The New Endurance of Linda Mary Montano, Part 2January 21, 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 endure hours of physical exertion. Her most significant contribution to the field of performance art, however, is the incredible empathy and affirmation she conveys to her audience. Hers is a practice of affirmation, meditation, and empowerment.
An Email Exchange between Linda Mary Montano and Moira Roth, November 1 to 23, 2014, and an Excerpt from a Text by Aurora Josephson, November 23, 2014
On October 31, 2014, I attended Linda Mary Montano’s performance, You Look Marvelous!!! The Performance of Aging and Death, at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI).
I arrived early and sat for a while in the almost empty auditorium, thinking about Linda Montano—a close friend of mine since the 1970s—as I watched her prepare for the event, while her haunting video, Water Angels Talking, played on the screen.1 The image was taken from Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, painted in the early 16th century, and Tobe Carey animated the video.
As I sat there quietly and peacefully watching the video, it conjured up memories for me of seeing Montano perform Mitchell’s Death (in memory of her close friend and ex-husband) in San Diego in 1978 with Pauline Oliveros and Al Rossi playing musical instruments, and Montano chanting.2
Moira Roth: Your performance with those videos, together with the interactions with the audience (a packed house) at SFAI yesterday, was truly magnificent, deeply moving, and deeply interesting.
I have a suggestion—before its details fade in memory—would you like to do an email exchange about it?
Linda Montano: Abbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbsolutely Let’s do it.
Sooooooooooooooo glad you came.
Means soooooooo much to me.
MR: Let's begin now!
LM: Got to go off to CHURCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
WILL GET TO IT ASAP!
MR: #1: Can you sketch out, please, how you planned the performance at the SFAI on Friday?
#2: How much was planned, and how much improvised?
#3: Have you done such presentations before? And if so, how? When? Where?
LM: #1: I was invited to come to the San Francisco Art Institute and present my work. They choose it to happen on Halloween, and that really set the stage for the performative presentation of my two latest videos on aging and death. It was a win-win. Could not have been clearer. So I planned it for months and months, spending inordinate hours with my editor, Tobe Carey, continuing to prepare the videos so they would be ready by October 31.
And then something cosmically dangerous happened to everyone's mind: Ebola!
And as a result, my entire self-absorbed look at death as it relates to my work got deflated, and I felt as if my narcissistic focus on death and aging was totally irrelevant and outdated. What is MY AGING/MY DEATH in the face of such a catastrophic epidemic?
To amend and confess that I was an insignificant "one" among many, and that my fears and neurosis were nothing in the face of what is happening now, I made a list for SFAI of THINGS THAT ARE HORRIFYING HORRORS and chanted that list of horrors as the Bob Dylan tape and Nurse! Nurse! (2013) films were showing. You see, the text for the Living Art/Dying Art film was written in the 1990s. I collaged into the mix current disastrous phenomena so that my information would be current and we could collectively clear out the trauma receptacles of our prehensile brains. Now the performance was no longer about me but about a group's aesthetic colonoscopy and subsequent release!
#2: I had envisioned most of it before the San Francisco Art Institute event, but the movements of the angel figure around the stage were energy driven and not choreographed.
Chanting then was about mourning and coloring the mourning with a deep beauty.
#3: A few weeks before this performance, I was in Austin at Bonnie Cullum's Vortex Theatre, performing Singing the Psalms as Mother Theresa, a three-day and seven-hour-a-day performance. Because I am still resonating in the flow of sound, it was only natural that I would continue chanting at the SFAI. Chanting was also used as the sound foundation for one of my earliest films, Mitchell's Death.
Chanting then was about mourning and coloring the mourning with a deep beauty.
Chanting now is about lifting current collective pain into another realm, real silence. And I never ever make viewers feel glued to their seats when I show videos. I offer Art/Life Counseling or food or something so they feel at home and free to come and go and be themselves.
Probably the most well-designed collaged event which uses time-sound-space-movement-dissociative actions is the performance I do for my father titled Dad Art.
