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Constructing Loss: Film and Presence in the Work of Eleanor Antin

Ellen Zweig

Printed in MFJ No. 29 (Fall 1996) Video Installation

1. If at the center of history, of all remembering, there is an essential sense of loss, this loss is surely an ambivalent feeling. Some losses are deep, resonate longer in our memories, stick in our throats. Others are lovely, sweet and funny and sad. Some seem long ago, irrelevant to our present concerns. Good riddance. Others haunt us, make us who we are today. Not simply nostalgia (a longing for the past), loss is something we construct out of hope, out of what we imagined our lives might be. It speaks in the conditional tense.

2. If the camera captures the past, it does so mired in the conditional. If only we might keep this moment forever . . . if we could remember . . . if we would be able to recreate . . . The fictional film that attempts to recreate the past, in part fulfills this need, convincing us that the past can live again if only for the length of an evening's entertainment in a darkened room. We pretend, in the conditional mode, that it's really the 18th century, the 19th or the future. We can travel through time, sensually, through vision. And the differences between these fictions and documentation of real events become impossible to discern. Both vacillate between faith and hope. It is this ambiguity that Eleanor Antin, performance artist, installation artist, and filmmaker, explores and exploits in a number of recent works.

3. Reading the new book, Eleanora Antinova Plays1 made me remember again the performances of three of the four texts recorded here that I had witnessed in the 1980s. Although the texts are quite readable and the notes on performance suggest that others might recreate the events, I cannot help thinking myself lucky to have been present at "the real thing." This is partly due to the complex relationship that Eleanor Antin herself has with her character Eleanora Antinova, the black ballerina who danced with Diaghilev's Ballet Russe. Eleanora was created as an amalgam of two of the four persona Antin tried on in the 70s-the Ballerina and the Black Movie Star. (The other two were the King and the Nurse).

I am interested in defining the limits of myself. I consider the usual aids to self-definition-sex, age, talent, time and space-as tyrannical limitations upon my freedom of choice.2

So Antin must be present as Antinova to make her point. When I saw "Recollections of My Life with Diaghilev," almost everyone in the San Francisco audience knew that Antinova was an invented character. In fact, many of the ironic resonances of the piece depend on the knowledge that there was indeed no black ballerina in the Ballet Russe. However, Antin later told me about something that happened after the first presentation of the piece at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York. An old balletomane shyly approached Antinova, asking her about certain people they might have known in common. Antin was thrown off balance, not knowing whether to point out his mistake and ruin the moments of shared nostalgia she had created or to allow him to foolishly take the fiction of the performance for fact. In the end, she left him with his particular loss. In "Recollections . . ." Antinova's presence is meant to authenticate the reality of her memories. The performance suggests a kind of documentation in the flesh.

4. The four pieces in Eleanora Antinova Plays each represent a different phase in Antin's experiments with the construction of loss through invented documentation. In Recollections of My Life with Diaghilev an aging Antinova reads from her memoirs and reminisces about her life in Paris with the ballet. The piece begins with Antinova talking about how, eating borscht at the Russian Tea Room with her friend Alex, she came to write her memoirs:

He pointed to the walls crowded with the souvenirs of countless Russian dancers and artists, most of them dead. 'Soon there will be nobody left to remember them, ' he said. 'You must write down your recollections of your life with Diaghilev. You must let your old friends live again.'3

After reading a section of her memoirs, which recount some hilarious, gossipy stories about ballerinas and their suitors, Antinova closes her book and speaks about her self as a choreographer, introducing the next section of the piece with: "Let me show you my ballets." Antinova then shows a series of slides, invented moments from ballets that she appeared in. With each slide, she describes the ballet; each dance is a parody or comment on the types of dances a black ballerina might have been forced to create: Antinova as a slave girl in a ballet where she doesn't move her feet or as Pocahantas, another Other in a world where she will always be Other; and Antinova as choreographer of Prisoner of Persia and The Hebrews. These slides present a comment on the place of "otherness," the exotic, in the context of a very white European tradition. But the slides function in a much more complex manner. Antin, presenting these slides as though she's giving an artist's talk about her work, shows stills from performance works that the audience will never see. They are lost works, lost forever both because they will never again be performed and because they never were performed. With this use of documentation, Antin begins to construct loss.

4.1. As a performance artist, Antin is well aware of the importance of documentation. Without it, a career is wholly dependent on the live presence of the performer. Although the documentation is often a pale reminder of the piece itself, at least it functions to continue the discourse around the work. In early work, Antin played with documentation as an art form in itself. For example, in Carving: A Traditional Sculpture(1972), Antin went on a diet and photographed herself every day for a month-front, back, and from two sides. The performance, of course, was the actual dieting, but the artwork was the row upon row of photographs, attesting to the fact that Antin could at least strive to "carve" the perfect sculptural form from her own body. Here the camera goes the sculptor's tool one better, able to show process as it unfolds.

