LINDA MARY MONTANO is REBORN
Linda Montano did not wait to die to be reborn. The story of her entry into grace coincided with her father’s physical decline, illness, infirmity, and death.
In 2004, I visited Linda, who had returned to the Hudson Valley, where I live, six years earlier. At the time, neither she nor I considered this a professional visit related to our respective art careers. We two Lindas were simply getting together as friends. But, in the subsequent years, our get-together was re-categorized as a "studio visit," our conversation was reclassified as an "interview,"and the interactions I observed on that day endure as a culminating artwork of her distinguished career.
Six years before, Linda yielded to the beckoning of internal voices beseeching her to return home to Saugerties to care for her aging father. The time had arrived for them both to prepare for the inevitability of his death. All I knew about Dad can be summarized as follows: Italian ancestry, Americanized, musician, businessman, devout Catholic.
I entered the house midday. Outside it was hot, sunny, and noisy, but the curtained space inside was dark and unnaturally quiet. Mementos and stacks of papers were piled on every surface. The carpets were imprinted with the footsteps of former occupants, pillows were shaped by their bodies, and furniture was marked by their repeated gestures. I remember thinking that this must be how the past tense looks and feels.
By the time I walked back out into the summer glare, my impression had not only been revised, it was reversed. Linda and her father had not renounced themselves to the past. Indeed, they were not merely anticipating a future event: they were training for it. For six years and six months they had been making preparations to sanctify Dad’s passage from life to death, which occurred six months after this visit.
The first four years of this seven-year work of art might be described as a tender prelude. Linda drove her Dad to visit doctors, wrote his checks, played music with him, took photographs of him, and made videos with him, which is how an extensive and enchanting record of the mutuality of their daily activities came into being. They reveal an intimacy between daughter and Dad that transformed the common place into an inspired space. This prelude ended in 2001 when Dad suffered a stroke and Linda became his full-time caregiver. That is when her ministrations became eligible for inclusion in all future accountings of Linda Montano’s art career.
During my visit, Dad awoke from a nap. Linda fetched him. He appeared in a wheel chair, neatly dressed, combed, and shaved. Linda maneuvered him into kitchen. I followed. She tied a bib around his neck, took a container of yogurt from the refrigerator, and spoon-fed him his mid-day snack. I imagined her performing such tedious tasks, day-by-day, month-by-month, year-after-year. But Linda was not dispirited, and Dad was not pitiable. The intimacy of their exchange transformed drudgery into delight. Each was a benefactor and each a beneficiary.
Linda explained that the piles of papers heaped everywhere were charts, statements, and records documenting Dad’s diet, baths, sleeping patterns, and the condition of his teeth, bowels, and skin condition. Comments from nurses were notated alongside Linda’s observations of his miniscule actions. But it would be wrong to assume that this was a sorrowful record of unremitting degeneration at the waning of a life. These documents also offered evidence of unleashing of Dad’s creativity. The papers included the watercolors he had made, one each day, before and after he suffered a stroke. Although Dad had never before painted, he achieved the spare spontaneity of a Zen master’s calligraphy. The marks left by each journey of his brush across the page transcended representation and expression. They are tiny, eloquent epiphanies.
After Dad finished his snack and his bib was removed, Linda wheeled him to a side table that was arrayed with brushes, paper, and paints. She dipped a brush in the paint, placed it in his trembling hand, and guided it to so that it was suspended over the bare sheet of 8 ½ x 11 paper she had laid before him. He did not move. Time came to a halt. She waited. We waited. Then, with intense concentration, his hand stirred and a single line of spare and stirring beauty gradually appeared on the page. He stopped. He was finished. No expression. No words. No gesture. He had poured all the capacities he had lost into this painted line.
Dad’s spirit was flourishing even as his body faltered. The watercolors are evidence of the extraordinary convergence of creative vitality at the brink of death. Linda believes they unleash the soulfulness he had cultivated during his life-long spiritual practice in the Catholic Church. "My father is Italian and Catholic, yet strangely his quality is Zen-like. He is half way between life and death. The payoff for his surrender is pure beauty. Beauty is a vibrational frequency, a brain wave."
