“I’ve always been obsessed with the body,” Janine Antoni says over tea on a frigid February morning in her Gowanus, New York studio. “Whether it’s my early work about beauty,” including Loving Care (1992), where she dunked her long, dark hair in a bucket of dye and mopped a gallery floor with it, “or the somatic dance practice I’ve done for the last seven years,” or “Turn,” her recent show about birth and mothering at Anthony Meier Fine Arts in San Francisco, “my work has always focused on the body and how it exists in the world; how it makes meaning. It’s an exploration of what it means to be female; it’s important to claim that.”
Antoni rose to art-world prominence in the 1990s with experimental sculptural and performance work like Lick and Lather (1993), in which she crafted 14 busts of herself, seven in chocolate and seven in soap, then slowly eroded them by eating and washing. The Bahamian-born artist was awarded a prestigious MacArthur fellowship in 1998. She gave birth to her daughter in 2004 and struggled for ages, she says, to give form to that experience: “I often have ideas that are floating around for years looking for their shape.”
Now 51, Antoni says the starting point for “Turn” was her daughter, “and thinking about the beautiful notion of being crowned by your mother’s pelvic bones right before you enter the world.” As a sculptor, Antoni was fascinated by the “negotiation of a baby’s head passing through the mother’s pelvic bones,” in which both have to be somewhat malleable.
Antoni ordered pelvic bones of child-bearing women from a medical supply company and used them to make the pit-fired ceramic pieces. “I threw a vessel on the wheel and while it was still wet I dragged the hip bones along the outer edge, so it’s basically a portrait of a womb. Its surface feels ancient because it has been put in a packed in sawdust and burnt in it a pit.” Antoni cast the bones themselves in ceramic and affixed them as makeshift handles. She also dragged plaster casts of the same childbearing pelvic bones around the gallery’s crown molding to make the installation Crowned. She left them on the wall as a frame with visceral plaster splatterings nearby.
“The whole show focused on the act of giving birth,” says Antoni. “It’s amazing to me how little artwork there is about mothering and birth considering that we’ve all been born. I feel a responsibility given that my past work has dealt with my parents, that I now talk about my own experience of childbirth and my relationship with my daughter.”
In New York, Antoni’s exhibition “From the Vow Made,” on view at Luhring Augustine through April 25, childbirth isn’t the only “miracle” being explored. “I’ve been collecting milagros for years,” says Antoni of the“sculptural prayers” in the shape of body parts that are hung in churches (particularly in Latin America and Spain) by the ailing in hopes of divine intervention. “Traditionally, they are mass-produced, but they come in all kinds of materials.” If you can’t afford one, a layperson might carve one personally and I find those to be particularly beautiful.”
The show comprises seven new sculptural works that poetically represent “impossible scenarios of the inside of the body meeting the outside of the body,” including to long, in which a polyurethane resin ear rests on a ribcage in an effort to hear their lover’s heart. But, “there’s no heart in this chest,” says Antoni. “It’s about a desire that’s so extreme the ear has melted straight through the ribs to the other side.” Nearby, visitors will circulate around to twine, to coalesce and to quench, which takes a breast and “turns it on its side to become a cup.” Antoni situated it atop a cast domestic cupboard, referencing a child’s perspective, “looking up at the breast.” A hand holds a sacrum, “the site of our evolutionary lost tail,” in to return. “Our bodies physically store our memories. We are the history of our lives, so to be in touch with one’s body is to have access to those memories.”
“After this dry, white environment,” Antoni explains, “you’ll enter a dark room, into this juicy, visceral, womb-like space,” were the artist’s 15-minute video collaboration, Honey Baby, with choreographer Stephen Petronio, is projected. In it, a dancer tumbles through poses inspired by ultrasound images in a tunnel filled with 50 gallons of honey—a stand-in for amniotic fluid.
The exhibition, “From the Vow Made” is “my vow, my desire for embodiment,” says Antoni. “We treat our bodies as a vehicle to transport our thinking minds. I’ve been on a journey to embodiment. I want to enter my body, to trust it. I want to make sculptures that talked about that experience. Making this work has been a way to externalize a bodily understanding. Making has been a form of healing.”