The New Endurance of Linda Mary Montano, Part 1January 19, 2015
Women in Performance, curated by Jarrett Earnest and Patricia Maloney, is dedicated space for conversations with leading artists addressing the aesthetic and conceptual issues, historical precedents, and critical language shaping contemporary feminist performance.
This two-part conversation with artist Linda Mary Montano revolves around her performance–lecture at the San Francisco Art Institute, You Look Marvelous!!! The Performance of Aging and Death, which took place on October 31, 2014. Part one documents a conversation with Art Practical executive director Patricia Maloney, which took place on the day before the performance. Part two is an email exchange between Montano and art historian and author Moira Roth in the days following the performance. Roth also includes in her correspondence the reflections of one of her students, Aurora Josephson, who attended the performance.
Linda Mary Montano, born in 1942, is a seminal figure in the field of feminist performance art. She came to prominence in the 1960s and is best known for performances of long duration that require tremendous endurance on the part of the artist. Some performances have lasted as long as fourteen years; others have required her to be bound and blindfolded, and to undergo hours of physical exertion. Her most significant contribution to the field of performance art, however, is the incredible empathy she conveys to her audience. Hers is a practice of affirmation, meditation, and empowerment.
Interview with Patricia Maloney, October 30, 2014, at the San Francisco Art Institute
Had I grown up in a culture in which ritual and matriarchy were synonymous, I would be a different person.
Patricia Maloney: Let’s begin with the impact of Roman Catholic liturgical ceremonies on your work. The ritual impulse found in your work is so strong, as is recursiveness and discipline, and one can find direct parallels to liturgy in those qualities.
Linda Montano: The spiritual quality of the Mass so influenced me that I then wanted to live in that world. I wanted to find ways to make it happen, over and over and over, because it is a wonderful high; it is a wonderful world. It is easily obtainable by finding out what other cultures do to get there and make it happen.
As I grew in wisdom—and California intelligence and feminism and justice—and looked back at little Linda, I found there was another piece, a missing link. Had I grown up in a culture in which ritual and matriarchy were synonymous, I would be a different person. I wouldn’t have to be a performance artist. I would be a communicative and community-minded woman who had a co-ritualistic life. But what I ended up doing was grabbing the ritual and grabbing the power until I realized it was sharable. That is, I had gotten enough attention from audiences and fans to heal myself from all the things I did performatively and non-performatively. It’s really because of a disordered patriarchy that I got to be who I am.
PM: Were there any elements from the Mass that particularly resonated for you? For me, the rituals that surrounded Good Friday, with the stripping of the altar until everything was bare, strongly impacted my sense of how one approached death.
LM: There were two things. I remember fainting twice, at least, when the host was elevated, having been told and really believing that it was the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The crucifixion and I had a pact; the only way I could be good, the only way I could be holy, was to suffer as much as Jesus. I was in competition not only with the cross but with his suffering. And I was going to do it even more so. My memories are of that early training in suffering.
The other was the statues and incense—the aromatherapy aspect. I love what happens when we experience incredible smells that create consciousness or conscious shifts. The bleeding host, and the body [of Christ] and the crucifixion and the suffering, were mitigated or embraced by the incense, which took away the suffering. It brought a different level of ecstasy.
PM: Did you find suffering to be an ecstatic experience?
Suffering can be a very selfish act.
LM: Yes. Embracing the archetypal dark is especially strong on the West Coast, isn’t it? I applaud those people who don’t hide their masochism; they don’t hide their fascination with suffering or the fact that they were trained by their culture to find relief or ecstasy in the divine dark.
PM: That is something that has confused me as an adult about the Catholic religion, which asks us to suffer as Christ did. But suffering can be a very selfish act. It keeps the emphasis on one’s self, one’s experience, one’s body. And Catholicism asks us to participate in a communal body. I find that to be contradictory.
LM: Communal body, like mystical body?
PM: The idea that taking the Eucharist is entering into the body of Christ, and that is a communal gesture. The idea of being communal seems to be in conflict with the idea of suffering.
