On the occasion of her exhibition From Chakras to Glands at the Muroff Kotler Visual Arts Gallery, SUNY Ulster (October 13 – November 11, 2011) and the release of her video Starved Survivors, performance and video artist Linda Mary Montano welcomed Charles Duncan to her hometown of Saugerties, NY to talk about her current work, Catholic reawakening, and aging.
Linda Mary Montano: I always begin with a prayer and we both close our eyes during the interview. Is that okay with you, Charles?
Charles Duncan (Rail): Of course. Please begin.
Montano: Holy Spirit, you are the teacher, you are the talker, you are the inspirer, and you are the artist; so enlighten us so that we can feel our own understanding and then help vibrate our wisdom with the wisdom of the readers. We ask this. Amen.
Rail: Amen. Since the 1970s you’ve been a central figure in art/life performance art. In your 1981 book Art in Everyday Life you spell out directions for performing living art. Can we approach today’s conversation as a living art performance? If so, what does that entail?
Montano: Wish, intention, and will. So there’s the wish that today’s event is art, then there’s the intention that it is a right-brained sacred activity, and there’s the action of literally feeling and transmuting anything in the way of making the wish, intention, and will operative.
Rail: So we agree that this is a performance. You are well-recognized as a participant in feminist dialogue of the 1970s, but today I think we could say that you’re more involved in an art/theology dialogue. Presently you are engaged in a trinity of interesting artistic pursuits. One is an exhibition, another is an ongoing performance as Mother Teresa, and the third is a recently launched video titled Starved Survivors. Let’s start by talking about your exhibition at the Muroff Kotler Visual Arts Gallery at SUNY Ulster, in Stone Ridge, NY.
Montano: The exhibition is 14 Years of Living Art. Actually it’s called From Chakras to Glands. It was conceived after I completed 14 Years of Living Art, which is based on the seven chakras. In 1984 I began a seven-year chakra study. After the first seven years I got so enamored of discipline and repetition and loved all the colored clothes I was wearing that I repeated it another seven years. The back story is that I was living in a yoga ashram run by my teacher, Dr. R. S. Mishra. He also has a spiritual name, Shri Brahmananda Saraswati. His knowledge was stupendous and when he taught the seven chakras I became so enamored with the beauty of this inner world that I appropriated, borrowed, commodified it in my own Catholic, female, and limited way by making art of his teachings. Because the theology is so deep, it’s so multifaceted, it’s so extremely complex, I only touched the tip of the beauty of the chakra system. I created a piece where for seven years I wore one-colored clothes, I did private disciplines, I talked in a different accent each year with everyone except my blood family, I listened to one note that I chose for each of the chakras—a different one each year—and lived in a colored room five hours a day. It’s all spelled out on my website. Externally I went to the New Museum once a month and read palms and tarot cards in a colored room which they repainted each year. Out of that exploration came clothing and ephemera and relics that now appear in the show at the Muroff Kotler Visual Arts Gallery and this is the third retrospective of 14 Years of Living Art. The first was in Maine. Carolyn Eyler curated this. Another was in Montreal, curated by Jennifer Fisher, and this one was curated by Susan Jeffers. I love working with curators who give input and help me see my work so beautifully. I’m very happy with this show: it’s colorful, it’s beautiful, it’s bright, and filled with work from then and a new piece which includes the seven saris my best friend, Dr. Aruna Mehta from India, gave me which just happen to be the seven colors of the chakras. The room is a kaleidoscope of beauty.
Rail: In the exhibition we travel from youth to old age and I was intrigued by the altered clothing created with Luba Donskoj called the “Seven Children I Never Had.” It was curious because these were clothes you obviously did not wear during 14 Years of Living Art.
Montano: Let me explain. I have piles of clothes—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, white. And then seven jackets—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, white—and seven skeletons; small skeletons wearing the seven jumpsuits I wore and then, coming around the corner, there are seven little baby jumpsuits with colored scarves. These baby suits are a collaboration between me and the outsider artist Luba Donskoj, who was my mentor, my friend, and a great inspiration. She lived in Kingston, New York and was an Armenian person put in a displaced persons camp in the Second World War. She was a fabulous genius and totally in the moment at all times as an artist, creating art continually, day and night.
