, particularly with regard to the Ballerina, that differentiates Antin’s personae from other artists’ performance art. There is almost a kind of madness in the intensity of exploring all avenues of possible creative actions in which her fictional figure might have engaged, and her need to document these becomes something close to obsession—one is tempted, in melodramatic empathy, to describe it as a “magnificent obsession.”

     Throughout her art, but particularly with regard to her Ballerina, Antin has sought to establish her (both her creations’ and her own) “credibility”—to insist that her audience give “credit” to her fantasies.*** But, if one thinks about it, from a larger perspective, which Antin’s art nearly always demands, we can see this as not just a personal issue, as arising from a need for the artist to be accepted for her fantastical creations, but rather as a search for art, in general, to  have meaning upon and to transform life. Eleanor Antin’s entire oeuvre, in fact, insists that art is as important as any other activity in having a practical and very real impact upon our lives. And strangely, as her boots (represented in her famed postcard fictions 100 Boots [1971-73]) have gone marching through galleries and museums throughout the world, and her various ballerinas have danced their way to the hearts of hundreds of museum-goers and readers, Antin’s art has indeed proven her argument. The artist’s creations have grown in proportion to her exploration of them; just as she has meticulously created and related their life-long activities, so have they, in turn, become more and more real to U.S. and international audiences.
      As we know, however, all things have a limited existence, and it is clear, just as Antin has long ago abandoned her presentations of the King, the Nurse, and the Stewardess, that perhaps the day would come to bring her beautiful Ballerina’s life to a close. Fortunately, Antin has determined to announce this sad event by publishing one last volume of Antinova’s memoirs, An Artist’s Life by Eleanora Antinova.

      This time around, taking on a trope common in 18th and 19th century autobiographical fictions (one thinks of Poe, Melville, even the 20th century Stein), Antin describes the work before us as having been left behind in a restaurant—where, as a young student, Antin worked—by the elderly, little known Antinova—a red leather notebook, later carried by Antin and husband David to Solana Beach and their house near San Diego. At first, the book seemed “unreadable.” Like a character in the Hollywood film, The Bishop’s Wife—wherein an elderly scholar who cannot make sense of the passages on which he is supposed to be commenting until an angel blesses him with a sudden insight—so too does Antin suddenly find herself able to read “that tiny flourishing hand” with great pleasure, and so, joyfully passes it on to us as the final expression of the failed artist (although we all know, those of us attentive to Antin’s career, that she has succeeded nonetheless).     
    Some of these works have appeared in journals over the years, at least as early as 1978-1980 in Howard Fox’s and my journal Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature & Art; but most of chapters appear as new revelations, written (or perhaps, to maintain the fiction, I should say “reproduced”) more recently by Antin.

      All of these pieces represent Antinova living out a life, as a somewhat begrudged member of Diaghilev’s unforgettable Ballets Russes, with a sense of great wonderment and excitement, along with the suffering and tortures that all romantically-conceived artists must endure. In chapter after chapter we encounter the backroom intrigues of company members who live in near starvation, feeding upon petty jealousies, envy, argumentation, and even rage, alternating with intense pleasures, particularly when they encounter wealthy men who might pay for their meals at Cocteau’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit or lovers who buy them furs and jewels or, as in Antinova’s always somewhat comically sad lot, provide the entire company with factory-made sweaters.

      Nearly all of these somewhat shadowy figures have great moments onstage or backstage, including Eleanora, particularly when she is chosen to dance a lead role (again after a rather comical series of events when the dancer Sergei Pavlovitch first choses falls into a faint, “her head on the barre” knocking her unconscious”). Eleanora even travels, when the White Russians of the company cannot (since it is now the Soviet Union) to Russia, in preparation for which each of the Russian members send trinkets, communications, and gifts to friends they left behind. There the Ballerina encounters numerous “spies,” including her own personal “protective” friend and the now-forgotten Russian filmmaker Antinov, who asks her to perform in one of his movies.

     Returning to France and England, Antinova is finally awarded an opportunity to choreograph a new work, performing in the disastrously conceived Pocahontas—inexplicably performed in an English tavern—images of which Antin had previously provided in her documentary photographs.
     But, in the end, we all know the story, so tragically recalled in Antinova’s previous performance, Help! I’m in Seattle, wherein Antiova’s balletic career ends in the seedy backstreets and small towns where Vaudeville and carney-like venues continued to exist long after they had disappeared from the larger cities. In the end, tragically, the metaphorical ups-and-downs of artistic life are transformed into a nightmarish dream of the rise and fall of a hotel elevator wherein Antinova loses her way, somehow getting off on a floor that no longer contains any remnants of the present or living beings, a kind of “third act” exit in which, alas, no flowers fall after the curtain drops—except perhaps in memory.
     If An Artist’s Life at times reads a bit like a “fractured” fairy-tale, we recognize that it is inevitable for the character that has embodied it. If the real living artist has finally received her long deserved due for having created Antinova and the other embodiments of her art, the character is necessarily a figure in deflatus, something which ultimately, like the backdrops and tattered curtains, both authors and actors must leave behind after taking their bows. 
    I cried a few tears over Antin’s often witty, light-hearted and eventually sorrowful tales, and I’ll miss Eleanora, while looking forward, nonetheless, to other developments in Antin’s future work. Yet I know, even as Antin leaves the stage, her impishly determined little Ballerina might, when no one’s even looking, get up to do another quick pirouette en pointe, a little unsteady and shaking perhaps, but still standing as high as she might, maybe even shedding a tear behind a coy smile. If there’s anything Antin has proven is that, even if “art is not kind to her children,” they cannot be so easily killed off, for they live in the imaginations of all who encountered and embraced them. We want to believe, and Antin has ably given us, over all these years, something to believe in.

Los Angeles, January 30, 2015
Reprinted from Art Là-bas (February 2015).

*Eleanora Antinvova Plays was published by my own Sun & Moon Press.

** My Green Integer Press published Yevgeny Antinov’s The Man Without a World in 2002

***See my essay on the performance of Antinova’s Before the Revolution, “On Credit” in My Year 2012: Center’s Collapse. See also my writings about Antin, “Experiment and Traditional Forms in Contemporary Literature,” My Year 2000: Leaving Something Behind and “Reclaiming the Past,” in My Year 2008: In the Gap.