LM: I love the comparative view and study of suffering from different spiritual and cultural traditions. The Tibetans have a lovely practice in which if you see someone who is suffering, you inhale their darkness and let that burn their own obscurations or sins, and then exhale light. We Catholic Westerners got indoctrinated with the look of loss or the look of pain—the look of the victim—as being the best look. You look at the gods and goddesses of the East, and they’re copulating. You look at our god, and he is dying.
PM: And Mary was a virgin.
LM: [Laughs.] And Mary was a virgin. Exactly.
But thank you for reminding me that “enjoying” suffering and seeking it is very anti-Catholic when it is self- or ego-focused. Because the Catechism and theological training suggest that we aim to become mystically body-focused or other-focused as you suggest. You've given me words and reasons to look at my "woundology," as Caroline Myss calls it, referring to the ways we hold on to our trauma history like a security blanket!1
PM: How would you define the correspondence between performance as a spiritual practice and as a feminist practice?
LM: It took a lot of therapy and a lot of prayer and a lot of spiritual counseling to understand that question. It’s really asking the inner child to heal and to have permission to dialogue with both brains. As a performance artist, I get to play in the right brain without critique. But as the feminist woman–priest Catholic performance artist, there is incredible suffering to pull that inner child out of her position and out of that jail of the past into the dignity of both brains.
PM: Do you think that is why you created some of these early performances, like Handcuff (1973), or Art/Life: One Year Performance 1983–1984 (Rope Piece), in which you are tethered to other individuals? They were, in a sense, keeping you in that jail, was it not?
It’s almost like seducing the teacher, you know?
LM: Well, in both cases, it was with men. It’s almost like seducing the teacher, you know? I’m sharing the power with the patriarchy in both those pieces. Tom [Marioni] was the king of the conceptual art scene here in San Francisco, and Tehching Hsieh was the reigning guru of endurance. They’re about sharing the power but also could be seen as rubbing up against the power. I now see them as both. But it takes a great deal of healing in order to see it as both and not just the slave of the patriarchy, or as the object or accouterment of the male.
PM: What did you mean by a disordered patriarchy?
LM: It is an oxymoronic statement, no? Or can the patriarchy be a good thing? The patriarchy is disordered when women are not honored by men, not blessed by men, not included by men, not paid as well by men, not treated equally by men! Little girls growing up in the 1940s had a particular struggle. Life was battle and not beauty. And once that battle begins in the deep self, it is hard to trust again.
PM: Is this related to the anorexia you experienced as a Maryknoll novitiate?
LM: I loved being in the convent; two years of silence, 24/7 except for one hour a day when we had recreational talking. I loved not having to worry about the painters doing the outside of the house, or the plumber, or what to make for supper, and all that. I loved not thinking about what nursing home I would go to. I loved being taken care of! And being in an atmosphere of ease so I could pray and be a missionary and help others. But my subconscious was so filled with viperous snakes of the past and trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that no way could I have lasted without years and years of fabulous therapy. The good of that organization versus my untreated trauma and PTSD equals anorexia.
PM: Were you trying to limit the physical space you took up in the world?
LM: It was about control. To be self-imposing instead of being at the mercy of someone who was deciding my life. I was obeying me instead of obeying the Novice Mistress and the Mother General. I was obeying my voices. I was doing something incredibly engrossing so I didn't have to feel inside. Because controlling food intake and exercising like a lunatic to keep weight off is a full-time job, and nothing else matters.
PM: Is that ultimately why you left the novitiate?
LM: Yes. I needed help that I didn't know how to solicit.
PM: What do you find in silence?
LM: I love silence. I find it habituating and soothing. It’s the way I grew up, it’s the way I function best. It’s what I like. I had to be trained out of it because you can’t be a partner to another person and never want to talk! As a family, we did more mental telepathy than talking. Is it even possible to say that we didn’t talk? As far as I can remember, we didn’t. So I find it fascinating that people can sit and talk. This interview isn’t difficult for me, but don’t sit down and try to talk with me casually. Do you know what I mean?
PM: I do know what you mean. This is why I like to do interviews, because we would have the most awkward conversation at an opening. And it’s not because of you, it’s because of me. But here, I have this notebook, and I have this recorder, and I have this purpose, so I can ask you these questions. Yes, I understand.
