MUTUAL THINK = BEAUTY
An exchange with Linda Mary Montano and Juliana Driever
Linda Mary Montano: I start first with my eyes closed, and then with a general breath of fresh air to my mind and your mind, and my mouth and your mouth, and then to whoever is going to read this, to their mind and to their mouth, so that they can repeat any of it in a way that’s helpful to them. OK, I’m ready.
Juliana Driever: Where are you right now?
LMM: I’m sitting on the sun porch of the house that I grew up in, when I moved here when I was six, in Saugerties, NY. In an easy chair.
JD: What do you hear?
LMM: I’m reading Kay Larson’s book on John Cage, so I’m really teaching myself to hear better, and of course Pauline Oliveros is the queen of hearing and she always inspires listening. I hear the ceiling crackle a bit, but that triggers a feeling like: I had coated it – the flat roof – I had coated it last summer and when am I going to have to coat it again? So, the hearing led to thought, but I like hearing best if it just leads to sensation and not thought.
JD: Is everyone an artist?
LMM: Absolutely. Because everyone has a left and a right brain, and everyone has access to the right brain, which is the brain of freedom, and the brain of awareness, and the brain of presence, and the brain of spaciousness, and the brain of no space, no time, and whoever plays in that right brain and then brings it over to the left brain to translate it into form, is an artist. Everyone loves playing in that right brain, one way or another, and so we all share that title “artist.”
JD: How do you feel about insider/outsider designations?
LMM: That’s a good question. I’ve come up with a theory that the artist has seven hats. It’s going to be a short poem, essay, thought. It’s about this possibility for us as creators to put on the hat that allows us different opportunities: the opportunity to dream, to intuit, to need to create and then the opportunity to market, sell, get noticed, create rituals of inclusion, schmooze, make big art, find a patron, be stabled in a gallery...these are all examples of the different hats artists can wear. Outsiders don’t want to wear a lot of these hats. Insiders do.
JD: How are rituals about control?
LMM: They’re about controlling the need of the mind to know and think. What rituals do is catapult sensibilities over to the right brain, which is not about hurry, worry, thinking, planning. Sometimes rituals include endurance, or scent, or overwhelming visuals, or movement out of the box of everyday. The purpose of ritual is to not so much to control the left brain, but to un-control it so that there’s a swimming through the corpus callosum over to the right brain.
JD: How are rituals about anxiety and loss?
LMM: I’ll just tell this story. I’m reading the Cage book and he was interested in telling stories, so I’m inspired to tell one also. I lived part-time in the 90’s at Ananda Ashram, where my meditation teacher… Oh, I’m starting to cry. [Pauses] Great man, such a great man. [Pauses] My meditation teacher was really available for any question we had and there were always guests at the ashram. All kinds of people came though because he was the Guru’s Guru. What do they say in academia? The teacher’s teacher? He was a master teacher and all other Gurus wanted to come to him. Once, there was a holy man from India who had a Hare Krishna bag, which hung around his neck. There was a mala in the bag and his hand was in there, fingering his beads. You could hear him chanting his mala, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, over and over and over. I had lots of questions, and I remember asking: “Why is he constantly in mantra?” And, my Guru said, “He was driving a car and killed a child.” So he was using the ritual of repetition to face the dragons and the hell-hole of the left brain and of the thinking mind. So, ritual does many things. It draws deep, deep connection to the primal, to the intuitive, to the quiet, to the primitive, the cave man, to the dark, to night, to vibrational frequencies that are very, very, positively powerful. It’s like a garden. Ritual is a garden that can grow extremely powerful flowers.
JD: How do you judge success and failure when art and life are one and the same?
LMM: Often, my art is better than my life, and if I’m not learning from my art, I don’t call it failure, I just say I have to make more art to make my life better.
JD: To me it seems that in the rare case a contemporary artist does approach religion as a subject, there is usually a distanced relationship to it, with the use of irony or critique. How does one create a sincere and authentic religious artwork as in a contemporary art context?
LMM: I think that need for apologizing for being ironical is ending. Apology is ending. What’s happening is that we’re sorting out the audience according to taste: some viewers are brave and publically admit that they are drawn to religious art and that's new because previously it was verboten to be smart, Avant and still be in the religious art camp.
I have another story. I went to a Catholic college, and my mentor was an incredible/radical nun, Sister Mary Jane Robertshaw, and she cured me of anorexia and craziness by giving me full freedom to make art and sculpture in her college classes. When I went on to graduate school in Italy, where I got an MA in Sculpture, I was making crucifixes and recognizable religious art, seriously. Then, I went on to more graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and I got really jaded and shy and ironical and blasphemous in that I started thinking like a “professional artist,” not like me. So I stopped doing what I probably would have done had I not gone on to this particular graduate school because I was afraid of being laughed at, or I was shy about my Catholicism. Simply put, I stopped making religious art.
