Janine Antoni, on the Edge of Artistic Expression and Provocation

Janine Antoni - Slumber, 1993. Image courtesy of janineantoni.net
Janine Antoni - Slumber, 1993. Image courtesy of janineantoni.net

Janine Antoni develops her artistic activity through installations and performances. She has a personal, unique and radical style, which differs significantly from the other usual proposals of the artistic scene. Born in the Bahamas on January 19, 1964, she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1989.

Prior to this, Janine graduated from a private university dedicated to the liberal arts, Sarah Lawrence College. This school is known for its rigorous academic standards, low student-to-faculty ratio, and highly individualized courses of study. The college emphasizes its teaching methods, particularly in the humanities, fine arts, and literature, and places a high value on independent study.

A personal style

Janine Antoni – Mom and Dad (1994). Photo: Courtesy of janineantoni.net

It is often said that Janine’s creative activity is on the edge of artistic expression and provocation, and she is seen as a “bad girl” of 21st-century art. Janine creates contemporary works of performing art, sculptures, and photographs. It is common for her to use parts of her own body as tools for her art. For example, she has made use of her mouth and hair to perform her work where the distinction between acting and sculpture seems to blur.

In her performances Janine makes activities assigned to the female sex in Western cultures, such as sewing, scrubbing, and making up. With these activities, she engages in a direct discourse on the relationships established with domestic work, food disorders, and the culture of beauty. She explores femininity with the usual objects of consumption of women and the concepts socially assigned to the feminine. In her artistic manifestations, she usually transforms everyday activities such as eating, bathing, and sleeping into a way of making art.

Janine uses her own body as a working tool and source of meaning. She has used signals from her recorded brain waves while dreaming at night as a pattern to weave a blanket the next morning, washed the faces of busts of soap made in her image, and even chiseled buckets of lard and chocolate with her teeth. With each piece created, she addresses the spectator directly and places herself at the limit of artistic expression and provocation. Her sculptural pieces are composed of such atypical elements as chocolate, butter, soap, or hair dye. They are the result of a very personal process of exploration of femininity.

Tableau vivants

Janine Antoni – Crowned (2013). Photo: Courtesy of janineantoni.net

Janine uses the “Tableau vivant” technique in her work. This is a French expression to define the representation by a group of actors or models of a pre-existing or unpublished pictorial work. This technique of expression was a form of entertainment that had its origins in the 19th century where people wore costumes and posed as if it were a painting.

In her installation Slumber (1994) Janine slept in a gallery for 28 days. There a machine recorded her REM patterns while she slept. She then proceeded to weave these patterns into a blanket that she slept under. Because of its spectacle aspect, this particular work was seen as a living painting. By placing the artist in the public eye as an object while making this tableau vivant.

The aesthetics of this work generate different simultaneous connections. One between the artist and the viewers, a second between the artist and art institutions, and a third between the artist’s conscious and unconscious processes.

The artworks

Gnaw (1992)

Janine Antoni – Gnaw (1992). Photo: Courtesy of janineantoni.net

Janine used only her mouth and teeth to perform her 1992 Gnaw play. She carved two 600-pound cubes, one of chocolate and one of lard. She melted the chewed chocolate again and stained the fat with red pigment to form two symbols of female sensuality. She made a box of heart-shaped chocolates and 400 lipsticks and displayed them in a simulated storefront.

Janine stated that “Lard is a substitute for the female body, a female material since women tend to have a higher fat content than men, which makes the work somewhat cannibalistic”. Gnaw was the play with which she achieved wide popularity. In this work, she tried to identify one of the most widespread phobias among women; obesity and compulsive diets.

Loving Care (1993)

Janine Antoni – Loving Care (1993). Photo: Courtesy of janineantoni.net

In “Loving Care” from 1993 Janine replaces food with household chores as representative elements for her work. This time she surprised those present at this performance by scrubbing the gallery floor with her own hair soaked in dye.

In this act, Janine wanted to show how women of this era are forced to combine beauty and submission at the same time, that a woman to be desirable must beautify herself and submit to the stagnant patriarchal mandates.

This montage began with a room full of people where Janine would then put her head in a bucket of dye, and then start scrubbing the floor with her hair. With this act, she slowly pushes people out of the room. The performance was held at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London in 1993.

Lick and Lather (1993)

Janine Antoni – Lick and Lather (1993). Photo: Courtesy of janineantoni.net

Janine took another step towards the total transgression of artistic representations with Lick and Lather in 1993. In this presentation, she made seven busts in chocolate and seven in soap. On these, she licked and soaked until she managed to sculpt her own facial features. From this new work by Janine, it can be interpreted that behind this representation is hidden the obsession for cleanliness and the fear of the aging process.

The installation would be a critique of the notions of beauty and feminine hygiene. This is suggested by the way in which the features of the busts are distorted by Janine’s actions. The chocolate would represent female menstrual cravings and the soap suggests the social expectation that the female body should be perpetually cleansed.

More recent works

Janine Antoni – I Am Fertile Ground (2019). Photo: Courtesy of janineantoni.net

In the photographic compositions “Mom and Dad” from 1994 she manipulates the image of her parents with the help of make-up. In “Tear” from 2008, Janine created a lead wrecking ball and then used it to demolish a building in sync with the blinking of her eyelid. Each impact damaged the surface of the ball, telling its story.

His 2013 work “Crowned” was inspired after she gave birth to her daughter in 2004. It is a plaster molded wall sculpture with two pelvic bones protruding from the wall. This structure resembles the birth stage called “crowning,” when the baby’s head is surrounded by the vaginal opening.

The 2019 “I Am Fertile Ground” was installed in the catacombs of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. This time she placed tiny close-up photographs of living bodies surrounded by golden frames shaped like human bones. This way, the work represents the fragility of the human body.

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