Spotlight: Eleanor Antin’s Antinova Remembers, 1982

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Eleanor Antin, Antinova Remembers, 1982, Photo lithograph, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Feldman

 

In Eleanor Antin’s photograph, Antinova Remembers (1982), a woman’s melancholy gaze passes through a restaurant window and emerges as the central point among city lights, as waiters in white jackets turn away in the deep space at the back of a restaurant. The image recalls documentary photography, with its connotations of objectivity, but is a carefully scripted artifact of the performance of Eleanora Antinova, one of the personalities created and embodied by Antin.

Drawing upon early training as an actress, in the 1970s Antin developed a series of fictional characters “capable of calling up and defining” her own identity.[1] She detailed and chronicled the costume, manner, and biographical information of these figures in a blend of artistic formats such as film, photography, text and theatrical performance.

Antinova, first embodied by Antin in the late 1970s, is an aging black ballerina made famous by her work in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company. Antin sets Antinova’s time with the company roughly in the 1920s, a time when Josephine Baker was winning over Paris, and when the Jewish dancer Ida Rubinstein was restricted, but made famous, by the Ballets Russes in Orientalist costume and themes.[2] The artist’s most famous performance as Antinova took place over 20 days in 1981, during which time Antin painted her skin, assumed glamorous costume, engaged in Antinova-appropriate activities and interacted with others as the ballerina, in casual settings as well as in performances at the Ronald Feldman Gallery.

The blackness of the character of Antinova is layered with significance and provocation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the performance “has rendered most critics and historians decidedly silent.”[3] Not only does Antin appear to differentiate between cultural and historical implications of the African American experience, and the word “blackness” as a sign; she also locates the performance of identity within a tradition of Jewish performers assuming blackface, ultimately aligning themselves with whiteness.[4] Antin herself is Jewish, and the child of European immigrants. As Alisa Lebow notes, “the racialized otherness of the Jew in Eastern Europe,” and the “troubled history of Jewish blackface performance on the American stage and screen”[5] in the early 20th century inform her self conscious decisions and language surrounding race. Antin points to this history but confrontationally stages and reproduces some of these dynamics in the present.

Antinova Remembers serves as the cover for Being Antinova, a book documenting Antin’s performance of Antinova. Inside, the artist used a diary format and multi-media images to detail her subjective experience of both performing and being Antinova. Confusion intentionally permeates the project from start to finish: is this written voice stemming from the artist or the ballerina? Antin did not seek a seamless performance, or a veneer of total accuracy, aligning instead with other feminist art in presenting “her subjectivity not as being but as the agency of being.”[6] The sentimental nostalgia and isolation portrayed in the photograph are not truly Antin’s – are they Antinova’s? Problematizing personality, documentation, and narrative is an expansive task, but Antin expresses a strain of idealism as well in the closing passage of Being Antinova. She describes herself as one who “restore[s] histories…or those that should have been.”[7] Readers are left with a complicated definition of history: represented by Antinova, the past is demonstrably incorrect, but derives from pervasive truths, as Antin performs her melancholy to complicate the comfort and seamlessness of the present.

– Rachel Shipps, MA Candidate in Public Humanities ’14

For more on Antin and her multiple identities visit the ICA Boston’s exhibition “Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s ‘Selves’” open through June 6, 2014.

[1] Eleanor Antin, “Dialogue with a Medium,” Art-Rite (Autumn 1974) 23-24, quoted in Jayne Wark, “Conceptual Art and Feminism: Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, Eleanor Antin, and Martha Wilson,” Women’s Art Journal, 22:1 (Spring-Summer 2001), 47.

[2] Cherise Smith, “The Other ‘Other’: Eleanor Antin and the Performance of Blackness,” in Enacting Others: Politics of Identity in Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, Adrian Piper, and Anna Deavere Smith (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011) 124.

[3] Smith, 110.

[4] Smith, 98 and 104.

[5] Alisa Lebow,“Strategic Sentimentality: Nostalgia and the Work of Eleanor Antin,” Camera Obscura 22:3 (2007):142.

[6] Wark, 47.

[7] Being Antinova, 85.

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