Rail: I believe she was one of only three people out of 3,000 who survived a train bombing during World War II.
Montano: I am childless, I am 69 years old, and Susun Weed in her book on menopause says that women who have not had children need to deal with that. I deal with it in my art and I also dealt with it literally in Los Angeles one day. I saw a Korean family with a very small child going into a McDonald’s and the mourning rose up in my throat so strong that I almost fainted. I was post-menopausal and I knew that I would never give birth and I think that it is important to mourn this loss and I think a woman who does not have children really feels that at one point. And as we age there’s also that question, “Who’s going to take care of me?” I think those seven little empty baby jumpsuits are poignant with the scent of beauty, loss, innocence, abortion; it’s multifaceted.
Symbolically the skeletons wearing my jumpsuits are complex; they’re not just skeletons. I’m always interested in death, but why was I working with so many skeletons back then? Was it because I lost my job? Felt empty? I guess not, because soon after I made the skeleton installations I found out that I was clinically diagnosed with osteoporosis. So art is often a harbinger of the future, of the past, and of the present, and is a curer and a healer and a place to vent, a place to get things out and shown and shared and when the heartstrings of the artist touch the heartstrings of the viewer some dynamite goes off and great things happen.
Rail: As with the seven chakras and seven glands, the number seven also has strong Roman Catholic associations: the sacraments, the deadly sins, the seven joys of Mary. So, as you returned to Catholicism, this theme worked pretty well for you.
Montano: Also the seven sorrows of Mary. I returned to the Catholic Church 15 years ago, slowly, slowly, and started going to very fundamentalist Catholic preachers, teachers, and priests who laid the law down. No yoga, no palm reading, no tarot, no chakras, no nothing. So in response I’ve written something called “Roman Catholic Performance Artist Manifesto: An Email Sent to Pope Benedict,” which you can read on my blog. And also I changed my focus from chakras to glands, and it’s a happy change, and I hope that it’s also an indication that my newfound Catholicism is a happy kind of overlay on my once wild, crazy, narcissistic, diva-like, and selfish life. I’m trying to be more generic and not ruffle feathers anymore. We all have glands but maybe swords would be drawn over the chakra inferences that I once made?
Rail: A very rich character or persona you’ve developed and performed recently is Mother Teresa. At this year’s Art in Odd Places festival as keynote speaker you performed as Mother Teresa. Also you have a video recalling a dream where you were Mother Teresa and more intensely, near the 100th birthday of Mother Teresa, you did three-hour performances as Mother Teresa on August 25, 26, and 27, 2010, at the Empire State Building. Perhaps you could talk a little about those performances.
Montano: Well, it’s again art about my life. I have dystonia, which is a movement-disordered, brain-sourced physical and chronic medical condition that is focused in my neck but is not all over my body. I don’t need deep brain stimulation with implants in my chest and wiring to the brain, which many people have, but I do get multiple Botox shots in my neck. So once, about four years ago, in the throes of spasm and twisting and shrinking and turning I said, “I feel just like Mother Teresa.” That day, art was born out of illness. Art is often born out of many, many things—lust and love and passion and sex. My recipe has often been the macabre, the underground, the dearth, the death, the suffering, and more suffering because I’m Catholic-trained and that’s where my food of contemplation often originated from—although as a returnee I’m learning that there was not just a crucifixion but also a resurrection and that’s offering me a new way to pray and see. Mother Teresa became one of my many art personas which I began exploring in 1975 when I sat in a studio for a year with a video camera and interviewed myself talking as seven different people who came out of me, and I call that exploration Creative Schizophrenia. I correlated those seven people with the seven chakras at the time. There was a nun, a nurse, a doctor, a jazz singer, a hula dancer, and many others. So it wasn’t unusual for me to do a persona, but what’s different about this is that a few years ago I was Bob Dylan and now Mother Teresa. I was Jill Johnston. These are real people, not fabrications, and I think it indicates that I am getting closer to being the real me.
