Linda M. Montano has explored art, life, and spirituality in her innovative performance work for almost 40 years. A native of Saugerties, she earned a reputation in the 1970s and ’80s for her long-term performances—for example, spending days or weeks blindfolded, taping a stethoscope to her heart to learn how to listen, telling the story of her life while walking on a treadmill—always focusing on intensifying the experience of life in art and art in/as life. For Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh’s Art/Life: One Year Performance, she spent a full year roped at the waist to him. (The rope was eight feet long; their only rules were that they could never touch, and they had to stay in the same room.)
Over the last 20 years, she has developed the concept of art/life counseling, engaging her audience increasingly directly and individually. She will continue this practice with a new, seven-hour piece titled Lighten Up, which will take place from noon to 7pm in a cell at the former Ulster County Jail, on the opening day of the 2007 Kingston Sculpture Biennial on July 7.
(Full disclosure: I am co-curator of this year’s biennial, and invited Montano to participate.)
—Beth E. Wilson
LINDA MONTANO ON HER WORK
At Beth’s invitation, I’m time-traveling. I was born in Saugerties, raised in Saugerties, I’m back in Saugerties. That’s going to be on my tombstone! No, actually, the tombstone is going to say, “Art Is Life, Life Is Art/Linda Montano, Performance Artist.” I was mentored by my mother-painter, my musician-father, and my incredibly talented maternal grandmother, who made the art of her life during her life, 24/7. My Italian grandparents mentored me with a kind of European gentility and dignity that was very appealing, and then, added to that, was the accent, the Italian accent, which fascinated me. You can see that in my video, Learning to Talk , where I become seven different people and talk in accents, never to make fun of them, but to go back in time, to make art of the fact that I was fascinated with accents as a child.
After deaths, I made death art. After job losses, I made job-loss art. After not getting a job, I made art about not getting a job. Everything that was going on I used as raw material for my work. Nothing passed by my psyche that was not recycled into the work. I am a lover of recycling to this day, and I’ve recycled everything in my life. It all got into my work somehow, all became material for my work, transformed into another form. I noticed that I felt a lot better if I wrote a play about [some problem], or if I wrote a story about it and put all the pain, the sorrow, the joy, the questions, the longing into these fictional/non-fictional phenomena called “art.”
If I didn’t know what to do, I made art about not knowing what to do.
Art in the world
The function of the artist is either to mentor or [to] reflect, but current events are too overpowering. In fact, two movies out now, [that I learned of] as I went past the Orpheum Theater [in Saugerties] were described as “nail-biters.” Nail-biters! Given Iraq; given global warming; given the number of people killed in Iraq, the number wounded and coming back with half-skulls, no eyes, no legs, no arms, burns, shrapnel, never being able to hold their new infants again; given 9/11; Katrina; the tsunami—the list is nail-biting. We performance artists have no appropriate response, we’re all in jail. Such an appropriate place to do an event. We are collectively silenced, shocked, grief-stricken, creatively gagged, incarcerated, until we have a way to address this time of tests. Performance art is over, and we wait in jail, and the only response is light and laughter.
The role of humor
I’ve always used humor—not specifically laughter, but humor as metaphor or as cynicism, mockery; not always happy laughter, but in an oxymoronic fashion. Laughter has always been a coping mechanism, an interesting find before it became a scientifically studied, Norman Cousins healing device. Pauline Oliveros introduced me to the tradition of the heyoka, the sacred clown. I’m not sure which particular Native American tribe uses it, but it’s a person who is there during the sacred act/ritual, doing the opposite action, eliciting laughter and guffaws, which discharge from the audience members the intense energies that are brought up by the deep sacredness of the ritual. The laughter creates balance. That teaching on the heyoka and the sacred clown in a sense has given me permission to continue to use humor always.
I trained with Steve Wilson of World Laughter Tour a couple of years ago, and became a certified laughter therapist. It’s meant for people who work with medically compromised populations, occupational therapists, geriatric workers, and the like. I wanted to study laughter more thoroughly. Now I feel like I’m using it more consciously.
On Catholicism (and returning to it)
I think it was a great training in transformation, along with the theological training that came from growing up in a very strict 1950s Roman Catholic, pre-Vatican II environment. It had almost a monastic quality, the mass, Gregorian chant. [Editor’s note: Montano briefly entered a convent to be trained as a nun in the early 1960s.] The 1950s were really pre-psychology, [a] pre-analysis of one’s human condition. Art became a way to transcribe one’s concerns/ideas/fears/phobias, et cetera. I had fabulous mentors, one being the nun who allowed me to run around the sculpture studio at the College of New Rochelle, Mother Mary Jane, who’s still alive and unspeakably fabulous. She gave me free run of the studio, and I’m trying to get her to collaborate with me on a 40-foot-high Visitation—Mary and Elizabeth embracing, both pregnant. That was the theme of my BA thesis, where I made five variations of the Visitation, using car parts, plaster, clay...and since then [the idea] has just evolved. What’s “art/life” about the Visitation? It’s the need for the appreciation and recognition of the importance of relationship and touch, [of] generosity of communication. I’m sure all of those things were happening at that time of my life, in those college years.
We all have a spiritual quadrant inside our brain stems; we all must honor the Great Mystery. If we are born into an orthodox system that takes our innate desire for order and patterns and that system structures those desires into a theology of beliefs, then it is only logical that we might return to those roots once we get to middle age and start coming down the other side of the mountain singing, “What’s it all about, Alfie?”