Linda Montano’s work was introduced to me fairly recently, as I expanded my ideas about dance beyond traditional technique and into the realm of performance art. Performance art is simply a conglomeration of all live elements of art. It is the act of breaking down the walls between visual art, dance, theater, voice and sound. The body is the necessary element to the form, and so I immediately found an affinity to the ideas behind performance art.
After reading about Linda, I became more and more fascinated with how I could expand my choreographic eye into areas I had never thought of as dance. Due to Jennie Klein’s generous offer, I was able to attended the National Review of Live Art in Glasgow after interviewing Linda, and was blown away by the many different kinds of physical expression I witnessed. And all of it was coming from outside the “dance world.” Thus, I feel as if my acquaintance with Linda opened a new door into an expanded definition of performance.
Last December I met Linda in New York City on the second floor of a little diner on Time Square. Construction workers sat next to our table and the ceiling had a leak. We tuned that all out and just talked for an hour. The way Linda spoke of spirituality is entirely different from the rhetoric of Bebe Miller. Linda actively practices and identifies as a Roman Catholic artist. Her work is created with doctrine and specific religious topics in mind. She had come to the city to read a letter in front of St. Patrick’s. The letter addressed the issues of the Catholic Church, which found to be misunderstood in the Church. So, when we finished our conversation we proceeded to St. Patrick’s and prayed together in the chapel, kneeling before God.
Linda: Do you mind? I close my eyes when I interview.
Mary: When did you first begin to think of your work being influenced by your spirituality?
Linda: I’d like to begin this with a prayer…Holy Spirit let us collaborate on finding information that will be useful for both of us, and may it support our visions and help not only us, but people who come in contact with this information.
I guess when I left the convent and I went back to college and there was a nun there who was teaching, a wonderful nun. Just free. Back then she was wearing full Habit, but she was teaching sculpture and her attitude was so free and so loving and so helpful and so humorous and she gave me a spiritual key. And the key was to unlock my door of freedom, of creativity. And that door was also related to the door of spirituality because I had placed art on such a high pedestal, of vocation, and attainment, and reverence. It had the same…I knew art could get me to that same level of transcendence that I was getting when I went to church. Because I had seen it happen. I had seen my dad listen to music and transcend, and I could see my mom paint, and my grandmother, who was like a performance artist. I had seen her make art and transcend daily life.
Mary: I agree with you. I see artists transcend daily life through their art, but do others, outside, share in that transcendence?
Linda: I think it is a neurological…In fact you should read Oliver Sack’s book on music. He talks about the brain being wired for not only different sensational responses to reality, but also spiritual response. I think it’s sometimes just habitual wiring patterning. We were not a verbal family. We didn’t talk. We didn’t discuss. We didn’t debate. We didn’t work things out verbally, so I was really moved to my head chakra so to speak. To the Penial and Pituitary, and from the neck down I was pretty disregarded or inert. So maybe what was concocting up there was allowing me to play in that head arena with more joy and with more imagination, creativity, and sensual fluency, because that was my language. So you really want to look at things in terms of neurology and brain, and heart also, but it’s really your upbringing, culture, atmosphere, home life, and things happening inside the home. I mean if you compare the home life in the 40s and 50s, I wonder if you have the same kind of patterning neurologically or chemically. You’re talking about chemistry. Somewhere I was reading, God is G spot. Maybe God is a place of the sacred, but what is “sacred?” What is “transcendence?” What is “transfiguration?” Or spiritual ecstasy or the unitive. What is the unitative way in terms of a spiritual practice? But I felt like I was not only addicted but I was kind of programmed to get to that path via my family upbringing and programming and having gone to church and having being programmed for ecstasy.
Mary: I know you were quite involved in the practice of Eastern religions, so how do you see them in relation to Catholicism? How do you feel they fit together?