As you were talking about control, I thought of some of your early performance pieces, such as Handcuff and Three Day Blindfold (1974). On the one hand, one could look at those pieces and perceive you as relinquishing control. But on the other hand, one could say you were in charge of defining how your world would be delimited.
LM: The punitiveness of my work—the whipping myself into time frames—is not over. I just finished three days of seven hours a day in Texas at age seventy-two, performing as Mother Theresa on a fourteen-foot lift, singing the Psalms. So it is not over. I’m addicted. It works. I’m still out there. I’ve got a neurological Parkinsonian issue called Cervical Dystonia going on, but I’m still out there. And I get what I need for myself from reactions in order to feed my ego. You could also intuit that we do what we do not from ego but because we have a shamanistic calling; I could excuse myself for my excesses if I go in that direction. But basically, endurance is my job. It’s my job to whip myself in public for you people for long periods of time. [Laughs.]
PM: Do you feel like you thrive on those limitations? Is it a form of martyrdom—of suffering—for you?
LM: What thrives is that I know enough about the working of my brain to know that if I give it a task and take away all chances for it to leave that task, if I feed it time, I will get to a place of such exhaustion of my everyday mind that I will forget the voices that run my life. That’s heavenly.
PM: Is that the same thing or different than seeking silence?
And really, I am most authentic when I am performing.
LM: It’s the same thing. When I was living in the Zen Center, we meditated every day for two or three hours, and then once a month, for seven hours a day for a week. And I was so happy there, but I saw a picture of Tehching Hsieh, and he was looking for someone to be tied to. I left, and I said, “I can continue to make my art my meditation, meaning, my place where I pay attention or the place of my most authentic self.”
And really, I am most authentic when I am performing. I am really one hundred percent there. I can’t say that about any other aspect of my life. I teach, and I like teaching, and I am pretty good at being present, but I give a lot and I share a lot when I am performing. I empty out. I would not say I do as well—although I call my life my art and my art my life—away from formal performance. I am not as authentically me, although my practice is getting closer and closer to just living.
PM: How did you decide to be tethered to Hsieh for an entire year for Rope Piece?
LM: I saw a picture of him in New York City. He was doing his outdoor piece, and I thought, “Oh, that fabulous, boy-man face: so passionately innocent and expressive. I spoke with Martha Wilson, who was friends with him, and she said he was looking for someone to be tied to with a rope for a year. I did not want to leave the Zen Center, but the possibility of working with and being in proximity with this master artist was so powerful that I left the monastery—I leapt over the wall. That is the name of a book about a nun who leaves the convent. I leapt over the Zen monastery wall to join him in his one-year performance of being tied together by a rope.
PM: So you didn’t know each other when this performance started. How did your relationship evolve over the course of this year?
LM: We spent six months getting to know each other before [it started]. We had no physical contact during the year we were tied; we never touched. We were always in the same room at the same time. We recorded every word we said and took a picture a day. It was extremely monastic, but art-monastic. He is a very rare genius, and I was happy to be in his presence.
PM: What was it like to be in that close proximity to a person for a year and never touch? Did it change how you felt about your own body to have that kind of proximity to someone else yet never be in physical contact?
LM: If you change an old habit to something new, you lubricate the side of the brain that is not yet aware of the new habit. It’s ecstasy making to impose something on oneself that one never did before, because it is really playing with the electromagnetic forces and the neuroplasticity of the brain. It was like learning a new language; it is intoxicating.
PM: But then how did it feel after you and Hsieh were separated? Were you bereft?
LM: Yes, we were. I was. Not having had children and not having been … yes, I was bereft. That is a good word.
PM: You have said that you seek to allow life to discipline you. That fits nicely into a definition of martyrdom, considering the endurance that defines so many of your performances, which last for years at a time or have an intensity that they actually change your neurological makeup. It seems as if you are putting yourself at the mercy of them. So maybe what I am asking is, are you ever afraid when performing?
Maybe aestheticized danger is a luxury item because it is chosen and it ends.
LM: The only time I was really afraid was when I spent a week blindfolded in a storefront near Chinatown near Canal Street in New York. I was locked in this storefront at night, blindfolded. I went to the bathroom in a chemical toilet in the window and cooked on a burner. It was really, really difficult and dangerous. As was the performance with Tehching. We rode bicycles over the Brooklyn Bridge roped together. One time, he got into an elevator and I was outside as the door shut. And it was dangerous emotionally.
