Art Seen: Chicago

MALLEABLE RECORDS: ELEANOR ANTIN // ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

By Zhicheng Jacob Zhang

Artist Eleanor Antin, whose solo exhibition is currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, was once described as a “postconceptualist” by art historian Cherise Smith; Smith exemplified with one of Antin’s most controversial projects, Being Antinova (1983).1 For three weeks in 1980, Antin purports to have lived as the fictional, once-celebrated African-American ballerina Eleanora Antinova. According to Smith, Antin is a postconceptualist because she disrupts the integrity of the document that is often taken for granted. Antin’s account of her performance—including the photographs of Antinova and an artist’s book published in 1983—does not aim to faithfully document. Instead, it subjectively places another myth atop the fictional being that is Antinova, with implicit irony turned toward the documentary genre. As the audience becomes suspicious of the documentation and is thereby arguably led by Antin to question the ethics of her blackface, one could say, in this case, representations are stripped of credence. They are revealed by Antin as simulacra which do not refer to an external reality—Antin’s past performance as Antinova—but are elaborately dependent upon one another to only look hyperreal.2

Her postconceptualist turning point sits between the two highly-similar projects of Antin’s that are displayed at the Art Institute: CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture (1972) and CARVING: 45 Years Later (2017). CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture consists of a grid of 148 photographs, then divided into 37 columns of four. The photographs supposedly document the 37 days through which Antin lost ten pounds by following a magazine-recommended diet. Photographs of her front, back, left, and right were taken by her husband, poet David Antin, every day to record the process of, in Antin’s words, “carving” her body. The four positions documented on a daily basis call to mind police lineup photographs or medical illustrations, endowing the project with a regulated, scientific aura. As much as the viewer could regard the overflowing objectivity as an ironic provocation of conceptualist strategies, the photographic documentation also remains an undisputed record of Antin’s “carving.”

Eleanor Antin. CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture (detail), 1972. Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, Twentieth-Century Discretionary Fund.

A feminist statement concerning the expectation of the female body is perhaps more pronounced than any other theme observable from this project. Antin calls the process of losing weight “carving,” an invocation and deconstruction of “the traditional Greek mode” utilized by Greek sculptors.3 By removing an entire layer of his material at a time, the Greek sculptor approaches the figure holistically until it arrives at “the aesthetic ideal.”4 In CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture, Antin contrasts the so-called ideal image with her own body objectively represented in the photographs. The contrast is verbally hinted at: in the text accompanying the photographs, Antin maintains that the conclusion of a work is predetermined by “the limitations of the material.” By ostensibly sounding as if she has failed at creating from her own body the ideal female form, Antin sarcastically points to the unattainability of femininity standards and the patriarchal gaze.

Interpretations of the work like the one above are likely present in many introductory texts of early conceptual art. Despite being chronologically and thematically (at least seemingly) in tandem with second-wave feminism, the interpretation of the work should not ossify, especially not considering Antin has re-created work in 2017. Preceded by projects like Being Antinova, which is known for its dispensation of veracity in favor of deliberately dubious impersonation, CARVING: 45 Years Later could be thought of as another Antin’s project that uses the tactic of impersonation—this time, it is Antin’s earlier self that Antin impersonates. For CARVING: 45 Years Later, Antin took 500 photographs over a span of four months to document her losing 10 pounds; besides the longer duration and daily addition of a photograph of her wearing a bra (for a clearer view of the front of her torso), Antin has kept the format generally consistent with that from 1972. It is also fair to call 45 Years Later a reenactment, acting out the past event without implying sameness. As performance theorist Peggy Phelan argued, any “reproduction” of a performance alters the event and proves that the event has acted performatively on itself, rendering itself nonreproductive.5 This new work does not reproduce the older one, but points to a factor whose role has changed significantly: the 10-pound flesh shed by Antin now weighs psychologically more to the artist than before.

Eleanor Antin. CARVING: 45 Years Later (detail), 2017 © Eleanor Antin, courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York.

A text by Antin that accompanies the photographs is as playful as that from 45 years ago, but less irony is expressed toward certain social patterns—perhaps a clue of Antin’s changes. She admits to her own vanity for starting to photograph only after having lost 11 pounds. She speaks to the clinging weight preciously, even though the project demanded her to lose the weight in a determined manner. She completed the series of photographs without her husband, battled scoliosis, discovered a hernia, and starved herself. Shedding flesh for art brought the realization that her flesh was a protection from potential traumas and the documented gesture of shedding exposed these traumas. That is, to Antin, a sacrifice for the purpose of learning the meaning of loss.

And this insight—which adds to the insights gleanable from her 1972 project—is possible because Antin is keen on dramatizing cool-seeming conceptualist strategies. Rather than purely illustrating Antin’s different attitudes toward the human weight, the two projects that face each other in one room demonstrate the interpretative malleability of photographs and texts. When one compares the two groups of photographs taken 45 years apart, it is obvious that Antin is older and weighs more in the later photographs. Despite those, Antin has maintained both the grid structure and systematic method of photography; in other words, she has upkept the conceptualist appearance. But the strong similarity in terms of conceptualist mannerisms in effect distinguishes the bodily differences, which guide the viewer to pay particular attention to Antin’s sentimental words about her changed body. The tenderness and affection express something other than the bold feminist statement uttered earlier, but do not discredit the former. Together with the critique of Western traditions, those emotions revealed 45 years later bespeak Antin’s sensibility as an artist: she is responsive to social movements as well as resonating personal matters, and she responds by mobilizing forms of impersonation and reenactment, whether beneath the surface of deadpan sameness or not.


Eleanor Antin: Time’s Arrow runs at the Art Institute of Chicago through January 5, 2020.

1. Cherise Smith, “Eleanor Antin and the Performance of Blackness,” in Enacting Others: Politics of Identity in Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, Adrian Piper, and Anna Deavere Smith, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 86–89.

2. “Simulation… is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” A hyperreal condition is one in which one could not distinguish between the real and the imaginary. See Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra,” in Simulacra and Simulation, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 1–42.

3. Text accompanying photographs in artwork, CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, 14 September 2019.

4. Ibid.

5. Peggy Phelan, “The Ontology of Performance: Representation without Reproduction,” in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, (London, New York: Routledge, 1993), 146–166.

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