Linda: Well, actually, I was teaching sculpture at a Catholic women’s college in Rochester, NY, and a yoga teacher, an old old woman, maybe in her 60’s or 70’s, came in and started Hatha yoga, and through her I met her teacher who became my guru so to speak. He was a wise, smart, compassionate being who had been a medical doctor, a neurosurgeon and a craniologist, who switched allegiance so to speak from the medical practice to yoga because he thought he could heal better if he were immersed in traditional yoga, but he wasn’t traditional at all. He was very charismatic and able to create this community of meditators and Sanskrit scholars and artists. He was absolutely well rounded in his ability to enter us through all the charkas, so to speak. When I met him he was very magnetic. I was magnetized to him. I was also newly married to my husband and I was just really magnetized to yoga and I think what it did for me was it got me past my head and back to the bottom of my body, which had been cut off. And yoga was the beginning of acknowledging that I had feelings, I had language, I had a body. And I actually began performing once I began practicing yoga. In public dancing, in public lying in meditation. So yoga and performance were natural allies. And I think what happened was that I really had a strong calling to be a catholic priest and because that wasn’t an option in Catholicism I was able to segue from the catholic priesthood for women to performance. And as a performance artist became a priest. Meaning, I could help not only my self but others climb to the sacred, or move to the sacred, or ascend to the sacred.
Mary: Like the performance becomes a kind of Mass?
Linda: Yeah, yeah, that’s heretical what were saying right now. But that’s okay, I just want that on record that this is heresy…but yes. I mean that’s pagan and heresy and not something a catholic would say, but yes it’s true.
Linda: Symbolically, metaphorically, oxymorannically, moronishly,
Mary: How did people react to the sacred in your work? When you were creating work around the post-modernist area, did people say “no” to religion, “no” to meaning…
Linda: Well is was in the 70’s and 80’s and late 60’s and it was more about “yes” to eastern religions and “yes” to feminism, and “yes” to drugs, “yes” to experimentation, “yes” to no authority and “yes” to the breaking down of all systems into peace, love, and community. And “yes” to feminism, so women embraced performance…but we all felt that we were creating a movement and not only mentoring the movement, but modeling what was happening politically and culturally and physiologically. I don’t think I answered the question…
Mary: Well, no. I guess I’m wondering how people reacted to your use of eastern religious concepts in your performance. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you had been vocal about your devotion to the Catholic church and organized religion at the time, other artists would not have been on the same page at all so to speak, but was it a different story when you associated your work with eastern religion?
Linda: I did something very disloyal. When I was getting my MA in Europe in Florence, Italy, I was still practicing, a fringe catholic. I was unhappy with Catholicism, but I was still internally and subconsciously aligning myself with the titles; sacred art and sacred artist. And then, I went to grad school in Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, and something clicked there, and it was: Linda, artists cannot be Catholic. And I divorced myself. I was not a strong practicing Catholic then, but I decided that I would be a flip-flop artist. I’m not going to be “religious”…I’m not going to be Catholic. Cause, you know, I was making crucifixes in Italy…
Mary: That is a strong current in the art world today as well, the idea that you can’t be religious.
Linda: It’s over now. It’s now, today, currently, very avant garde to be a Catholic artist. To be “practicing religious fundamentals” or whatever. But it is a beginning, it is a beginning trend. So I really felt bad about that. I felt like that was a pattern of disloyalty, that I have to watch that in my self and not do that. I have to really ask; what is right to believe? I have to ask; who am I being disloyal to? Is it myself? Or what crowed am I trying to follow? And you know, why am I doing what I’m doing? And who am I betraying in my choices? So I really betrayed my call to be a catholic artist when I went to graduate school. From then on I laughed at the Church, I laughed at nuns. I made art that was down right sacrilegious. Not a lot of it…you know I did pornography… I was in the healing mode of disregard. Let’s be cynical about it, laugh at it, poo-poo it so to speak. But I did honor the eastern way because it was exotic, it was different, it was not catholic, it didn’t have the sins that I had ascribed to my past religion, and so, I played with the sacred, but via eastern traditions. Then, as I aged a little more, discerning, and knocked around by life I realized, wow, I better start working hard, because I had dropped my youth and the values of my youth, and the security I had found in Catholicism, and especially when I taught full time and I had all these students who were being very wild and wonderful and permissive, but I hadn’t had physical children. I think when people have physical children they change and I hadn’t changed. I was still like “do what you I want! Lets have a bong!” And we were all having a ball, but I got in trouble. And they got in trouble, and then I got in trouble. And I though “gee, I’ve got to rearrange and become accountable in a new way.” And then I took care of my dad and in doing that I was going back in time to my early Catholicism. So now…
Mary: Caring for your father was kind of also a way of taking care of a child figure that you never had. Caring deeply for someone.
