Few people spend days gnawing on a 600-pound block of chocolate, allow spiders to construct webs between their legs or submerge themselves in baths of lard.
In a Monday night talk at the Yale School of Art, performance artist Janine Antoni described all of those as the process of making art. Antoni said that in her work, she focuses on that process just as much as the end result.
For example, Antoni said she spent a month and a half chewing enormous blocks of chocolate and lard for a sculpted work, “Gnaw.”
“I am an artist that is obsessed with the viewer,” Antoni said, adding that by keeping herself out of the final work, while leaving her bite marks behind, she could force viewers to put themselves in the artist’s shoes.
The goal in such pieces, she said, is to make the viewer empathize with the process itself, rather than standing back as a removed observer.
Antoni said she has always been preoccupied with ideas of gender and nurture, with cows and umbilical cords among the most dominant images in her works. Becoming a mother herself has influenced her as an artist, she said, citing her daughter’s insomnia and fixation with her mother’s navel as inspirations for recent pieces.
Antoni said her art draws upon the language of feminist performance artists of the 1970s — a legacy she said she strives to continue because it has yet to be fully absorbed into popular culture.
“She has a body of work that has the ingredients of the feminist perspective, but has them as ingredients, not as motives,” said Robert Storr, dean of the School of Art, in an introduction to Antoni’s lecture.
Two themes permeate Antoni’s work, she said: the breach between people and their bodies and that between mother and child. As an example, she cited her installation “Wean,” which comprises a series of negative impressions of her breast, her nipple, three latex nipples and their packaging against a white wall. Antoni explained that her entire body of work is concerned with “the stages of separation we go through with our own bodies as we are weaned into culture.”
Julia Fischer, a recent college graduate from Los Angeles who attended the talk, said she was particularly struck by Antoni’s focus on the relationship between the mother and child, describing her work both as “tantalizing” and “incredibly intimate.” Fischer reiterated Antoni’s own assertion that although it is impossible to have a neutral reaction to Antoni’s work, the artist’s works are not created for pure shock value.
Antoni was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1998 and a Guggenheim Fellow in 2011.