Rail: Two personas in Learning to Talk, the video featuring the seven different characters, are recurrent types for you: healers and nuns. One is Sister Rose Augustine, and the other persona is a doctor, Dr. Jane Gooding, a British neurosurgeon interested in shamanism. In some ways Mother Teresa draws these themes together for you. She’s Albanian by birth and worked within the Catholic Church but the habit by which she is recognized is a white and blue Indian sari, so this is a strong idea for you, overlaying Indian culture and Catholicism. The idea of healing has also long been an interest of yours. Mother Teresa’s role was that of healer. And, again, the idea of mother itself has resonance. Mother Teresa took on the mantle of Mother only when she began her own missionary, the Missionaries of Charity. Not only was she the mother to other nuns within her order but she was literally a mother to people in the street to whom she provided nourishment.
Montano: Well, the nun in Learning to Talk was art-driven and had that old-time cynicism, mocking Catholicism in a sense, in that she’s telling how to sin, how not to sin, and what sin is. It’s the old Linda. It’s Linda before some sort of realization of getting my own theological act together which comes late in life, I think. So my version of Mother Teresa does not break rules or poke fun at Catholicism the way Sister Rose Augustine did. My Mother Teresa blesses whereas Sister Rose kind of prods—prods belief and prods native intelligence and invokes Marx—you know, that religion is the opiate of the masses stuff.
Rail: Your performances as Mother Teresa certainly do not embrace camp and they’re not ironic. They’re actually quite profound and the response of viewers is interesting.
Montano: Well, by not pushing against the envelope of religion through her I’m stepping aside and I’m letting myself bless. Blessing is one of the permissions of Catholics in the Charismatic movement, of which I’m a member. I’m not going to call it a sect—it’s not a sect—it’s a group of people who are sometimes seen as laughable outsiders in the Catholic Church and not always embraced. We talk in tongues, we bless, we sing, there’s prophecy. It’s a contemporary version of the early church, stripped of a lot of the things that have gotten in the way of real spirituality. My art always prepares me for my life, and I’m afraid to go around blessing and praying with people in real life, but my version of Mother Teresa does it in disguise—I’m doing it disguised as Mother Teresa whereas I believe I’m also imitating my adopted mother from India, Dr. Mehta, who was a healer and a great, great influence on me. I’m not sure how long I will have to perform Mother Teresa to learn how to feel comfortable by being a blessing and presence. We shall see.
Rail: For those who see your performances, your version of Mother Teresa is truly uncanny and the likeness can be quite disconcerting. When you performed in front of the Empire State Building you had look-alike bodyguards based on Robert Palmer’s music video, “Addicted to Love.” You surrounded yourself with these women who were dressed in black and wore sunglasses. And during performances strangers came up to you on the street and were blessed, really approaching you as the actual Mother Teresa, when of course they knew she had died several years earlier. And I’m just curious why you chose the Empire State Building, because there was some controversy about trying to get the blue and white colors of her order projected onto the Empire State Building as a tribute to her on her birthday, although that was not realized.
Montano: Yeah, I did it because there’s a Catholic group led by Bill Donohue who—whenever anything anti-Catholic happens, he rouses the forces. He let the Catholic world know that they weren’t going to turn the Empire State Building blue and white so I got the feeling…call…impetus… that Mother Teresa had to be there and I asked through the Franklin Furnace listserv for some artists to work with me as bodyguards—not bodyguards—as collaborators. They were four totally fabulous protectors and caregivers: Andrea Dominquez, Leah Aron, Zhenesse Heinemann, and Miss Toni Silver. We were there three days, three hours a day, and on August 26, Mother Teresa’s actual birthday, a man from India came up to me on the “receiving line” and told me, “My son was adopted from Mother Teresa in India 15 years ago. She, herself, presented him to me and today I would like you to give him your blessing.” I was moved beyond the beyond and also had entered that place of suspended belief that almost all of us there had reached. I was truly going to bless that beautiful boy. What I learned is that the need for “blessings” is universal and touches a soul chord in us all. Had I had children, I think I would have daily placed my hand on their heads and said, “I bless you, Mitchell and Mary.” Perhaps we should occupy toys and bless instead?
Rail: Your performances as Mother Teresa with entourage really were quite moving.
