The Feminist Artist Who Dieted to Become a Marble Sculpture

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Constructing Helen from 'Helen's Odyssey', 2007© Eleanor Antin, Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery

Ahead of a new solo show opening this week, the 82-year-old “priestess of 20th-century conceptual art”, Eleanor Antin, talks to AnOther about the death of her husband and performing her ‘selves’

Artist Eleanor Antin cuts a tiny little figure, one with glorious lengths of dark hair, eyes that could be the dictionary definition of ‘twinkling’ and a gorgeously dirty Noo Yoik twang. But while small in stature, there is nothing diminutive about this priestess of 20th-century conceptual art: her presence is as vast as her CV. Now, at the age of 82, she’s over in London to perform at the Serpentine Gallery’s Park Nights series ahead of the opening of a solo exhibition at Richard Saltoun Gallery, entitled Romans and Kings. She speaks of sympathies with her cab driver, who ran half an hour late because he needed a cup of coffee, but Antin seems conversely indefatigable.

Antin’s career began in the late 1960s, and her most famous piece, 100 Boots (1971-3), saw her photograph said footwear in various settings and mail the images to hundreds of recipients, thus taking notions of art distribution and display into her own hands. Much of her work is based on creating other ‘selves’ – namely a chic, sophisticated ex-ballerina called Eleanora Antinova, forever harking back to her young and beautiful days in the Ballet Russes; a grand Charles I-style king; and Eleanor Nightingale, a nurse.

The artist is a delightful raconteur. I learn about how at 12 years old, she helped her (married) mother meet her charismatic new Hungarian poet husband; her love of spy novels; her “generous breasts”; her bacon and exercise-dependent diet for Carving, an art piece originally performed in the early 1970s, in which she photographed her weight loss until she reached the shape of a marble sculpture. Like Antin’s life and work, there’s so much to cram in, which even the most generous of word counts and interview slots couldn’t accommodate. Here’s just a tiny portion of her wisdom.

On starting out…
“I have a suspicion I would have had a career in the literary world rather than in the art world if I hadn’t come up about the time when conceptual art was coming up. A lot of the boys’ [art] was essentially very kinda dry and boring – Art and Language and that sort of thing – but there was no reason why you couldn’t do whatever you wanted. I had been an actor, I went from one thing to another except for music – my sister was a wunderkind musically, but I have no talent in music at all – but I was a pretty good dancer. I kept going from one thing to another, so if I did badly or a teacher gave me a B-minus or something I left that immediately, I’m not a masochist. But anyway, the wonderful thing was that once conceptual work started, and you didn’t have to be painter or a sculptor, you could do whatever you wanted. Everything was so open.”

On returning to Carving 45 years on…
“It was about a month after my husband died, and while I had a very busy and lively youth, I was married to this brilliant man who was a poet, for 56 years. While I always notice a good looking guy, nevertheless I was absolutely with David and then he got Parkinson’s. Before that beautiful mind of his could disintegrate, he died. About a month later I started doing Carving 2. When I say that it sounds like ‘oh well she’s making herself attractive so she can find another man’ but that’s not true at all, it had nothing to do with that at all. Maybe it was that I lost him, and then I lost part of myself. That’s what I thought it meant for me personally, but it wouldn’t mean that for other people. It helped also as I knew when he died I had to get working immediately, so and this was there and it felt like the right thing to do. Maybe that’s why I didn’t mind the dieting this time – even the slight torment that it gave made me feel... it felt right. It’s something I did and it meant a lot to me.”

On making work through other ‘selves’...
“If you think of us as we are now, I’m not the same all the time. You’re you and I’m me, whoever those people are. We’re not always the same with everybody; we’re not always the same with ourselves. It’s the same thing when I’m Antinova – there is a kind of trying to hold on to her, but sometimes Eleanor interrupts. I don’t expect to be feeling like I’m Antinova all the time. I take away more knowledge about myself and my character, my role. I thought I could take on a lot of roles and I realised no, you can hold about three together and that’s it. When therapists think somebody has seven or eight personalities or some enormous amount you can’t, it’s bullshit. They’re calling somebody a ‘self’ when it’s really just a version of another self.”

Romans & Kings opens September 22 at Richard Saltoun Gallery, London. Serpentine Gallery’s Park Nights runs until September 29, 2017.