Linda: I think so, I think so. Because I was just taking care of “Artist Linda,” who could do whatever she wanted, whatever way she wanted. Anyway…
Mary: I wanted to know how creed and doctrine, and the restrictions that religion places on art effect you.
Linda: Restriction and art? Restriction is like labor pains and art… artist really thrive on pain and suffering and upset and chaos. That’s our food. And for me it has been extremely chaotic and extremely painful. And people are mad at me and angry. Where’s the old Linda?! You’re not supporting us anymore! I have been through great, great pain. It’s almost symbolic. I can’t believe we are talking about this today because today is my graduation. I see priests and confess, and I found a real smart one. They become directors and mentors and smart people who can help. And one said “Use it [Catholicism] for your art,” which I know and it is something that I teach, but today is a real breakthrough for me. I found the venue to take the pain and create with it. To make it my clay, my dance, my poetry, my sculpture, my living sculpture. So, I think the secret is to not get all discombobulated when the caldron of chaos is at boiling point and ready for what’s to be put in it. But it has been a tremendously painful process, and I’m at the point where I can’t go back and be the old me. I mean, I use old also as…there is something that happens with aging and art, and women and art, and aging in general and the spirituality of aging in general. I think what happens is that people get scared because death is looming closer and closer and my age group starts dying. I want to be an intelligent Catholic this time around. Before I was young, I was believing without intelligence. Now I want to be free, but I also want to be obedient and respectful, and I want to be for justice without displaced anger, which makes basically angry people do activism. So I don’t want to be that kind of gnashing, masturbation…[angry sound]…gay rights…[angry sound]…women priests, but I want those subjects in there in a different way. All those things need to be in there. So I feel it is really wonderful to have met you. You are a midwife to me…that is really nice.
Mary: I run into the attitude that you have to be in a tumultuous place in your life, having crazy or awful things happening in order to create your art. But if you create art from some place that’s stable in your life or a place of balance, which a spiritual practice such as yoga or meditation can sometimes offer, your art is somehow less meaningful.
Linda: I think I understand what your getting at, but I’m not going to answered it how you expressed it. How I hear what your saying is that previously there was a belief system built up around art and the artist as the wild, untamed, suffering, crazed, unstable, not calm, not peaceful, not loving individual who was going to drink, smoke, fuck, and not get paid. And that died, that concept died, but it died when artists started making lots of money. I think if you looked at the timeline it went from crazy to wealthy, and I think now the door is opening for the artist to go toward mystic or enlightened, or compassionate, or aware, maybe aware is a more general term for what we are talking about. But those are almost cultural/political positions that follow the concept of art. I think as art became more, the doors opened to what it is to be an artist. We’ve moved from the genius of Michael Angelo with his socks being adhered to his feet, to the art of individual interpretation. It’s really opened the doors. And for you it might be about the practice of balance and compassion. I’ve always been a ricochet kind of artist. The creativity ricochets off what is happening in my daily life, and this particular ricochet event is not always tragic and chaotic, but the cure this time has been rocky. The medicine, the chemotherapy of it has been a bit painful.
Mary: You said there is an event that your art ricochets off of, and so I’m wondering how your spiritual life fits into that?
