Let me introduce you to a few of the many selves of Eleanor Antin, as they are represented in the show Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s “Selves,” currently on view at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University.
Eleanor Antin: The Artist Herself
Born in 1935 in New York City to parents who had recently emigrated from a small town in Poland, Antin’s father worked in the garment industry and her mother was formerly an actress on the Yiddish stage in Poland.
After grade school, Antin pursued an undergraduate degree in writing and art, and she went on to study philosophy. From there she took up acting on the stage before moving to California with her husband and young child in 1968. In San Diego, she began making artworks in a variety of media — assemblage (“Blood of a Poet Box,” 1965–1968); photography series (100 Boots, 1971–1973), and photographic documentation of performance (Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, 1972), each underpinned by strong narratives, as well as elements of humor, satire, and critique.
In 1972, she began exploring her other selves (whom you will meet shortly). In these works she brought together traditional acting, performance art, photography, narrative, film-making, invented histories and artifacts, sculpture, assemblage, and institutional critique in order to construct and explore often seriocomic personas that now comprise a large portion of her body of work.
In the introductory essay to the slim but thoughtfully put together catalogue that accompanies Multiple Occupancy, curator Emily Liebert highlights a quote from Antin about her relationship to identity:
“I consider the usual aids to self-definition — sex, age, talent, time, and space — as tyrannical limitations upon my freedom of choice.”
Antin’s exploration of identity also cannot be understood without acknowledging that these works took shape as the second wave of feminism was splintering under critiques of the ways in which dominant voices (many of them white, straight, and middle and upper class) were failing to take on issues of race, class, and sexuality; the art world was rejecting doctrinaire Modernism; and anti-Vietnam War and student protests were giving truth to the post-WWII lie of unity and wholesome prosperity in the US.
The King of Solana Beach
Like certain other well-known European leaders, the King of Solana Beach — one of Antin’s fictional personas — was small of stature but grand in his ambitions. Exiled from his own country, he, occasionally accompanied by a small Pomeranian, spent time visiting with his subjects, surveying the land, and attempting to broker agreements and alliances. He made peace with his diminutive holdings:
“Solana Beach is a small kingdom but a natural kingdom for no kingdom should be should extend any further than its king can comfortably walk on any given day. My kingdom is the right size for my short legs” (quoted from The King of Solana Beach, 1974–75).
Alas his efforts to halt development projects by using his regal entitlement failed. A melancholic, but committed royal, he wishes to preserve his own little piece of the empire, even in the wilds of Southern California. His old world charm and soft approachability lend a certain pathos to his desire to revive feudal rule — a pursuit that sidles up against American capitalism, class structures, and racism, even as it amuses those who encounter the King.
Perhaps the best known and most discussed of Antin’s selves, Antinova is an African-American ballerina who ended up performing with the Paris-based Ballets Russes in the 1920s, a renowned troupe led by Sergei Diaghilev. This persona grew out of Antin’s explorations of the pose and the gaze — of hidden truths behind perfected images. Antin taught herself to strike balletic poses by reading books on the subject, but she could not hold the poses for long, as revealed in the video performance “Caught in the Act” (1973). As her explorations of ballet continued, she also briefly explored the character of a black female movie star. In 1974, the two lines of inquiry merged and Antinova was born.
Antinova is a complex woman. A classically trained prima ballerina with an intense intellectual and artistic curiosity, she describes in “Recollections of My Life with Diaghalev 1919–1929” (1975–1976) the ways in which she was constantly cast in “exotic” roles because of her dark complexion. Photographs accompany selections from the text, depicting Antinova as Cleopatra, Pocahontas, and the Queen of Sheba. But beyond her racialized frustrations, Antinova also longs to be considered an artist in her own right, making work that seeks to challenge the strict hierarchies and dehumanizing elements of her form. She describes a work she choreographed this way:
“Ballet is a machine really, so the dancers fell easily into their rotating slots, and not without a certain pleasure in self-annihilation. It was all very modern.” (from page “192” if Recollections).
When her career with the Ballets Russes came to an end, Antinova fell on hard times and seems to have resorted to paying her bills by starring in some vaguely pornographic films, fragments of this period of her life can be viewed in the film From the Archives of Modern Art (1987).
Antinova has taken many forms over the years, primarily embodied by Antin, sometimes with makeup on to darken her skin. She was revived in 2012 in a new performance of Antin’s play about her, “Before the Revolution,” as part of Pacific Standard Time, an art and performance festival focused on work by artists working in Southern California from 1945–1980. In this re-incarnation of Antinova, co-directed by Antin and Robert Castro, an African-American actress (Daniele Watts) embodies Antinova.
Many 21st century viewers would/will reflexively cringe at early depictions of Antinova as a white woman in blackface. And in the 1980s, writer and activist Michelle Cliff published an essay describing those performances as racist. In his essay for the Multiple Occupancy catalogue, scholar Huey Copeland takes a more nuanced approach to looking at Antin’s use of blackface — its pitfalls and problematic aspects, but also the ways in which her exploration of Antinova are tied primarily to her narrative based critiques:
“The scandal of Antinova is that this creature so devastatingly elaborates the play of fantasy and projection that remains crucial to the construction of race, though it emerges most credibly as a political project when it takes the form of a historical record.”
Little Nurse Eleanor
Little Nurse Eleanor partly represents one of the main professional paths offered to women in the early 20th century, nursing. This character engaged in a number of adventures, the most spectacular of which involves her being trapped on a plane that has been hijacked by environmental extremists who want the OPEC nations to stop exporting oil. You can see her, among other places, in the film The Nurse and the Hijackers (1977), or the crude scale model of an airplane fuselage that was used as a set for the film and which is part of the Multiple Occupancy exhibit.
All in One
Other personas that feature heavily in the show include Eleanor Nightingale, a nurse during the Crimean War (“The Angel of Mercy,” 1977), and Yevgeny Antinov, a recently rediscovered Russian-Jewish filmmaker (“The Man Without a World,” 1991).
Above all Antin is an artist of narrative who has countless tools at her disposal, not least of which is her cunning sense of humor, informed by her sharp attention to the ways that politics influence narrative. Each artifact, film, and performance associated with these myriad fictional “selves” show us all the ways that we are enticed, enraptured, and even controlled by the stories we are told and that we tell ourselves, even as they reveal some of the darker aspects of our beliefs.
Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s “Selves” is currently on view at the Wallach Art Gallery (8th floor of Schermerhorn Hall on Columbia University’s Morningside Campus, Morningside Heights, Manhattan) until December 7.