4.2. In Recollections of My Life With Diaghilev the documentation of Antinova's ballets plays out a complex relationship between Antin, Antinova, and her audience through concepts of presence, evidence, ironic distance, and loss. Antin plays Antinova-Antin has written a play about Antinova-Antin plays with Antinova. Antin is present by presenting Antinova-Antin creates Antinova's presence by acting and/or living as Antinova. In all acting, this doubling of presence is both ignored and disturbing. But here, the line between actor and acted is finer, calls attention to the doubling of presence at the same time as it seeks to obliterate that doubling. The slides, the documentation, play a part in creating presence. Like all documentation, they are evidence of past performance or action, a presence that once was live presence itself. But in this documentation, Antin plays Antinova in ballets that were never danced. The still is all there ever was, invented to refer to movement that never took place. Here, Antin invents works of art for Antinova, skips the ballets and goes straight to the documentation, the one thing that will preserve the performances in our memories. And all this in a context where Antinova is reading her memoirs so that her life and ballets will not be forgotten, so that they will live again. For an audience that understands the complexities of these references, the documentation will finally create an acute sense of loss with a humorous, perhaps bittersweet, twist. We cannot lose what was never there; yet we've lost the possibility of those ballets ever coming to be. It is through this paradox that Antin regains and reconstructs the past while losing it again.

4.3. In Help I'm in Seattle, Antin takes her relationship to documentation one step further by using films of the invented ballets instead of slides. Here although the construction of history is more "accurate," the loss takes on deeper emotions. As the old Antinova reminisces, the young Eleanora sits in her cold dressing room in Seattle worrying about money and complaining that she's forced to work in vaudeville. The ballets are foolish things for a woman who's danced with the greats. These ballets, shown as film, are supposed to be really happening in another space. As audience we are witness to two past times: Eleanora in Seattle in the 1930s and Antinova's reminiscences about the early part of the century. In these alternating times, Antin gives us evidence of the past through film and language. These two media are one removed from the present of the Seattle dressing room and the present of Madame Antinova remembering. Film and language create a sense of nostalgic distance and a complex constellation of loss and absence.

4.3.1. Both the life-size cut-out characters in Before the Revolution and the ghosts in Who Cares About a Ballerina? are experiments with theatrical techniques used to represent and evoke absence. Although it seems clear that these techniques continue to play with the construction of loss, they lack one important aspect of complexity that the slides and the films produce. This has to do with the way that film is a presence of absence.

4.3.2. If live performance is about presence as evidence of authenticity, then film is about presence as absence, a kind of inauthenticity or more precisely an ambiguity about authenticity. In the construction of loss, film reveals itself as the perfect medium. In her later works, Antin removed her live presence in order to explore this medium more fully.

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5. Both installations, Vilna Nights and Minetta Lane-A Ghost Story, create an atmosphere of a past place and time. Using theatrical sets and video projections, Antin evokes the presence of a particular historic place. In Vilna Nights viewers lean on the broken wall of part of an old Polish ghetto street. In three windows, we see the filmic projections that create a fiction of presence, a feeling of living presences. In one window a young woman unties a ribbon from a packet of letters, reads them, seems to argue with someone who is not there, holds the letters to her heart and then shoves them into an oven to burn. In another window an old man, a tailor, sews some pants and, finding a yamulke in the pocket of the pants of a child, breaks down sobbing. In the third window, two children stare out from a dark background; they share a piece of bread. Suddenly, a candelabra appears floating behind them, then a table. A white cloth floats in and covers the table and the candelabra lands in its center; then, increasing in speed, all of the objects for the Sabbath meal appear: chairs, glasses, napkins, plates, silverware, a braided challah, wine. The children dance around the table. Throughout this sequence we hear the sound of wind. Just as the children, standing on their chairs, clink their glasses in celebration, the glasses suddenly disappear; the challah floats out of the room and all the objects vanish one by one, until the children are left huddled together on the floor. As the objects begin to disappear, we hear the sound of trains. The sense of loss and sadness in Vilna Nights is acute. One of the few really effective and moving pieces about the Holocaust (with Leeny Sack's "The Survivor and the Translator," Steve Reich's "Different Trains," and the Monument and Archive series of Christian Boltanski), Vilna Nights is effective partly because it doesn't show the horrors directly, but depends on our knowledge of them to move us. What is absent and unseen lends power here to what is seen. In Vilna Nights in particular, Antin has found a use for the filmic image that underscores its essential paradox: that it is a presence of something lost.

5.1. Minetta Lane-A Ghost Story uses the same technique as Vilna Nights but it is a lighter, happier piece. The theater set here is part of a street in Greenwich Village after WW II. Again, we see filmic projections in three windows: an artist painting; two lovers taking a bath; an elderly gay man taking care of his birds. We might be passing on the street, catching glimpses of this life inside. Added to this, Antin created a narrative by introducing a naughty little girl spirit or ghost who enters each film suddenly and causes some kind of trouble: she ruins the artist's painting; makes the lovers quarrel; and causes the old man's death. In a second room at the Ronald Feldman Gallery, Antin showed a videotape of a wrecking ball in slow motion. Here Antin mourns the loss of a time of openness and creativity, somewhat like the time she mourns in the Antinova pieces. By adding the documentation of the demolition of buildings, the "real" demolition, she adds yet another layer to the intricate relationships between history and fiction that resonate in all of her work. The fictions in the windows, with their filmic presence, seem real; they are performers in a theater without performers. The demolition videos, slowed down like a dance, seem invented not only because of this alteration in speed but also because they have less presence. The demolition videos are not performers here, but memories or dreams.

