Cultivating Pure Presence:
by HIMALI SINGH SOIN
American ‘living sculpture’ Linda Montano turns to the East for lessons in Performance Art
One of the most intriguing aspects of Montano’s performance art is its representation of the long-standing cohesion between endurance art philosophy and Hindu and Buddhist meditative practices. Superficially, it appears as though the severity and physicality of the endurance performer identity would not lend itself to the observance of peaceful Zen practices; however, endurance art, though based in the body, necessarily involves a profound cultivation of one’s mind for an effective performance.
Montano attributes her entire performance career to her study of chakras and yoga: “yoga was the beginning of acknowledging that I had feelings, I had language, I had a body. And I actually began performing once I began practicing yoga. In public dancing, in public lying in meditation. So yoga and performance were natural allies”.
The incorporation of this physical spirituality into the performer’s intellectual identity is integral to her philosophy—that in the unity of mind and body is art—and in doing so, Linda Montano, 68, redefines art as a state of mind.
Linda Montano’s dedicated commitment to blurring the distinctions between art and life in her exploration of performance as both a spiritual endeavor and a healing process has made her a seminal figure in the performance art movement from the 60’s until today: “I didn't want to relegate [art] to the studio alone because I wanted it all the time. In making a vow to call my life art, I was giving myself access to aliveness, creativity and possibility at all times1.”
Montano challenges herself physically by performing in restricted environments for extended periods of time in order to remain
1 Eye Weekly, January 28, 1999. Todd, Rebecca: Appreciating the Chakras.
mentally and socially alert at all times: “I would endure things by taking them into my body, listening to my body, being blindfoldedi.” By blurring the distinctions between the body and the mind, she is able to blur the distinctions between art and life, thereby merging public and private realms of existence. This amalgamation of artistic commentaries mirrors her own being: the stages of her life blend into one another to form a spiritual, aesthetic whole.
In attempting to obliterate the distinction between art and life, Montano’s artwork is starkly autobiographical and concerned with personal and spiritual discipline. In the 60’s, Linda ‘Mary’ Montano spent two years as a Catholic novice and lived a life of ritual and service, observing many hours of silence and observation. This experience, fused with her life in India, influenced her later performances which approached art as an ascetic practice: the fulfillment of a series of vows.
It was in 1970 that Montano discovered yoga, when a Hatha specialist came to teach at the Catholic college where Montano taught sculpture.
Serendipity on her shoulders, she found a yogi named Ramamurti Mishra in India, where she continues to visit and practice Zen meditation and yoga till today. She lived in a Zen Monastery for three years and has been visiting Ananda Ashram for the past four decades.
After marrying the photographer Mitchell Payne and beginning Yoga in 1970, Montano began performing as a saint with white gauze veiling her painted white face, sitting and standing as still as a church statue: she became the spectacle of an image that she had once been a spectator of - a “living sculpture”. “In its first manifestations, performance art was largely and often very specifically concerned with the operations of the bodyii (Carlson 111)”. She handcuffed herself to Tom Marioni; remained blindfolded for a week several times; taped a stethoscope to her heart to learn how to listen; and told
the story of her life while walking on a treadmill. Her philosophy was beginning to take shape. She wanted to do/make art that took her beyond the limitations of her own imagination. So she stepped outside the cognitive into the meta-physical.
When her husband Mitchell was suddenly shot, she began a phase in her art process that she calls ‘creative schizophrenia’-- a dissolving of her inner core. She explored grief and loss through persona changes that allowed her to exit her own skin. In her piece, Mitchell’s Death, she put acupuncture needles around her eyes, congruous with her belief that “without consistent emotional cleansing and maintenance we are often blind to or incapable of healthy intimacyiii”. It was his death that finally established her exploration of art as a healing modality.
Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s her Guru, Dr. Mishra taught, mentored and directed her toward meditation. She spent long periods of time in India, learning meditation, chakra philosophies, and more so, the philosophies of yoga beyond the physical: those of concentration, of focus, of soft eyes, of breath, of absolute awareness.