Dad Art films our collaboration and then his sickness, my caregiving, and his death and funeral. It is so intense that it demands many stages or loci or distractions from the pain of it. I sing seven of my Dad's favorite songs from the 1930s in this performance. I think I will not speak again if I am to lecture about my work. I will chant instead, as I did at SFAI, because the ferocity of violence in the air deserves the abrasive cutting off right brain-sounded chanting, just like the intensity of my Dad's death caused me to sing!
MR: More questions!
#4: Could you tell me more about Singing the Psalms as Mother Theresa, and generally about your use of singing and chanting in your performances.
#5: About Dad Art, please write some memories of this.
#6: Are the videos you showed on Friday available online?
It was a way for me to honor my mentors and teachers, borrowing their brilliance
LM: #4: On the day that John Lennon was killed, I performed my first scissors lift event at Banff in Canada. The performance artist Angelica Festa stood in the lift, and Lennon's song Imagine was played. It felt like a memorial service. I don't remember what I did. I only remember the lift and song, and Angelika and John.
In Austin in the 1990s, I emerged from a three-day art-jail sentence, having been locked in a gallery bathroom and, as I left this “performance space,” I went outside the gallery, ascended into a fourteen-foot lift, and sang. What? I don't remember.
A 2013 retrospective of my 14 Years of Living Art at SITE Santa Fe included two lift performances outside the building at the front entrance. At the opening of the show, I sang along with Linda Ronstadt’s CDs for seven hours. Each hour I "descended" a bit until I was at ground level on the seventh hour. And at the closing, I sang for seven hours, accompanied by a CD of my Indian music teacher, Raka Mukerjee. Every hour I "descended."
It was a way for me to honor my mentors and teachers, borrowing their brilliance, the way I have been dopplegangering and borrowing from Mother Teresa, Bob Dylan, and Paul McMahon's presences in my performances as them.
I see these song-presence performances as rehearsals for me to practice being myself, as ways to "rehearse" being both theologically not-me in the spiritual world and yes-me in the world as it is. That is, it is so fabulous "being" Bob Dylan and singing like Raka Mukerjee.
In 2014, I performed a three-day, seven-hour-a-day lift performance at the Vortex Theatre in Austin, dressed as Mother Theresa, chanting from the Book of Psalms and also ranting–singing about current hysteria, trauma, politics, and the climate of the chaos of now.
If you go to Facebook and scan my private page, you can see images of this performance and if that doesn't work, go to YouTube where eventually the documentation will be there for free!
Free because after Occupy Wall Street's insistence on compassion being the “best currency,” and after I decided that I didn't want to be edited or turned down by distributors of my work, I made almost all of my videos free on YouTube, all of my writings free on my website and blog. My entire archive is free where it lives, resting at Fales Library, NYU, available for all to pursue. And by the way, if you look closely at the papers in the archive, you might find some backstories!
What about the lift, I ask?
My training as a Catholic prepared me to “look up.” That is, the mystery of the Ascension, the mystery of Jesus appearing on Mt. Tabor, the placement of the statues in niches above eye level were all part of my Church-culture, so I borrowed the way, borrowed the practice of looking up, which is actually a neurologically important way to play with consciousness. When we look up, our eyes activate the neurology of both the pineal and pituitary glands.
Also, I am not averse to being above the crowd for performative and ambitious, personal, social anxiety reasons!
#5: When I left the University of Texas, Austin, I came to upstate New York and began collaboration with my father who was in his late 80s. We videotaped our lunches and TV-watching and after a tragic mistake–accident caused by a very careless therapist, he developed a debilitating stroke, which left him partially paralyzed, and in need of 24-7 care.
I hid behind my video camera as his caregiver plus manager and on-site 24-7 daughter because the intensity of his illness was too much for me to view. But my Dad became this incredibly silent and divine presence. Maybe he was in an altered yogic state of right-brain bliss (see Jill Bolte Taylor) because he emanated a literal “light” on all who saw him/witnessed him.