But I think raising a child is dangerous. And being married is dangerous. And having early-onset dementia is dangerous. I’ve been allowed this open area of research to do my studies. And maybe aestheticized danger is a luxury item because it is chosen and it ends. I can’t do the other: I can’t do the marriage, I can’t do the relationship, I can’t do the children, I do what I can do.
PM: But you can perform.
LM: I can perform.
PM: And you find yourself authentic in that performance.
LM: Yes, I can.
PM: And that is not terrifying?
LM: No, but I find what other people do terrifying. I think that people who can go to restaurants are great. I find it totally terrifying that people can go to art openings or parties and talk. People say, “Let’s go out to dinner,” and I say, “Oh my god! What the fuck are you talking about?!” I can’t eat in restaurants. I was in a relationship once; I would have to get under the table and my partner would feed me under the table, because I can’t sit in a restaurant. So I do what I can do, and it looks different, I am basically a life-sissy, but people see me as an art-hero! [Laughs.]
PM: It’s good you found a way to operate in the world.
LM: It was this or Bellevue.
PM: What responsibility do you assume for your audience? I think about the Art/Life Counseling (1984-1991) and Seven Years of Living Art + Another Seven Years of Living Art=Fourteen Years Of Living Art (1984-1998), but also more generally, the notion of caretaking seems to be a prevailing theme in your work. Do you feel that you have to care for or serve your audience through your performances?
LM: In the beginning, I had no capacity to serve; I was so in need of my audience. They were my lovers, my strokers, my fluffers, my handlers, my guardians. Their gaze and their presence gave me life. My giving back came much later, although it was written into the early recipes, that is, “Bring water to the audience” or “Feed them popcorn.” The real culmination of learning how to care was the seven years of being a medical caregiver for my father.
Before he got sick, my dad and I collaborated by making video documents of the times I drove him to church, or took him and his woman friend out, or we watched TV together, or had linguine and clams in the kitchen where I grew up. I was actually getting to re-know him as a fabulous, funny, and creative friend, not just the father who had all of those familial obligations! Then after his stroke, I continued videotaping him...even up to the funeral.
To grieve his death I made a big performance and a mourning ritual. Onstage there were designated areas where people wrote letters to Death, or came to drink glasses of water, and there was even an "uncertified" performance-artist grief counselor onstage so people would walk into the performance space, sit down, and be seen talking to someone about their loss. During this performance, which was titled Dad Art, I sang seven of my parents’ favorite songs from the ’30s and ’40s. It’s like a five-ring circus, which can't even begin to digest the complications of my dad's death or even death itself! I guess I am really concerned about my audience. Now, I don’t want anyone to have to sit through anything that I am presenting without their getting a lot from it, but that came a lot later, after I drank in life from their love.
PM: At what point did that begin? Was there a particular moment that you became conscious of that concern?
LM: The Art/Life Counseling.
PM: In the first Seven Years of Living Art (1984–1991), your body was going through tremendous changes. You’ve described how, as you moved from one year and one color to the next, it corresponded with what your body demanded from you and what life required of you. At the outset, the terms were that each year, you would change from one chakra to the next. How did you know you were ready to move on? And did you feel you were ready to move from one to the next?
LM: Well, the recipe made me move. It was a year for each one: December 8, 1984, to ’85, and ’85 to ’86, and so on.2 Ready or not, I followed the recipe. The sculptural foundation is all-important. I studied sculpture and got my MFA in sculpture. In creating the recipe or the structure, whatever happens within that is the allowed quadrant. But the structure is as or sometimes more important than the content. Following that recipe is more important than improvising the entire thing.
My graduation from the Fourteen Years of Living Art —I have a school, Another Twenty-One Years of Living Art (1998–2019), and I am at the last seven years of that—was like being shot from the cannon of structure, although I am still doing seven-hour pieces. It’s more important to do the endurance of loving myself now. That is my new endurance. Because I am going to be the only one on that deathbed, and I have some time now to perform different scenarios and ways of being that will make this whole journey really interesting. The final performance, death, is very lifelike.