Linda describes yoga as having cultivated and expanded her soul, a means to move away from “object making”, using her body to become “living art”: “Because of yoga I was beginning to understand aspects of quiet, of weight, of peace, of contentment, of pure, pure presence. And of nurturing – of all the soul qualities that had aspects of beauty.”
“Powerful pieces were also created in the late 1970’s by performers who placed autobiographical material in a ritualized form that suggested general or universal almost mythic concerns (Carlson 161)”. She lived in a Zen meditation community in India for two years until she met the conceptual artist Tehching Hsieh. They performed their ultimate endurance piece called “Art/Life: One Year Performance”. In this, they
remained tied together by a rope from July 4, 1983 until July 3, 1984. It tested all levels of her being: physical, cognitive, spiritual and emotional.
One of her most famous works is ‘7 years of Living Art’. It was her personal interpretation of the seven yogic chakras (sacred centers) of the body. Working from root centre to the crown and back, each year was dedicated to a different chakra through her visual conception of emotion. Wearing one color per year, she meditated in a room painted that same color in The New Museum of Contemporary Art. She carried out a daily task of living with an underlying concentration on that year’s energy centre. Montano spoke in a specific accent each year, and listened to a single pitch for at least seven hours a day while meditating. The first year was red, symbolizing root energy; the second year orange for security, the third yellow for courage, the fourth green for compassion, and the fifth year was blue for throat communication, the sixth was purple for intuition and the last year white for joy. She tattooed the chakras on her back, completed one drawing and one collage each year, made one literary or philanthropic figure her guide for that year and occasionally even read palms. She repeated this cycle and called it “14 Years of Living Art”. It lasted from 1984 to 1998.
This allowed the mind to defy habituation and stay conscious to purpose- “Art becomes meditation”. Beginning as a piece devoted to themes of commitment and limitation, the work became a fascinating hybrid of art and life, as Montano experiences the onset of menopause, her mother's death, her choice to enter and then leave a convent, the suffering of a stroke, and thoughts of her own death—all within the structural confines of a work of art. Looking at the progression of work in retrospect, Montano comments,
“I started meditating publicly and I called that ‘art.’ I would sit for hours at a time, doing a lot of endurance pieces. They became manifestations of ways to practice my yoga as art. The undercurrent was healing. I was improvising my own healing as art.iv”
Whilst the notion of constructing ‘art’ out of the most daily routines is creative and materially fruitful, one is inevitably led to wonder whether the project is heightening one’s life experiences or in fact destroying its sanctity by attempting to create ‘art’ (a human taxonomy) out of what may already be, in fact, art.
“Of course to the average viewer, Montano’s performances may at first glance seem absurd and perhaps further contributing to the 20th century avant garde‘s removal of art. However, Montano’s faith in and commitment to the strict and stringent rules that required her undivided attention and surefire willingness to engage and endure indicate her seriousness and dedication to her art (Brandenberg 66)”.
Linda Montano is not the traditional 70’s performing artist who employs feminist body imagery and anti male sentiments to define her art. Instead she combines postmodern theory with pragmatic philosophy to arrive at a less sexually explicit, gender- based and more physically-challenging and psychically-engaging performance art. The California magazine Avalanche, in its opening issue in 1970 said of body works:
“Variously called actions, events, performances, pieces, things, the works present physical activities, ordinary bodily functions and other usual and unusual manifestations of physicality. The artist’s body becomes both the subject and the object of the work.”v”(Carlson 112).
Linda Montano’s aestheticism embraces the ultimate conceptualism; she creates an art that cannot be preserved, destroyed, bought, or sold. Instead, it acts as a vehicle to merge ordinary experiences in extraordinary circumstances. By embracing the act of setting boundaries and enforcing limitations in both her art and life and by strictly
defining the parameters of her social role and representation, Montano remains mentally alert and constantly engaged in her environment, while simultaneously uplifting the aesthetic of art as experience as both a constructive and creative activity. “In Zen training they talk about “waking up” and “paying attention” and “playing with the mindvi”. Through conceptual movements and arranged actions, her performances become a scientific inquiry into the realms of physical and cognitive spaces.
Through her postmodernist identity, Montano seeks personal, social, and aesthetic healing individually so that it can be emanated to the collective consciousness.