Nothing I have ever experienced has touched the power or the beauty or the depth of this experience
I truly felt he was in a life-death state of presence because friends would visit and shudder or cry when they were with him. The atmosphere was quite "performance-like" in the house because of his vibrational frequency but also because his Catholic TV station played/messaged all day, and the house became a Church!
One day, a caregiver brought paints (thank you, Maggie) and after that, he sat in a painting trance for over an hour every day and, in total slow motion, made incredibly moving watercolors. Nothing I have ever experienced has touched the power or the beauty or the depth of this experience of being with my friend, my father.
Soon after his death, I made the video Dad Art as a way to mourn. Then I showed it to a small group of friends, but I've only twice shown it publically since then because it is NOT ART BUT LIFE. It is very delicate and fragile; it needs certain atmospheres and intentions in order to be shared properly.
I now have been working for three years with a pianist, David Arner. We meet very often and I sing the seven Dad-Mom songs. It is an incredibly beautiful experience. My Mom sang in Dad's band and I'm sure she sang all of the 1930s songs that I sing now.
I keep telling David, “I don't want to ever perform what we are doing. It is too beautiful.” Recently he said, “It will be even more beautiful when we perform it.” So David's encouragement has given me permission to Sing My Parents Songs, a seven-song event, only if I can be dressed as Paul McMahon. So I am being me as Paul, but singing as me. Singing is love.
#6: As I mentioned already, almost all of my videos are now free on YouTube. In the near future Living Art/Dying Art—my thoughts on death—will be there as well. Art has been generous to me. The least I can do is to give it back free.
Addicted to Love (1986)
Description: I incorporate this fantastic, fabulous, deeply dynamic, erotically charged celebratory film in as many of my performances as possible. It lifts me from my own ecstasies, trances, and judgments, and invites the only response appropriate: to dance.
Credits: Robert Palmer with dancers.
Water Angels Talking (1992)
Description: In the 1990s I collaborated with Loren Rush and Jan Mattox’s Good Sound Band. We performed my composition The Seven Chakras in San Francisco. While resting and enjoying California hospitality and their hot tub, I offered them a Seven Chakra Visualization meditation, which Jan recorded and eventually sent me this soundtrack, which I have reused in this film. When I converted it to video, I added images of adorable angels.
Credits: Composed and performed by Linda Mary Montano. Video editing and animation: Tobe Carey. Water video: Tobe Carey. Audio Producer: Janis Mattox. Good Sound Band virtual acoustics: Loren Rush and Janix Mattox. Piano Tuning Design: Loren Rush and Alfred Owens. Piano Tuning: Alfred Owens.
Nurse! Nurse! (2013)
Description: After I left University of Texas, Austin (UT), where I was teaching performance art, I returned to upstate New York, having actually been called home by my “good” inner voices, who counseled me to “go be with your father.” The backstory is that I was denied tenure, but actually, UT gave me the freedom to get to know my father for the last seven years of his life. Nurse Nurse comedically references caregiving a compromised elder (me) while preparing me for what might happen medically in my future. An important prop in this film is my dad’s lazy-boy chair. It triggers such pain because he had his stroke in that chair, and I needed to resurrect the chair from memory hell. Admittedly, this film is not funny, not easy, but in my estimation, totally necessary.
Credits: Editing: Tobe Carey, Willow Mixed Media. Camera: Josepha Gutelius. Nurse Actor: Laura Kopczac. Patient Actor: Linda Mary Montano. Nurse song and voice: Linda Mary Montano. Nurse Voice Over: Meg Carey. Additional audio recording: Jim Barbaro, Natural Recording Studio.
Living Art/Dying Art (2014)
Description: In the late ’90s, I presented a slide lecture on several occasions that demonstrated the way that my art references impermanence and dying. Video artist and editor Tobe Carey scanned the slides, and we collaged together the spoken narrative, images both of my own work and also of death rituals from many different cultures. The film is multifaceted: I feel, I mourn, I heal, I teach, I prepare for my final retirement.
