Wednesday, May 01, 1996

Janine Antoni's lipstick

A half moon of red lipstick covers the tip of Janine Antoni's coffee cup. It covers the not the side nearest her, but edge she has turned away. That Antoni wears lipstick but is uncomfortable with the sight of it comes as no surprise from an artist whose work often explores everyday materials, such as lard, chocolate, which seem have equally powerful attractive and repellent qualities.
Thirty two year old Antoni, who was in Dublin to collect the Pounds 15,000 IMMA Glen Dimplex Artists Award, is sitting in the lobby of her hotel, credit card poised, about to catch a flight back to New York.

Antoni is the first non Irish artist to win the award. Her win came as a surprise to observers, many of whom had predicted a victory for performance artist and sculptor, Marina Abramovic. All the other short listed artists Jaki Irvine, Mark Francis, and Alice Maher are at a stage in their careers when the award would have been unexpected.

Nevertheless, the jury's choice of such a young artist seems to indicate a wish not to turn the award into a form of recognition for a distinguished career, but to make it an acknowledgment of a significant on going practice.

Antoni was born in Freeport, Bahamas, of Trinidadian parents. When Anton was in her teens her father, who had been a general surgeon on the island and therefore "almost like a priest" went to UCLA re-trained as a plastic surgeon and set up a clinic on the island. "Obviously, our access changed at that point" says Antoni, of her family's increased economic status. Until then, she says, her father had been paid in "avocados and grouper".

She left the Bahamas, which she describes as "one of the most beautiful, aesthetic places in the world to go to boarding school and later college, in the United States. She studied at first at Rhode Island and then New York, where she now lives and works. She came to prominence in 1992 when her work, Gnaw, was first seen at the Sandra Gerring gallery in New York.

Since then, she has, steadily built an international reputation, making a substantial impression at two of the world's most prestigious contemporary art shows the Whitney Biennial in New York and the Venice Biennale.

The Whitney Biennial of 1993 was perhaps the show that did most to establish her at the forefront of the international art scene. In response to criticism of the narrowness of the event up to then, the 1993 show made a conscious attempt to throw the event open to ethnic and gender groups, groups that had to some extent been excluded from the contemporary art world. Consequently, the show became know to many as the "PC Biennial".

"I think what happened around the Biennial was a positive and a negative thing. It was a really strong Biennial because it took a really strong position. .It really defined a moment, a certain way people were thinking at that time and I think that is a really great thing to do," says Antoni in the strong American accent she says she picked up at college.

"But it did contextualise my work in a very specific way. It was the time when I got a lot of attention for this one particular piece, Gnaw, and so it was really seen primarily in terms of those issues and that context it put the emphasis in a really specific place. Now that is definitely in my work, but it is not my only issue.
Gnaw, parts of which are currently at IMMA, is a sculptural installation involving two large blocks, one containing 600 lbs of chocolate, the other 600 lbs of lard. The artist gnawed away and spat out chunks of each substance. She then fashioned the masticated material into lipstick and chocolate packages which she displayed in a mock shop cabinet.

The choice of chocolate as her material arose simply because she had the idea of carving sculpture with her teeth, rather than with a hammer and chisel. "The obvious choice of what to sculpt with your mouth was chocolate." She also feels, however, that "chocolate really embodies desire and when you give way to that desire, that's where the lard comes from. So it was a really logical progression.

She took advice on making the large chocolate block from a Wisconsin chocolate manufacture, Ambrosia, a company that she chose because they were prepared to provide plenty of technical advice on how to handle "chocolate. Chocolate, it turned out, was no less a challenge for a sculptor than marble making the large block required her and her brother Bob to spend several days and nights waking" every four hours to pour another layer of chocolate into a mould.

Antoni's work is often concerned with such everyday rituals as eating, washing and making up. Through these activities, she tries to look at the way in which the body in general, and the female body in particular, is perceived and controlled in contemporary culture.

"Of course I want to think that my work applies to everybody," says Antoni. "But on the other hand I feel the need to speak from a woman's perspective. I think I'm really talking about the way the world has treated me as a woman and trying to work very specifically with those parts of my experience.

"A lot of my work deals with eroticism and sexuality and gender identity and we've certainly dealt with those issues from a male perspective. I think it is an interesting area to work in because we haven't heard from women in that way yet. But it's a difficult area to work in because traditionally women have been objectified in art works and it's very difficult to be a woman working with your body and not fall into the same objectification. At the same time, I think we have to hear about eroticism from a woman's perspective, so it's a double edged sword."

Antoni's more recent work has apparently attempted to duck thin double edge sword by featuring her parents as surrogates for the artist herself. "You sort of set up these rules for yourself and then you start to break them. I think I am giving myself a little more freedom now. At the beginning it was very important for me to act these things out in a real literal way what I say I do, I do," says Antoni. "Now the language is a little bit different."

One of her best known sets of images, Mom and Dad was photographs featuring her parents in various disguises.

"For these pictures I worked with a prosthetic make up artist and got him to teach me to turn my mom into my dad, and my dad into mom." Although her parents were initially reluctant to take part. Anton's explanation of the piece in terms of the liberation of carnival time in the Caribbean seems to, have eventually persuaded them to sit for the piece.

The word "carnival" as used by the critic Mikhail Bakhtin to mean a kind of popular counter culture is quickly approaching the status of a critical dread word, but for Antoni it is a word deeply rooted in her own Bahamian cultural origins.

"During carnival, dressing up is not so abnormal, and even dressing up as the opposite sex is not abnormal," says Antoni. "It is also a time when a lot of things within the culture are lifted in terms of sexism. Carnival is a very political festival, about dressing up and speaking, out against a lot of different things. In a way all the work is about that acting out."


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