Zen Buddhism encapsulates precisely the kind of mental isolation that Montano seeks; the process of meditation as a means of personal understanding goes hand-in-hand with the psychological regimen of the endurance artist. In fact, in both Zen and endurance art ideology, the mind is regarded as the most powerful and fundamental entity of the human condition. This ideal is manifest in the Zen scripture Faith in Mindvii.
Her art is not for art‘s sake; instead it is a practical art, devised, planned, and executed exclusively for social and personal transformation. Her postmodernist aesthetics display themselves in her scientistic- disciplined, objective, and process oriented- approach to her performances. She is able to balance the freedom and restraint which she strives for in her art by through this discipline, which ultimately allows her to experience a sense of liberation.
Her work contains multiple layers of social and aesthetic commentaries. She explores women’s issues, life, death, religion and art through performance.
Ultimately these social and aesthetic statements combine in her life and therefore in her art, making her ultimate statement not only about blurring art and life, but also about dissolving the
demarcations between ones personal and social self and ones internal psyche with ones external persona.
She uses color, video images, and her body as her instruments, is disheartened by the world, and seeks to comment on social issues. Does this make her work ‘art’? “I liked being in creativity all the time, I didn‘t like the division that “this was art” or “this wasn‘t… I think Duchamp said that breathing could be the highest art. That‘s really my goalviii.”
Through her public performances, her own evolutionary process of learning and growing began to reveal itself as an important goal in melding life and art: “I got addicted to the performing process–that‘s where I was creative, truthful, abandoning ego. I was curing myself through exhibiting my existence publiclyix.” In melding these boundaries, she creates a stronger tie between art, a material, worldly construction by humans trying to comprehend the world around them creatively, and spirituality, a higher force. Thus, she juxtaposes the tangible with the intangible. In doing this, art becomes a higher form, and the spiritual world, more comprehensible.
i Montano, Linda. —Interview with Andrea Juno“in Angry Women, Andrea Juno (ed.), San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1991, Pg. 57.
ii Willoughby Sharp, “Body Works: A Pre-Critical, Non-Definitive Survey of Very Recent Works Using the Human Body or Parts Thereof,” Avalanche, 1970, vol. 1, p.17.
iii Ascent magazine.
iv Lunch at the Art/Life institute: A conversation with Linda Montano, 2001: Internet.
v Christine Tamblyn, “Hybridized Art,” Artweek, 1990, vol.21, p27.
vi Montano, Linda. —Interview with Andrea Juno“in Angry Women, Andrea Juno (ed.), San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1991, Pg. 53.
vii Develop a mind of equanimity,
And all deeds are put to rest.
Anxious doubts are completely cleared.
Right faith is made upright.
Nothing lingers behind,
Nothing can be remembered.
Bright and empty, functioning naturally,
The mind does not exert itself.
It is not a place of thinking,
Difficult for reason and emotion to fathom.
In the Dharma Realm of true suchness,
There is no other, no self”
viii Montano, Linda. —Interview with Andrea Juno“in Angry Women, Andrea Juno (ed.), San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1991, Pg. 56.
ix Ibid. 53.
Goldberg, Roselee, Performance : live art since 1960
Brief descriptions, illustrations
Carlson, Marvin, Performance: A critical Introduction. Second Edition, Routledge, NY, 1996 & 2004.
Feminism and performance after the 60’s,
Carr, C., On Edge: Performance at the end of the twentieth century. University College Press of New England, 1993.
Her work with Hsieh.
Cassandra Langer, Ellen Frueh Joanna, Feminist art criticism: an anthology. Ann Arbor, Mich. : UMI Research Press, c1988
Kaprow, Allan, Essays On The Blurring Of Art And Life.
http://www.bobsart.org/montano/: Important, Life and beliefs; Description of 7 years of Living art
http://www.bobsart.org/montano/: Videos of art; biographical descriptions.
Wikipedia: The online encyclopedia: General introductory info
Eye Weekly http://www.ascentmagazine.com/: Article about her taking care of her father in this magazine: Dad art- Commentary on art and life.
‘Inducing knowledge by enduring experience’: Presented to the faculty of Art and Design of East Tennessee State University, by Alisa A. Brandenberg, December 2004.