Eleanor Antin likes to quote Walt Whitman. “I contain multitudes,” she says more than once in an interview in the catalog for “Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s ‘Selves,’ ” a sometimes piercing, often campy exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
The show, organized by Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery and curated by Emily Liebert, examines several characters the conceptual artist created and portrayed between 1972 and 1991, in video, film, photography, and performance. The impetus to invent characters came in part from her postmodern, feminist awareness of how our identities bind us.
“I consider the usual aids to self-definition — sex, age, talent, time, and space — as tyrannical limitations upon my freedom of choice,” she wrote in 1974.
First she modeled herself on Britain’s Charles I, and roamed a Southern California beach town in tights and a beard. Other personae followed: a black movie star, a clumsy ballerina, a slutty nurse. These developed into more nuanced characters, shaped by history.
If this all sounds like play-acting, it was. Antin has always had a theatrical bent, which can fly in the face of spare, heady conceptual art. She’d made her name with conceptual projects. For “100 Boots,” she photographed boots in different configurations around the United States, and mailed postcards of the images. For “Carving: A Traditional Sculpture,” she photographed herself daily on a crash diet.
But her mother had acted in Yiddish theater in Poland, and Antin had left college to be an actor. She had a youthful passion for creating soapy tales with paper dolls that carried well beyond childhood — they star in some of the videos here. In “The Adventures of a Nurse,” she sits on a pink bed, dressed in a nurse’s white uniform, and manipulates foot-tall paper dolls as they engage in wild flings.
What looks like simplistic artifice is utterly canny. Antin’s core subject is artifice: our personae, and the skittish equation encompassing who we are, what we present to the world, and what others make of us. Using paper dolls and jerry-rigged sets (on view here, an airplane and a war hospital), she made no bones about how she makes it all up. While she played up the stereotypes, her elementary-level theatricality also helped lay bare assumptions based on how characters look and their lot in life.
Feminism had turned a scrutinizing lens on this theme, examining the viewer’s power to objectify women. But Antin’s shape-shifting, like photographer Cindy Sherman’s, seems prescient today, as we craft personalities for online consumption.
Eleanora Antinova, an African-American ballerina, was the most fully realized of Antin’s characters, and she recurred in several art projects. In this mythology, Antinova danced with the lily white Ballets Russes under Sergei Diaghilev at the dawn of Modernism. Diaghilev wanted to consign her to dark-skinned roles, such as Pocahontas.
“We love you because you are as black as the ace of spades,” Diaghilev tells Antinova in the 2012 production of Antin’s play “Before the Revolution,” presented here in part in the video “Fragments of a Revolution.” “You palpitate with sincerity,” he adds.
In this raucous production, Danièle Watts, an African-American actress, steps in for Antin, who used makeup to darken her skin in the original show. When Watts as Antinova responds to Diaghilev’s double-edged praise by launching into a biting minstrel-show schtick, it’s pointed, hilarious, and discomforting. Imagine the unease an audience felt watching Antin perform that in blackface in 1979.
Antin’s characters are all outside the dominant culture (even the king, if he’s living in Southern California) and thus subject to society’s fantasies, fears, and projections. That’s one reason they can put us on edge, and why they can be so funny. The slutty nurse, a.k.a Little Nurse Eleanor, in “The Adventures of a Nurse” seems like a throwback, but you can still find what she represents in costume shops today.
The black ballerina proved a wellspring for Antin. Tinted photographs, drawings, and an installation with a carpet, Bentwood-style chair, and Tiffany-style lamp recount “Recollections of My Life With Diaghilev.” The spare pen-and-ink drawings in “A Ballet Primer for Beginners” often depict Antinova starkly amid a white chorus. The original production of “Before the Revolution” starred only Antin, and the rest of the “cast” was painted on masonite and mounted on wheels — life-size paper dolls. They’re on view, at once stiff and florid.
The riotous film “From the Archives of Modern Art” purports to offer found clips of Antinova’s years in vaudeville, following her return to the United States after Diaghilev’s death. She dabbled in broad comedy — in one sketch of a backstage encounter at “Swan Lake,” Antinova bends over alluringly in front of a male dancer, and a swan’s head rises up from between his legs.
It’s clear Antin was having fun. She still is. Recently, she’s staged elaborate scenes from antiquity for cinematic photographs that, like her earlier work, unpack contemporary notions of identity and society.
But her works now, as then, don’t merely critique societal prejudices. She uses humor, artifice, and outright awkwardness to keep us from getting lost in her stories, so that we may reflect on our experience of looking, and see what makes us uncomfortable.Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.