Performance artist Linda Montano has not waited to die to be reborn. Her rejuvenation is inspired by her father’s illness. Montano is his primary caregiver, monitoring his physical and metaphysical condition as it evolves moment by moment. Her art is a record of his physical decline and their synchronous spiritual awakenings. He is her teacher, but this is an ecological lesson for us all to learn. Linda Montano’s father is 91 years old. He enjoys his meals and wheelchair trips to the village. Three years ago he began painting. Sometimes he creates works of stirring beauty. They are spare, Zen-like, mysterious. It is also true that Linda Montano’s father has lost the ability to speak, walk, feed himself, and dress himself. Seven years ago Montano says she heard voices beseeching her to return home to care for her aging father and prepare them both for the inevitability of death. Five years ago she declared this experience a work of art. I requested an interview with Linda Montano to gather information about this art piece to accompany the section of my book, Avant-Guardians: Ecology and Art at the Cultural Frontier, which deals with degeneration and death. Instead, she revealed a joyful (she used the term ‘ecstatic’) revitalization of her own life and career. She may be his caregiver, but her father has been her teacher. The new wellspring of creativity and soulfulness that he exhibits, Montano believes, stems from his life-long spiritual practice within the Catholic Church, but also from the loss of his discursive faculties. His spirit seems ultimately liberated. The only end-point she discussed during our interview was the ‘death’ of the pioneering role she once played in the art world as one of the originators of performance art in the 1960s. But her art is being revitalize by the teachings she is receiving from her father. Once, Montano says, she felt like art’s left-over, a waste product of a bygone era. Now she is being ‘recycled’. She is transformed. Her work seems, once again,timely, innovative, and compelling.
LINDA MONTANO’S EDITED COMMENTS FROM THE INTERVIEW
HOW I RECYCLE
Six years ago I began getting messages to return to the small village in New York where I grew up. I heard voices saying, “Go home and care for your dad.” I obeyed in increments. At first I helped dad with shopping and doctor visits and paying his bills. By the third year when Dad had a stroke, I became a total, full-time care giver. At the time, Dad was 89. It took me two more years to name this situation ‘art’. That is when I decided to save it and not delete it. I recycled it from the refuse bin of life where it had no value. Once I called it ‘art’, my dad and I started collaborating and being at home felt divinely designed. Before his stroke he allowed me to video tape his life. He instructed his friends and family about what they should do for the video. He would say, “You can smile, wave, sing, walk.” He enjoyed the camera. I reflected his brilliance and creativity. It brought us incredibly close. It recycled our friendship, a process I think of as art/life ecology.
HOW PERFORMANCE IS BEING RECYLCED AND HOW THE COMPUTER RECYCLES REALITY
Performance art has been imitated by very high energy young artists who understand that they need to challenge the tradition. They have knowingly and unknowingly imitated many of the themes, styles, rituals, and techniques of performance art from history, including futurism and even referring to its cave origins. In doing so, they have deleted the pure and sacred understanding of brain waves, energy, and initiation. They have substituted the gross elements of exclusion, greed, competition, and shallowness as seen in Survivor, Big Brother, Fear Factor, You’re Fired and other reality TV programs. All of these basic, non-compassionate virtues are present in unconscious motivations of early performance artists, but early performance artists ritualized hese motives or denied them. Remember, we were the good saints, poetic, spiritual beings. Now, the younger performance artists added the hidden motivations. They brought the darkness of the human condition to light. This is a good thing. The computer also makes us look at reality differently. It offers the possibility of taking off the blindfolds and seeing everything, everywhere.
HOW ARTISTS CAN SURVIVE BEING DISCARDED:
The artists who were active in the 60s, 70s, and 80s cannot mirror today’s Olympic-styled, risk-taking athletes and technological dare devils. We are no longer useful. We have been discarded. We are the cultural garbage of the art world. This, too, is good. It frees us of the need to stay within the old direction. As garbage, we can either seed a new flowering or we can bitterly pick at our archives and shop for our names on Google.
HOW MY FATHER HELPED ME RECYCLE MYSELF
The younger artists have created a brilliant diving board to the next wave. It’s an incredible personal challenge to artists to find a way to recycle themselves. I had no idea I would find myself in my father’s light. Since 1969 I have been attempting to process light as art, as performance, as sculpture, as installation. Now I feel that everything was a dress rehearsal for making ‘DAD ART'. The rug has been pulled out of my art making process because, for the first time, I am not in control. I am fascinated by having to learn a new role as I’ve had to recycle my art statement from one of controlling time to one of relinquishing time. I have no idea when this performance will change. Time is gone from my art statement. I’m at the mercy of space because I’m committed to make ‘DAD ART’ as long as I receive the message. I am here in obedience to the voices, to this teaching.
Retired artists pray for opportunities to be taught new concepts. That is our ecological gift. I am experiencing the ecstasy of finally marrying art and life.
HOW I MAKE DAD ART
I’m saving all of Dad’s charts about his diet, baths, sleeping patterns, the condition of his teeth, his bowels, his genitals. I add comments from the nurses and tips on transporting him. His miniscule actions are noted. We document the new ways that he is creative. He was never a painter before he had his stroke. Now we sit him at the table and give him a brush and he is happy. He creates Rothko-like paintings. He seems to be channeling. You can see his concentration. It sometimes takes him a half hour to make one beautiful line.
HOW I ONCE MADE CONCEPTUAL ART
Every artist has permission to create a definition of what is art. Some people say only my paintings, sculpture, poems are art. Early in my career, I needed to appropriate everything as art, and find creative ways of parenthesizing certain aspects of my life as art. I did this by saying, “I will wear red this year. I will be blindfolded for a week. I will expose my embarrassment for three hours. I will call my house art.” It is a mind frame. You have to admit your intention and choice to the air, to yourself, your friends, the art community, the world. This game has satisfied me and kept me busy since 1965.
HOW DEATH MAKES ARTISTS OF EVERYONE
Death, after birth, is the greatest mystery. I have no idea what’s going to happen when dad or I stop breathing, but I know I have to practice states of transformation while I’m still living. I use Catholicism to direct me. I know I have to feel and study the technology of the sacred (the title of a Jerome Rothenberg book)so that I become a good student. The reward of spending this much time with my Dad is that I’m having an opportunity to bask in his light which he emits because he has surrendered his discursive mind. My father is Italian and Catholic, yet strangely his quality is Zen-like. He is half way between life and death. The payoff for his surrender is pure beauty. Beauty is a vibrational frequency, a brain wave. It comes and goes. His meds are carefully selected and all lined-up to contribute to his peacefulness. There is no doubt that he is helped by chemistry, but his good character and endurance are also contributing to this end game. Thirty four years of studying with a Catholic spiritual leader taught him how to keep focused. Sunday afternoons he would sit in silence in the church and meditate. He knew where to get his spiritual food. Now he seems to be reaping the benefits of his practice. He has become a living ecstatic.” It’s like a little monastery here. That’s what my art was always supposed to be like. Thanks Dad for being my co-pioneer in developing a new art/life – death.
What will remain after he dies?
Invitations to revisit Beauty.
Gratitude at having this time with him.