Ironically, I’m now back in the Catholic church and thinking of re-doing the Visitation which is the one of Mary embracing Elizabeth and they’re both pregnant. I’m also making a video about the fact that there are no women priests in the Catholic church. So, I feel pretty balanced now, and unafraid and ashamed that I dropped it all for bad reasons. I wanted to be included and I didn’t want to be a traitor to modern art, and now at 71, I’m doing what I have to do, and I don’t care if it doesn’t fit into the insider’s view about what can and can’t be done. Plus, I feel that door has opened and if it’s good, no matter what it looks like, it’s good. Intelligence has changed and critique has changed, and the male model of taste and belongingness has changed so that artists now have more personal goals and more courage to establish their own aesthetic identity, and choose their subject matter according to their taste and needs.
JD: What is the creative purpose of humor?
LMM: My only take on that is that in American Indian dances – and I’m not sure if it’s every dance, because I’m not a student of that cosmology – but I know from having gone to these dances with Pauline Oliveros and Jerome and Diane Rothenberg, that there’s usually a Heyoka, or sacred clown included in their rituals. The reason is that when they go into heightened states, of the vibrational frequencies of the sacred, there has to be a sacred scapegoat to absorb the collective subconscious of the viewers and balance out the intensity of beauty and truth. You’ll notice in Tibetan Buddhist rituals, they’ll look around, they’ll laugh, they’ll joke with each other. The sacred is so intense that you have to break it with reality, with laughter.
JD: What is an odd place?
LMM: I think what is happening is that more and more people are being introduced to expression of the creative, then what evolves is more and more layers of exposing odder places: the internet, YouTube – and, what are those, flash mobs?
I would just mention two things. One: the beauty of the way Ed Woodham worked with and encouraged his mother, who was ill, by providing drawing materials for her. According to Ed, she produced magnificent work. This is an example of an "odd place," where true art is happening. Also, artists are teachers of: “Try this and look at this, and open your mind to this.” When the public then learns how to do what we as professional artists do – meaning we do it more than someone else, so we can call ourselves professional, but everyone is an artist – we sense: “Oh, our way of working with this concept is done! Let’s find an odder way of working.” Sometimes, the odder place is our own bedroom, or own bathroom, or our own getting lunch and maybe nobody sees that odd place. But, artists are ingenious at finding ways to keep our right brains happy.
JD: Do artists have a different set of responsibilities, when working privately and when working publically?
LMM: Again, a story. We’re addicted to our freedom. We’re addicted to our, “Look at me, mom!” We’re addicted to our, “I am so original and unique, and smart, and courageous, and wild and crazy.” We’re the bad kids. We’re the active ADDs. If we’re not putting on the hat of responsibility, and accountability and transparency, then we’re really bad kids. And, is that a good thing or that a bad thing? I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re supposed to have that hat of accountability and transparency on. I just know that I’ve been bad and I wish I had that hat on in my work a couple of times when I made art or performances that shocked me or those close to me or the audience in a way that was dangerous and very hurtful. We have to find places where we can be totally safe and free and expressive. Do we have to involve others at the expense of their mind, health, life, feelings? I don’t think so.
JD: Surely there’s room for forgiveness in all of that.
A quick story. I did a piece talking about sex, while under hypnosis. I was hypnotized, talked about sex publically in the video, walked around with a black wig on, and it was very, very sexual. The video was about how I felt about having sex but I was showing this publically while my husband was in the room. I went home, and right now I can cry about it because when I went home I realized that he was hurt and confused by my public disclosure of my sexuality. I needed couples counseling. I didn’t need to make that piece. But, I was thinking art. I was not thinking life, or his feelings.
JD: What is your creative habit now, and how has it evolved through all of these things?