Linda: Because I am a performance artist I have used my body. That is my medium. I made sculpture, but now this is what I call living sculpture, and my body is my clay, my paint. What I do now, I’m living in my dad’s house, but I make believe almost that in order to heal myself on a daily basis, to work with myself, to keep myself out of chaos and places I’d rather not be visiting, I perform in my house for me and for God. I perform for God until I feel…I use God in quotes. I perform for the Holy Spirit until I feel that the Holy Spirit has visited me. So, I no longer have to use you, or use the audience, or use others, or use the eyes of other, or the voyeur, or the look. I no longer have to use that in order for me to create a change in consciousness that is a higher consciousness. That I can then transmit back to them. You see, it was a game of them to me, me to them. So what I’m doing now is Holy Spirit to me, and me back to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit to me and then me to my environment. And I don’t wait till I have an audience to do that and I don’t wait for a gig to do that, cause I don’t have many gigs these days. I think this speaks to what you were talking about with yoga and the spiritual practice. The practice now becomes when I go to church in the morning I’m doing it, when I’m at church, and when I come home and I turn on the radio and I try to incorporate a kind of …actually I have neurological disease called Dystonia, so I have to perform with my body in mind, not and mind, because of my body discomfort. But now performance is truly daily life.
Mary: what is that?
Linda: Medically I had a stroke in 91, and some people get this misfiring into the dopamine, where the nerve is telling my head to turn to the left. So if I didn’t have this scarf on I’d be looking at the wall. It has different manifestations. I use it, I make art about it, I put it in one of my videos, actually, I’m going to do this comedy act about it. So, things are good, It’s okay to be in a particular kind of jail of prohibition now because I’m working with it. It’s making me do the research to become more intelligent in my external practice so that I can internalize it, and maybe find a way…there are things called mental option and conscious. There are very fundamentalist ways of to be a Catholic and then there are liberal ways of being a Catholic. I am now in the fear, fundamentalist, don’t do anything bad or you’ll go to hell school, but I’m having to train myself so that I can make intelligent decisions about my choices. And that is part of my art practice.
Mary: So there are fundamentalists and then liberals on totally opposite ends of the spectrum?
Linda: Well, there is a kind of radical liberal on the other side of the pendulum from fundamentalists, and then there is conservative in the middle. The fundamentalist say, you can’t do anything, and then with liberals there are women priests, but they get excommunicated from the church. Having come from an Eastern playground of permission, love, and joy and peace and then back into this punitive church is my work right now. And yet, you know it’s almost embarrassment because people say, “what the hell are you doing, you use to be so fun. Come play with me.”
Mary: but for some reason that doesn’t sound like it’s stifling you…
Linda: no, no. it’s just a different call. A different path. And I was getting in trouble being out here. I was having affairs, which was hurting me and them. I need “no, no, no, no.” I needed no, no, no. I needed focus because I wasn’t doing good.
Mary: Maybe fun for other people, but not you.
Linda: Yeah. I needed a change.
Mary: It’s tricky in the art world, there is a lot of “whatever goes” attitudes towards individual choice, behavior, and morality. Often those attitudes translate further into; the more wild or rebellious the artist is, the better the art produced.
Linda: Well that’s the training. You almost go to art school to get that. And I was training people like that, with that mantra.
Mary: It seems like people need to have their view of the world shaken a bit in order to make interesting work. If you never question, explore, experiment, the artist will find it hard to produce anything beyond the mundane. So, the “art school” training is not entirely unfounded. One needs to break out of the mold of conformity and similarity of culture, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that one must go through rebellious debauchery.
Linda: Exactly. I think it really is, “whatever goes” in order to get to transcendence. And during the process, it’s like we broke that myth, we broke that stereotype of the need for money, security… greed, our upbringing, the fear of death. We got all that worked out, but some people just need to find that through doing things that are bombastically, chaotically, permissive…and that’s what I had to do. Would you say a prayer?
Mary: Yeah. God thank you for this time. This moment to share where we are both at in our artistic processes and our spiritual journeys. How those two things relate, and how that feeds us and lets us grow closer to you, God. Thanks you for this lovely cold day and our time together. Thank you Lord.