The following conversation took place in January of 2003.
Ellen Pearlman (Rail): You said that there was no separation anymore between “my work and my life.” What do you mean by that?
Meredith Monk: Well I think it has always been a goal for me to not separate the moments of our lives that include art. I am now realizing that my meditation practice and my art are not two separate things. I am more conscious about the fact that one’s art is also a bodhisattva practice.
It is not that, O.K., that the practice is over here and the art is over there, and the life is over here and the art is over here. So I think it has been a lifelong desire to weave things together, and that is a metaphor for the way I work and try to live. It isn’t totally integrated, but is an ongoing process I am trying to understand more and more as I go along.
Rail: How did you learn technique and become a singer and performer, and when did the undercurrent of dharma grow in relationship to your work?
Monk: From when I was 18 to when I was 21, there was a psychic necessity for me to weave all the fragments of myself into some sense of a whole, which manifested in the way I thought about performance. I always sang as a child and wrote music and played piano. I developed the movement aspect with the larger sense of performance and theater with a little bit of film at Sarah Lawrence. Soon after I left school and came to New York. I made my own pieces and understood how they became a metaphor for the larger picture of society. I needed to make a form that utilized all the different resources we have as human beings, both as perceivers and as creators, that was a healing element of the world that we lived in, because of the speed and fragmentation that was more and more apparent.
Rail: Whenever I see your work, it speaks to me on two levels. One is the level of the actual sound or performance. The other is a secondary, nonverbal undercurrent. I feel like you are talking about two things at the exact same time.
Monk: I am actually interested in working with things you can’t talk about, with energy that we sense but can’t describe. So I think that you are feeling that non-discursive energy. In relation to “Mercy”, Ann Hamilton and I realized that we don’t articulate what we are working on because we work alone, trying to find something new inside the unknown. But when there were two of us, we did have to verbalize what the other person was working on, and understand each other’s process.
I always say work is like making a soup. You have these vegetables and they are in the pot, and the carrots are the carrots and the peas are the peas, but little by little they get boiled down to an essential expression or essential form. So you have to tolerate just letting them be.
In “Mercy” you saw my mouth open and close, my lips come together. When you saw the dark, I closed my lips, and when I opened them you saw the light shining in. The mouth was used as an eye. The idea behind this is that you are displacing one function of the body to another function of the body. Ann has worked with a pinhole camera where she has it in her mouth and opens her mouth for the exposure and then closes it for the still image.
Rail: The most poignant images I saw in “Mercy” were when you put the two nylon strings together and pulled them apart and sang into the quivering tension of the surface bubble.
Monk: The membrane.
Rail: Yes, the membrane. And I know people who burst into tears; they just felt it was so indicative of fragility. Where did that come from?
Monk: Ann heard about a man who works with that technology in Columbus, Ohio. He has done art pieces where the bubble membrane is as big as a building. I went to Columbus and tested it out. We thought it might not work in a theatrical situation because the bubble would be popping all the time, and then we realized that popping was part of the image. So we just kept singing into it no matter what.
Rail: The actual idea of “Mercy” is a very bodhisattva, Mahayana kind of ideal. I found it interesting you actually had refugees in the piece.
Monk: I had read a book called Lest Innocent Blood be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There, by Phillip Hallie. He found out about this town during World War II in Southern France, of farmers who took in anyone who came to their door and saved the Jews. They were a Protestant community who had suffered a lot in France, a Catholic country. The Germans knew about it, and it was such a pacifist town that they didn’t burn it down.
Monk: Because they weren’t hiding the underground, Le Resistánce, it was one of these strange things where the commandant knew. Everyone was hidden but this one old man, and he was captured. The entire town came with all the food that they had—and they didn’t have much—and put it next to him, and they sang all these songs for this man who was being taken to the camps. I think the Germans ended up releasing him.
Something about this idea of goodness being ordinary, you just do it whether your life is at stake or not, because these people never questioned it. They never thought of themselves as big heroes, they just thought that that is what decent human beings do. And they were at risk of being killed every day, so, you know, there’s just something inspiring about that.
Rail: Well, I know you started working on “Mercy” before September 11. Did you have any sense of how profound it was going to be, or how prophetic?
Monk: No, we performed it in July 2001, right before September 11. And one of the images we had been talking about, which was bits of paper falling from the sky, we had to figure out how to rig it. We were both a little nervous because we thought, “Oh, it is so obvious in relation to September 11,” but we decided that it was really right for the piece. It has a somber quality. I usually use a lot of humor in my work, and I was questioning it as we were working, and I knew that that was what the piece was asking; it had a kind of depth that you had to drop into.