Dad finished. Linda glowed, not like a proud mother, but in the manner of someone who had just observed a miracle. "Bliss" and "ecstasy" are the words she chooses to describe this period in her life, and they were written on her face. She and her father were experiencing synchronous spiritual awakenings. Neither had waited to die to be reborn.
Linda didn’t apply the word "art" to her care-giving devotions until after Dad died. Now they comprise another formidable artwork in which her father is the subject, muse, inspiration, and collaborator. As such, my observations on that day are ripe for art analysis. DAD ART takes three forms. First, there are the watercolors that mark the creative finale of Dad and daughter’s life together. DAD ART is also a film that combines pre and post-stroke footage, and serves as an enduring memorial of familial devotion. For the four years that preceded Dad’s stroke, he and Linda videotaped each other having breakfast, watching TV, and making music. Linda explains that the camera enabled Dad to communicate as he declined. After his stroke, Linda retained her position behind the camera because, she said, it helped her manage her emotions. She couldn’t watch him suffer. Thus, over the course of two-hours, viewers are invited to witness Dad being fed, bathed, driven to the hospital, and dying. The film then presents him dead and in the morgue. It ends with his burial. The shots are grainy, over or under exposed, uncomposed. She explains, "The film is really a memorial, not art cinema."
DAD ART is also a three-hour, participatory staged event in which the film is projected while Linda sits at a piano and sings, in a sweet soprano voice, her father’s favorite love songs from the thirties and forties. When I saw this work performed at the University of New Mexico in 2009, Montano led seven student volunteers, who were referred to as "secretaries," to chairs scattered across the stage. Audience members were invited to take a seat across from them to dictate letters to the dead and receive grief counseling. Their exchanges were inaudible to observers, but gestures and postures sufficed to convey their sorrow. However, communal grieving was not the finale of this work. As the film proceeded to Dad’s death and burial, audience members and their secretaries danced together. Then they formed a procession outdoors where the papers on which their sorrows were inscribed were placed in a metal bowl and burned. An orange and red flag was waved. The healing was complete.
Montano comments, "I felt that all my art had led up to the piece with my Dad. Everything I had ever done, everything I learned, everything I ever studied, was a prelude to being with my father in his last seven years. And now I’m undoing and re-seeing and fixing and healing." In order to establish DAD ART’s culminating role in the trajectory of her long career, Montano differentiates it from her earlier Art / Life series because it does not invest life with aesthetic and symbolic significance. It certainly is not Art / Art because it is not an aesthetic object presented to the public as a commodity. Instead, she refers to DAD ART as Life / Art which "only happens within an atmosphere of prayer." Life / Art is sanctified by ritual. It transcends the material world. It even transcends art.
DAD ART becomes transcendent by "unperforming" since performance art has been superseded by technologies that democratize the creation of images and events that were once the exclusive province of artists. Now, the public orchestrates its own flash mobs and produces its own selfies and YouTubes. Montano explains, "The real is not so much celebrated but narcissistically porned." DAD ART is an antidote to narcissistic porn. "We (artists) have to back off, back out, direct them, allow them. We have to find a new way to solve the riddles of dark and light." Montano’s manner of addressing such riddles is a radical departure from mediated hype. She explains, "The soul is quite simple. It wants passionate gentleness."
Because DAD ART cultivates true passion and compassion, DAD ART differs from the Art/Life Counseling projects Montano conducted during the preceding thirty years. She no longer felt the need to embody the persona of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Bob Dylan, or Paul McMahon, or uses costumes and masks to assume their appearances, or mimics their gestures and lip synchs their music. She discards such disguises to confront "the challenge to be present and authentic." In DAD ART, Linda Montano performs as Linda Montano, not fictional others, or living others, or once alive others. She describes her new role as "Linda as ONE LOVE."
Becoming, "one love" diverts Montano’s artistic intention away from the security of supervision and into the precarious territory of surrender.
"For the first time, I am not in control. I am fascinated by having to learn a new role as I’ve had to recycle my art statement from one of controlling time to one of relinquishing time. I have no idea when this performance will change. Time is gone from my art statement. I’m at the mercy of space because I’m committed to make DAD ART as long as I receive the message. I am here in obedience to the voices, to this teaching."