5.2. Antin has effectively substituted film for live performance and is still able to create presence. The films have transcended documentation and come alive; yet as film they retain a reference to something absent, something "real" or past or distant. They are deictic, pointing to the "not here, but there." When film becomes the performer in these works, it retains its ability to point to absence. In this way, Antin constructs a more complex loss.

6. The past is always a site of regret. "I have always worked with earlier historical periods and styles not only to explore the value of their content to us now but mostly to call up the particular personal and political issues of self, memory, loss and desire that have haunted both me and my work for so long," writes Antin in a description of "Minetta Lane" that I received from the Ronald Feldman Gallery. This statement can be seen almost as a geometry of elements that contribute to the construction of loss.

Take a past time: all of the sensual intensity of that time is lost to us now, but something of it remains. Memory, nostalgia, inheritance. In her ballerina series, Antin outlines a time of intense artistic experimentation, a time when it seemed that anything was possible. Was it really like that? We'll never know. That time is only known to us now as history-the epistemology of which is always suspect-the presence of which is always absent.

Although Antin's work seems to circle around periods of time that we share, it is based in a very personal remembering, a fantasy of remembering. If Eleanor Antin is too young to have lived the life of Eleanora Antinova, she remembers her own life of artistic experiment and mixes it all up with invented memories of the Ballet Russe. If Eleanor Antin survived the Holocaust because she lived in America, her yearning for Vilna is the yearning of many Jews who have heard stories of the rich cultural life of the ghetto. If Eleanor Antin lived in New York City after the war, her memories of Minetta Lane are memories of her own life . . ..

"When I was in high school I used to cut classes and hang around the Village. I spent a lot of time in book stores. I remember the one on Greenwich, the owner was a poet. He gave me nasty looks, he thought I was going to steal something. . .. One day when I was playing hooky, I bumped into my friend Joanie Alexander's boyfriend. It was raining so we went to his place on Minetta Lane and took a bath. The woman from upstairs came down. They talked about De Kooning and ignored me. She was a sophisticated older woman, she must have been 40. His father was 90 years old and was a famous art historian living in Italy. I was just a kid from the Bronx in a towel." (From unpublished notes for the installation "Minetta Lane")

8. A recent production of Samuel Beckett's Eh Joe (directed by Erika Bilder and acted by John Giorno, at La Mama, New York City, 1995) reminded me of the part that presence plays in performance. The T.V. play was projected onto a large screen, a black and white image; viewers wore wireless headsets, experiencing all the sound in a private space, as though it were inside the mind of each viewer. On screen, Joe sits in a bare room on a bed as a woman's voice reprimands him, reminds him of actions he might or should regret. He's done some pretty bad things to a number of women. We hear this litany of wrongs while we see Joe going through a series of emotions, reacting sometimes with dejection, sometimes with a sly smile, proud of his naughtiness or feeling caught in the act. Guilt and remorse, pride, sadness, hope and more-all play across Joe's face and in his body.

Throughout this monologue, the camera zooms in on Joe-in periodic, not continuous movement-getting closer and closer until we see only his eyes. Silence, then tears. This image remains on the screen as the audience realizes the piece is over and as we leave the space.

I had the strangest feeling then. I got up, took off my headset and turned to my friend. "Was the video live or taped?" I asked. "Taped," she replied, because why would it have been live. We never saw the live performer-why live if the relationship wasn't being somehow underlined or foregrounded. But something still felt strange. I mumbled some incoherent set of facts and opinions-it's black and white-we saw a live feed video in an earlier piece that evening-the sound had such a strong presence in my head-all these seemed to contradict each other while I tried to figure out why it felt live.

As we entered the lobby, our eyes were drawn to an open door, a luminous white room, a door that had surely been closed when we entered. There indeed Joe (John Giorno) sat on the end of the bed. There were the curtains, the white bright walls, and his tears. I didn't look in, but I knew the camera was also there. Although I had anticipated, predicted this room, it hit me, a shock-the shock of presence . . ..

8.1. I will never know if live presence is so strong that I could feel it from the other room, through that wall between the theater and the space in which the actor performed. A performance on videotape or film has been performed somewhere at sometime live. How much of that presence is retained in film? And how does film point to its loss?

8.2. Eleanor Antin plays-with the differences between theater and film-with documentation and performance-with what is live and what was live. By placing film in the windows of theatrical sets, by casting film in the role of performer, Antin creates a shimmering paradoxical ambiguity. She brings the past, alive, to the present by acknowledging the ineluctable loss of that past. Through an exploration of what documentation means to the past-its convoluted construction of preservation and loss-Antin makes film simultaneously perform presence and loss. Thus, an edifice of loss is constructed, performing its role, mixing it up with desire and memory, nostalgia and regret.

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Printed in MFJ No. 29 (Fall 1996) Video Installation

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Last revised on 10-16-96 by Dayoan Daumont

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