LMM: I wait for the intuition to tell me to stop. But, I continue in a vein, in a way, in a subject matter until I get messages to bring a close to that research. For many years that research was being my dad’s caregiver, and I just went into that completely. I did use my video camera, but only as a shield because I couldn’t look at him. It was too painful. I didn’t say, “Oh, lets make a video about this.” What happened in the end was, I did make a video, but it was more of a tool of mourning and not as a work of art. It was more life than art. Right now, I’m getting messages to stop producing videos, and it’s heartbreaking because I really love doing it. But, I have to listen to my voices. Maybe there’s something I’m being called to other than this way of expressing myself. But, before I completely quit, I’m making a video that’s making me very happy, so I’ll end happy. It’s called Nurse Nurse, and I’m doing a – not parody, not irony, not spoof, not an attack – of me in a nursing home as a bad patient, and then an angel appears and shows me how to accept being in a nursing home. Then I become a "good" patient! I’m really excited about it because as an aging performance artist, I have found subjects close to my situation and real life issues. All of my videos are free on YouTube because after Occupy Wall Street, I thought I cannot continue without making everything free. My video, Mitchell’s Death, is not available on YouTube, but is at the Video Data Bank, along with the one about my dad, Dad Art, which is really a two-and-a-half-hour performance/video about friendship, sickness, old age and death. I perform along with this video and always feel open to come to different sites to share this experience. Pretty much everything else is available to all. It's a good feeling to open the floodgates and forget about charging money for my work. But, maybe some day nobody will be able to see my videos online! Hmmm. Authors once thought that books would save their minds and thoughts forever, and now where are books? Hundreds of years from now the internet as archive will teeter into oblivion as well! Oh well, impermanence is impermanence.
JD: How does your presence, your body, create a space for your art? Is that a main site of your work?
LMM: It’s becoming more so as it ages. I realize that it was always there, but now that it’s really there, with its spasmed neck, with is aging, it’s becoming more of an instrument as I age because I have to really, consciously use it now. But now that it’s calling to me more for attention in a life-like way, I do things differently. For example, I would never watch a Pina Bausch movie, but now I’m thrilled to see her incredible practice because it’s how my body is now needing to move. She has mentored the permission of life likeness that I am having to imitate because of aging. As my body spasmed with Dystonia, I did Mother Teresa performances, which were a response to the aging of a performance artist’s body.
JD: Are you interested in creating an artistic mythology about yourself?
LMM: How do you define mythology?
JD: In this instance, I am thinking about the idea of creating a story in the way, for example, Joseph Beuys created a mythology about himself and used it as a conceptual backdrop for his work.
LMM: I’m more interested in the real world stuff that has accumulated around my work and I need it to be archived in a safe place. So, I’m just thinking much more about getting my work out there for research purposes and I’m not thinking about my legacy. And, I’m thinking about real things like how I have a sculpture show that has to get out – because that is one last show on my bucket list – and I have an archive that has to be sold, and I have these videos that have to be safe somewhere, and I have Mitchell Payne’s (who was my husband) negatives that have to go to the Center for Creative Photography, where his work is archived.
Old people start thinking like this: “I’m going to give the silver to Kevin, and the Japanese screen to Karen.” It’s more real time, real world, real stuff, thinking and not, “Linda is an example of a traumatized PTSD, she's a functioning anorexic, a Catholic who was a nun, and she saw herself as a chicken, and then became the Chicken Woman, and thinks she’s a healer now.” It’s not that. I’m not focusing on legacy, but stuff. That doesn’t interest me, but getting the stuff out does.
JD: So, it’s not about the building of an artistic persona or identity that’s important to you now, but the “stuff,” the material products of your creative life.
LMM: Yes, the stuff I can touch. The paper, the books, the theses people have written. I leave the left brain legacy to others. I have this stuff to deal with, and I am also called to protect my right brain by curbing my desire to make things and curbing my desire to be an insider or an outsider. I’m at the point where I need to stop the genius artist game. Too much can be not good for the brain.
JD: It must be difficult to make the transition from performance, and not being object-oriented at all, to now start thinking about the object, what’s being left behind; to think about the relic.
LMM: Yes, absolutely! I’m so glad you said that. Because what I am forced to do is what I am not. I’ve been wondering why I’ve been feeling so inundated. And, it’s because of this stuff. Because my initial thrust as a performance artist was simplicity and nothing: no stuff, no alliance, nothing. Just me performing minimally, with the atmosphere of Arte Povera, and then suddenly I’ve magnetized tons of things, and papers and videos to myself.
JD: And, dealing with that stuff is very burdensome.
LMM: Exactly, and then the art of de-cluttering and un-hoarding one’s legacy is what I’m really dealing with.
JD: Right, and how does one pare it down to what is sufficient.
LMM: Absolutely. The internet has helped a great deal because we’ve got the website up and the videos on YouTube, and again it’s like hunger. You have to become a Mayor Bloomberg. Is that his name? Bloomberg? You have to say, “No more 32-ounce Coke for me.” And, that’s what I’ve said. No more video for me. I’m too obese. I’m too art obese. I’m too fat in my art. I’m trying to strip myself down before I don’t have the mental propensity to do that – to find homes for things that would be good for others, and to make an art of that. I want to perform my archive, lay it all out in a museum and sing it, sing my archive until it is totally all sung. And then stop.