Credits: Produced and directed by Linda Mary Montano. Editing: Tobe Carey. Sound voice: Jim Barbaro and Paul McMahon. Voices: Montano, Hominy and Ginger McMahon. Actor: Rich Granville.
MR: A couple of days ago I was visited by Aurora Josephson, a performer herself, who happens to be taking my History of Performance at Mills College this semester. She attended your SFAI performance and was deeply impacted by it. Here is her description of the experience.
Aurora Josephson: I have been fascinated increasingly with Linda Mary Montano’s early work and its overt symbols of Catholicism (I myself come from an Irish Roman Catholic family).
As I sat there in the SFAI auditorium waiting for Montano to begin her performance, the angels of the film absorbed me with their murmuring, mouths subtly moving. Then Annie Sprinkle walked in with her entourage. I saw the subtle camaraderie connecting these two powerful women. I noticed a buffer of companions separating me from them seated in the front row, as if we were in church and seated with our families. And I felt connectedness and belonging, but also the respect and formality one might experience at Sunday Mass.
Then came Montano’s mesmerizing chant! And I was reminded of the Gregorian chant I studied the first time I attended Mills College at age eighteen. I felt the sun on my face in Classroom One of the music building; there was a lush garden outside the window. Montano’s chanting washed over me, and I recognized the sacred memory in my mind might be symbolic of any sacred space, a temple or a church. Meanwhile, Montano chanted: “You are so marvelous. Time to remember all the saints. Time to remember all the martyrs… My art is my life.”
At this point, Montano donned her costume, and makeup, item by item. First, a blue silken patterned kimono, then a red wig, sunglasses, a facemask, and finally a gauzy silver cape draped around her, reaching the floor. The audience witnessed her transformation into an Other, but what that Other would signify was a mystery that only unfolded as the afternoon and the performance progressed. I thought the costume might be likened to any sacred garb. Perhaps a nun’s habit, perhaps a preacher’s collar, perhaps the Pope’s robes?
There was a single chair placed onstage. Montano issued an invitation to come and sit with her onstage. My curiosity escalated as I watched brave souls ascend to her in turn. I could not help but wonder what transpired between them, supplicant and ministering angel. I saw Montano’s caresses, her embraces, and her angels’ wings enfolding each person. And when I mustered up the courage, I walked over and sat down beneath her.
She leaned over and asked me, “Is there anything you would like to address today?” I responded without hesitation: “The early passing of my father.”
After my father’s slow, lingering death at the age of fifty-seven, I was devastated and am still rising from the ashes of confusion, pain, suffering, and a crippling depression. Montano drew my head towards her heart, and I could feel my heart chakra opening. The deep meaning of her tender gesture was apparent to me. When she said, “Thank you,” I was dumbfounded. I rushed back to my seat slightly embarrassed because I wanted to express my thanks but didn’t know how. Later, upon reading her account of the experience of her own father’s passing, I felt recognition and commiseration with the sorrow that comes from watching a father’s slow and untimely passing.
Upon reflection on this afternoon’s encounter with Linda Mary Montano, I felt the generosity of her spirit. I felt as though I had experienced a sort of public confessional.
This kind of confessional was intimate but played out before one hundred individuals and somehow retained the sacredness of the confessional box. Instead of a “father confessor” we experienced an angel unfolding her wings and encircling us with her compassionate embrace. I was touched by the selflessness of her actions, and the effortlessness with which she enacted the afternoon’s performance. It feels to me as though she is the shepherd of lost or misguided souls, wearing the mantle of selfless caregiver and therapist effortlessly.
In her latest work, there is a shift in focus, especially in the lectures she delivers. Montano appears as a guide through a process of her own devising, a kind of officiator or priest. She presides over each gathering as the giver of solid yet difficult advice on subjects such as preparing one’s self for death, being a caretaker of the dying, and letting go of ego.