Edited by Cristina Bechtler/INK TREE Edition, texts by Dan Cameron, Amy Cappellazzo, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Rosa Martinez, Nancy Spector, Marina Warner

2000. 162 pp., 132 illus., 112 in color
23,30 x 28,50 cm
out of print


In 1994 Janine Antoni created a photographic tryptich entitled Mom and Dad while between 1996 and 1999 she completed and, a sculpture made by grinding two enormous limestone boulders against one another. Despite vast differences between the materials, media and processes used what both works share is the use of two bodies (her mother's and father's in the first piece, and the two stone blocks in the second) which, in one way or another, are closely interrelated and strangely interchangeable. In both instances, the artist -who has so often resorted to her own body and her everyday activities in making her sculptures- was not present at the final exhibition of the work, despite her intense physical and emotional involvement in the creation of her works.

Mom and Dad is a triptych in which the artist's mother and father are shown in the classic poses of portrait photography, smiling and looking obligingly at the camera. But what jars us is that their facial features and clothes have been switched, as have their roles. Using prosthetic make up, wigs and her parent’s clothes, Antoni created a caricature whose reversals are unsettling for the viewer as s/he flits from one photo to another trying to ascertain the real identity of each figure. But, Antoni states, "What became fascinating during the process was the resistance or the impossibility of turning my parents into each other. What I was arriving at was half-mom, half-dad creature, but to create this composite I had to reverse our roles in the sense that my parents made me, and now I was remaking them.” This leads to a second reversal: the power of biological reproduction and generation, originally invested in her parents, has been exchanged for the artist's creative power. The symbolic complexity of this action invokes multidirectional vertigo. While arousing misgivings about the true sexual identity of her parents, it also alludes to secret exchangeability between them and highlights the masquerade lurking behind established social stereotypes. It also shows that identities are not fixed, solid or stable; instead, they fluctuate somewhat perversely between terms that pit nature against culture.

In Mom and Dad, Antoni also demonstrates that, like gentle but
unrelenting rainfall, family life generates profound transferences that
erode and alter the initial set of conditions: "Although physically my parents may embody certain stereotypes in terms of their sexual identity, their personalities were much more complex. What seemed most striking to me was that after forty years they had become a kind of unit, sometimes in spite of these gender roles". In this work, the unit includes the artist herself, although she does not figure in the images: "I decided this must be another self-portrait, because that is what I am, a biological composite of the two.” This feeling of connection blots out, albeit momentarily, any differentiation from (and between) the original unit, but right away it also points to the inevitable individuation that is linked to an awareness of death. That is why the elliptical portrait also exudes the vertigo of an absent presence.

Something ultimately related to one's physicality enables one to momentarily re-create that lost unit. The phenomenon in question goes beyond the Romantic, pantheistic identification with nature and accompanies the fleeting dissolution of the ego that is triggered by sexual encounter. This idea struck me like a bolt of lightning when I first saw and, a formidable sculpture which also contains other images relating to love, tenacity, routine and time. The sculpture consists of two 600-pound limestone blocks that are placed on top of one another with a steel pole acting as a central axle. A second pole was then inserted into the top rock, parallel to the ground; similar to a mill, Antoni pushed the pole in a circle for five hours a day, over a six-week period. With great effort, she worked to achieve a relationship where the two forms resisted and gave into one another at an equal rate. She stopped grinding when the two rocks were interconnected. The hardness of the stone, synonymous with resistance and difficulty, alludes to willpower and time as elements that give shape to forms. The choice of a conjunction for the title of the work refers to copulative connection. The artist’s ulterior motive was to show how two bodies sculpt each other.

The starting point of and was a visit Antoni made to the sanctuary in Delphi, Greece, in 1996. She was fascinated by the perfect juncture of the stones used in building the walls. When she asked how this had been achieved, she was informed that only continual rubbing of two surfaces against each other is capable of producing such a perfect fit. She assumed that she herself would be able to get the same flat connection that she had seen in Delphi but, to her surprise, her experiment produced a much more complex union, one that departed from the perfect straight lines of the sanctuary but which bore witness to the malleability of two bodies mutually transformed by continual contact.

Antoni began work on the sculpture during a one-month stay in 1996 in the only active Shaker community in the world at Sabbath Day Lake, Maine. In 1998, after a two-year interlude, she had the sculpture transported to the Skowhegan School of Art, also in Maine, where she was giving summer classes. She worked on the sculpture five hours a day and had to overcome some severe setbacks because the system she had devised for grinding the two rocks kept breaking down. Hers was truly the dedication of an ascetic, a labor of repetition and persistence which proved to her that sacrifice and resilience are closely linked and that transcending this dialectic brings enormous satisfaction.

Through her work, Janine Antoni explores the conjunctions and disjunctions that sculpt bodies and identities and, by positioning herself in their interstices, she questions conventions and gives new forms to friction and conflict. By playing with interpretations of herself, she defines her own identity as both person and artist and turns her obsessions, desires and intuitions into fascinating images which attest to the power of art as a technology of self-knowledge and self-creation. Yet her works transcend the personal sphere, leaping into the collective and becoming intense metaphors of the human condition. As Octavio Paz says, the artist "crystallizes visions and transfigures his grief,” thanks to the sublimation involved in symbolic representation. But this sublimation would be insufficient if it were merely a way of transcending pain. Janine Antoni shows us how the act of sublimation and the labor-intensive processes associated with disclosing and sculpting one's visions can reveal unknown territories of meaning and give one immense pleasure.

Rosa Martínez

Published in Janine Antoni, Ink Tree Edition, Küsnacht (Switzerland), 2000.

©2000 Rosa Martínez and Tree Editions