Montano: It looks simple but we worked for months and months and months on the costumes and what we were going to do and it was fabulous. We had such a good time, and what happens in art, and I’m finding this more and more—I really, really need to have a building where I live with other people who want to collaborate—for a long time, a little time—because what happens is we do this phenomenal piece and we’re in New York three days doing this work—they’re New Yorkers but I come down and we do this work—and then I go away and they go away and we miss each other. It’s been happening to me all the time and it makes me almost regret performing or doing my work because there’s this coming in, doing it, going. So I’m thinking about that a lot and I’m thinking about the cost of showing and telling and then leaving, or communicating and feeling and creating and then the creating of dissolution, the ending, how things end and then we all go our own way, and it’s not much fun because we get very close and we want to stay together. It’s time to have a co-op or a building where we all live together. Is that called a convent? Monastery? Let’s do it.
Rail: Well, for about 20 years you have run the Art/Life Institute in Kingston and you created a Summer Saint Camp that sounds like a lot of fun and has been quite interesting. Is that something you still operate and enjoy doing?
Montano: In 1984 I decided, when I started Seven Years of Living Art, that I would like to share my love of performance—have a school—and so I created Summer Saint Camp and put the ad out in Franklin Furnace asking for participants. Martha Wilson’s performance site has given birth to so many of us. I put the call out and each year someone came up to Kingston and lived and collaborated with me for two weeks and they got documented as performance artists and performance Saints. The Summer Saint Camp went on and on and on and stopped for a while. A few years ago I revised it and the time commitment has changed.
Rail: What kind of things would someone experience at Summer Saint Camp?
Montano: The rules were ascetic rules—you know, how much toilet paper, water, what food, silence, blindfolded experiences. It was a combination of having been a nun myself for two years—not really a nun, but a novice in the Maryknoll Sisters. I like that life, I like discipline, and I love being mother superior. I love being the boss.
Rail: So it was outrageously colorful asceticism? [Laughs.]
Montano: Yes, it was this mix of the past with an art twist.
Rail: Very recently, you released the video Starved Survivors which is a contemplation on Dante’s Inferno. As always—not as always—but in many of your recent moving image works, you combine dream imagery with fairy tales, biographical sketches, psychological studies, a bit of theology, and wrap it all into a very interesting narrative. In this work you appear at two different ages: as Orphan Girl and as the wizened female elder who counsels Orphan Girl. You assume the roles of both Virgil and Dante as you descend into rings of contemporary Hell.
Montano: I’m extremely excited about this tape. I really feel it’s my invitation to stop making them. I like listening to my intuition and my intuition is saying, “You did what you were here to do on this planet,” and I feel that this tape and Mitchell’s Death tape and a few others have my voice, my thinking, my heart, and I had to make a lot of other tapes to get to this one. It is a healing of the dark, a healing of hell, and a healing of the negative, a healing of the unspoken, a healing of the putrid, a healing of guilt, and a healing of the sins, my own sins, and the sins of the current universe. Not everything’s in it, but I’ve mentioned a lot of current trespasses! I mention tons of sins. I remember being extremely excited about the Divine Comedy in college and this chance to imitate and repeat and use this descent into darkness as a path to healing has excited me so much that I know that it was also a poem that came out of my pen, not out of me. I was the pen the poem came out of, so to speak. It was not thought about, it was not sweat over, there were not many versions. It just came.
Rail: It poured forth.
Montano: Poured forth, yes.
Rail: In Starved Survivors you offer some new circles of contemporary Hell rife with a lot of sociopolitical statements. I should actually point out what appears within Dante’s lower circles of Hell. The eighth circle specifically. Tarot reading. So it’s a good thing you’re not doing that anymore. Also wallowing in the eighth circle of Hell are impersonators.
Montano: Oooooohhhhhhh… Now I’m going to have guilt!
Rail: But of course only when impersonation is invoked for deception and personal gain.
Montano: Now I feel better—I think!
Rail: Another current interest played out in your performances is the brain.