While this work ostensibly documents a deep communion between father and daughter, it also reverses manifold cultural assumptions that obstruct the cultivation of "one love." As such, Dad Art offers ways to heal the ruptures that accompany the benefits of contemporary life styles. For example, serving the needs of another is typically considered to be demeaning; DAD ART reveals that being in service can be uplifting. Labor is commonly understood to be a regrettable necessity; here, labor is a conduit for rapture. Menial tasks cease being drudgery and offer the enrichment of ritual. Physical confinement becomes an occasion to journey spiritually. Psychological endurance offers the prospect of joyful discovery. Suffering ceases to be an affliction and becomes an instigator of creativity.
Perhaps the ultimate revelation offered by DAD ART is that death can be embraced as an occasion for beauty. The cultural institutions that surround death in contemporary culture stifle this possibility. Loved ones are typically sent to a hospital or a nursing home where their care is allocated to a professional who is typically more skilled at giving drugs than loving. For all these reasons, few of us are there to receive the "vibrational frequency" as a life expires. Linda Montano and Dad anticipated this consecrated transaction. They primed themselves for it. Before his stroke Dad told his daughter, "I’m not going to die until you’re perfect."
Montano shared her personal assessment of this poignant work by offering the following words. They compare her collaboration with Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh in which the two artists literally "tied the knot"on July 4, 1983 when they were bound to each other by an eight-foot length of rope, and remained tied until July 3, 1984. The ties of bondage are juxtaposed with the ties of love.
"yes rope was tied by rope, ...DAD ART was tied by love
rope tied by art, DAD ART tied by life
ROPE tied by public/MEDIA ...DAD ART tied by private/prayer
Rope: tied by world...........DAD ART tied by DNA
rope tied by art, DAD ART tied by life
ROPE tied by public/MEDIA ...DAD ART tied by private/prayer
Rope: tied by world...........DAD ART tied by DNA
Just as I completed the last sentence of this essay, I heard the familiar "ding" announcing the arrival of another email. It was sent to me by Linda Montano. The text is so pertinent to this essay, that I share it in its entirety:
IMPERMANENCE/SUFFERING AND AN ANTIDOTE: 4 WORKSHOPS LINDA MARY MONTANO
The Buddha said it all … we live, get old, maybe sick, and eventually we all die. While doing so, we take our life and our impermanence very seriously, suffering when we suffer and wanting none of the complications. When it is good, we want that to stay. When bad, we run and hide. This is technically called clinging, greed, attachment. All bad. All cosmic migraines.
As artists, we are given a clean and clear art-slate, empty of the words, feelings and opinions of others … waiting for our genius to explain/explore our unique journey. As I aged, I began "getting" the Buddha and said, "Yes, I'm getting old, sick, and can see death!" And good life-artist that I am, I made art/performances/videos about what is happening to me, literally, as I speak.
This 4-minute, 4-day, 4-hour, 4-week, 4-month or 4-year workshop is a sharing of my process and invitation to others to play-life, play-impermanence, play-solution with me, as art. It is designed to be a quickie or a long term workshop-process, whatever is applicable to the site. There are 4 PHASES:
PHASE 1: OLD AGE: One of the bug-a-boos of old age is the nursing home … a place that we fear, shun, don't want to visit or be in. A place we can smell without visiting! My thesis is, if I do it to myself, if I place myself in a fake nursing home, now, I can deflect the trauma and also REHEARSE for the time I might have to go in one. If I playact nursing home, then it will drain the event of its poison.
In this first workshop, we will watch my video, NURSE, NURSE and then in a safe community of co-performers, we will experience the mental and physical actions/states of mind of someone in a nursing home. For example, being fed, being washed, being walked, etc. We will do those things for each other, exchanging roles. GIVING/RECEIVING. In this cauldron of woken-up triggers, we will take care of each other, process feelings and write so that the information can be helpful and not trauma-causing. All four workshops will be carefully tended this way. Therapeutic touch, here we come!!!!!!!!
We will not only perform actions but also will be making nursing home sounds and pleadings and coughs and yells and calls to those walking down the "outside halls"; and we will be making wails of wanting and desperation and regret. We will rehearse and practice being un-masked, un-muted and heard so that a new courage can be born from the experience of our played out vulnerability. Practice makes perfect.
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What would the Buddha say about old age? It is the attachment to the way things were; the firm muscles and un-cellulited thighs that create suffering. Mourning the body's betrayal of itself via art is a technique that the Buddha would approve of, I'm sure
PHASE TWO: SICKNESS: Sometimes we catch it … an illness, that is, and get sick. Some people never do. For me, my life events are matter for my art … So when I "caught" cervical dystonia/torticollis, I went to the drawing board and made art, a video titled, DYSTONIA, like I always do when I don't know how to talk about what is happening, when I don't know how to feel. My neurologist who gives me the botox shots in my neck every three months, collaborated by letting his assistant film the process. My Yoga teacher's home-schooled son, Jonathon, read the pain "story "in this video. It is a fable that softens the horror of having a neurological chronic disease! Art is medicine and a way to distance from the clinging to the perfection of a body that never lies!
PHASE THREE: DEATH: Death, the last taboo. Our last performance. For a boomer Westerner, death has always been an antiseptic and non-transparent muffling of the real. My husband was murdered, my mother faux-murdered by the AMA's radiation burns to her entire inner abdomen, Jesus died on the cross, Dad was injured by an incompetent PT who caused him to have a hemorrhagic stroke which he wobbled around with for three final years! I couldn't escape the Grim Reaper and didn't understand how to be or feel about him/her. In 1978, I made a video of my reaction to MITCHELL'S DEATH, in 1997 I went to Benares and recorded the burning ghats. In 1997 I wrote a paper for a lecture that eventually became a video titled LIVING ART, DYING ART. I was always obsessed with death and the thought of it as a metaphor for my unresolved emotional unhappiness, my wanting to die, my need to bow out. Making art about death, instead of Steven Kinging myself via a tragic and bloody endgame, has kept me quite busy.
In this workshop, we will explore the real aspects of dying: living wills, power of attorney, green burials. But more importantly, each participant will write an obituary and lay in state, on view, in a self-designed way and with visual accoutrements that are conversant with their need, style, safety. Would that be fake silk flowers or butterfly wings? The obituary, which can be read to the person lying-in-state by another workshop participant or recorded on iPhone, can either ditto the life of the participant and be an actual "read" or the obituary can be a big lie and have total non-credibility but be healing in its transformative illusion. That is, it can match their life, as-is, or it can be a look at their life as-they-would-like-it-to-have-been. Basically, an "art-lie" lifts the truth to a better and higher truth.
Again, the Buddha applauds flowery visualization and stretchings of the truth, I'm sure.
PHASE FOUR: AN ANTIDOTE: The Buddha talks about clinging, and the mind as a dangerous trap and memory and greed and desire as the cause of suffering. His antidotes? Meditation/visualization/prayer/nature. But, as we all know, there are 49,834,635 techniques to move us out of the monster hall of mind-fame. My choice has been performance and video. In this last workshop, I will share STARVED SURVIVORS, a video I made which flowed out of a day/night dream into real time. This video references fairy tale and stream of consciousness and the underground. In the past, that is the 1970s, I left my own life and it's a true and bizarre and scary story by getting out of my "skin" and taking on different personas. LEARNING TO TALK, and MASKS were the results of this self-therapy. I have also found that writing copious fairy tales have also been a way to re-boot, re-calibrate, re-see and re-sell my tainted autobiography to myself so that my past life choices don't sting and hurt so much.
We become re-deemable via the fairy tale. We re-visit trauma and PTSD and fictionalize injustice and make the enemy pay. We re-purpose the neurochemistry of our brain, dragging sordid memories out of the depths of hell into bearable, creative dark. We look at situations, make up a struggle and then find fabulous solutions, much better than the life we are leading! And guess what???? The mind loves this and gets out of the rut of its obsessive self-hate and runs toward the filmy, hazy, get out of jail … light.
Buddha, thanks for playing with me.
Linda Mary Montano