Montano: I’ve become interested in the brain because I have a brain disorder. Dystonia originates in the brain’s wiring. I was extremely inspired by Jill Bolte Taylor’s video of her left brain stroke, and then in my research I found that Taylor, my meditation teacher Dr. Mishra, and Father Bede Griffith, had left brain strokes which left them with similar sensations of euphoria, ecstasy, delight, love, and compassion. Their new realities were absolutely fine with life and presence and love. They didn’t need the attachments of left-brain input. Having had a small left brain stroke myself, I did not end up with these wonderful gifts of supreme compassion and enlightenment and love, but it made me interested in thinking about how artists use their right brain for similar types of ecstatic inspiration. The left brain is the filter brain, the brain of thinking and analyzing and being self-centeredly concerned with products, shopping, commodities whereas the right brain is the brain of poetry and flight. Now this is very, very fundamental, kindergarten medical thinking, but the stroke conditions of these three people did help me to make an analogy—artists are journeyers and seers who are able to choose the right brain as a pathway, a vocation, and job description and, as a result, open the door to the sacred. Artists are called to not only hang out and be in the right brain but to invite the viewer to go there to have some relief from the pressures of everyday life.
Rail: Does that have particular resonance with endurance art?
Montano: Endurance cuts through habituation and the longer one endures, the better the journeying. The brain’s need for thought and action and worry and planning is endless and endurance gives carte blanche to the brain for unadulterated presence so we can be in life instead of doing life. When I endure, I don’t shop for new life experiences, I rest in the minute. We are programmed towards consuming life instead of loving life, consuming life instead of sitting with the pain, sitting with the distress, sitting with the medical report, sitting with the divorce, sitting with the death of the husband. Endurance is good medicine just like art is good medicine. Each artist chooses their drug of choice including performance, painting, sculpture, video, poetry, cooking, taking care of a grandmother. And we do it with great attention and intention, music, singing, etc. Life is not just about worrying but worry and life issues can be brought over to the right brain for cleansing, purification, and mixing. That is the art/life formula. Both my grandmother and mother were great at this practice and I watched them closely.
Rail: On a collective level, do you view the Occupy Wall Street protests as a form of collective endurance art and do the people who participate in them go through the same processes?
Montano: You said it. Why do I cry when I see these crowds telling the truth en masse and enduring for justice? It is the most powerful performance going for sure.
Rail: Where else do you want to go with our conversation?
Montano: To the aging performance artist’s body, maybe. Performance artists are just as vain and haughty and diva-ish and concerned and caught up with this disintegration of our physical bodies and are just as tempted to buy into what happens in L.A. to aging actresses, so it’s really interesting to be aging and either avoid the body betrayal or say, “Look at my lines, look at my forehead, look at my face, look at my no-hair.” Our bodies are our material, our bread and butter, and we have to think about this mirror stuff which takes time and tears and humor, so we go off to the sidelines and say, “How am I going to show myself?” How can we find new ways to present ourselves honestly and not honestly, to hide behind lifts and scrubs and peels and injections? And if we don’t do that, performance artists sometimes show the truth of the betrayals of the body.
Rail: As a feminist artist, there is a great weight perhaps. There’s a debate about how honestly you present yourself. If the female body is the subject at a younger stage, how do you present it and embrace it later on? Do you do that honestly?
Montano: Yeah, it’s really interesting. Not to name names, but some artists literally presented this dialogue as public surgery and others as mutilation. My colleagues and I are studying each other without saying, without admitting, our dilemma, and I would love to see lots of art panels and conferences with all of us coming out nude. No nothing, no make-up, no hiding. Like the Naga female and male monks in India who actually live without clothes. They are the true artists and I always wanted to be one of them, so I may actually have to go there and do this one! By acting as Mother Teresa, who is old and shrinking and small and wrinkled and not caring about looks or wrinkles or anything except to show love, I am allowed to present the wrinkled Linda and I’m not ashamed of the aging me. You see, my art always prepares me for my life and so now because I present myself as Mother Teresa, I am preparing to present myself as me. I am rehearsing. What great healing medicine art is.
Rail: As Judith Butler said, we do tend to shield the self and its identity from the “predatory encroachments of its contaminated other.”
Montano: I want ice cream.
Linda Mary Montano: Always Creative, a retrospective of Linda’s work, curated by Janet Dees, in collaboration with the artist, will be shown at SITE Santa Fe, February – May 2013.