Photo: TONY WHITFIELD
Dear Pope Benedict:
It is with a heart filled with contradictions and paradox that I address this letter to you. It is a letter of public admission of my position as a Catholic Performance Artist. The title is almost a contestable oxymoron. How can they both co-exist....the vocation to be a performance artist and loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church? This is mystery.
— Roman Catholic Performance Artist Manifesto: An Email Sent to Pope Benedict
I first met performance art pioneer Linda Montano after her 2007 performance A Silent Three-Hour Prayer Retreat inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the first and only time I have been in the vast landmark building. I was a long standing admirer of Montano’s work and had begun to write about her 1981 video, Anorexia Nervosa. Meeting one of my very fierce art heroines in a cathedral felt like I was getting away with something, but I couldn’t put my finger on what, or perhaps better where, the transgression was. Did any of the kneeling parishioners and wandering tourists know that a performance had been happening in their midst?
Last year, I took the E train to Herald Square on a late lunch break to see Linda Montano perform as Mother Teresa in Happy Birthday Mother Teresa (2009). She had chosen the sidewalk in front of the Empire State Building as her venue. The performance was scheduled for August 25th to August 27th from 3pm to 6pm. Among the crowds of people, all moving quickly down the sidewalk or lining up for bus tours of New York City and elevator rides to the top of the skyscraper, Montano stood out, but only barely, small and bent over in the familiar white sari lined with blue. She was instantly recognizable as the beatified saint whose image has become synonymous with Calcutta and care for the dying. I watched from across the street as Montano waved to passers by. Some were visibly delighted, others confused, many passed by without a second look—this is one of the busiest corners in New York City after all, and it was hot.
I crossed the street and exchanged a smile with the saint. She raised her hands and blessed me. And I went on about my day, happy. It was in its way, the most benevolent and easy-going performance I saw that year—I did not do any of the physically or psychically uncomfortable things that I often do in the service of seeing art. I stood in no lines, purchased no tickets and endured no talkbacks. I was present, I smiled, and she blessed me. I am not a Catholic and Linda Montano is not a canonized saint. She calls this the willingness to “play art” with her. But, to call it play does not mean that it is uncritical, to say that it is easy-going does not mean that it cannot knock you down. It opens up both a recognition and an interrogation of faith and the mystery of her “vocation to be a performance artist and loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church.”
In 2009’s Roman Catholic Performance Artist Manifesto, reproduced in its entirety on her website, Montano enumerates the shifting sands of this faith in an open letter to Pope Benedict. Raised Roman Catholic in upstate New York, she spent two years in a convent as a Maryknoll novice. Upon leaving the convent, she left the church, exploring her artistic practice, both creating and participating in seminal performance works like Mitchell’s Death (1979) and Tehching Hsieh's Art / Life One Year Performance 1983-1984, often making art that was “religiously irreverent but comically convincing of my secular position.” And yet, she changed her mind, gradually returning to the Church and eventually coming to reject previous modes of art making and her secular position: ”no longer the feminist, no longer laughing at the Church's stumblings and sins with irony and pain, no more spoofing its moral un-accountability, no longer undressing my body,mind or spirit in public and calling any of it ART.” Her manifesto goes on to question the Church’s teaching on birth control, pre-marital sex, gay/lesbian love, masturbation, the clergy, and dying. Montano lists the reasons why she finds these points debatable and the paradoxes that this debate places her in. She takes these concerns to the Pope, to the very top: birth control is a choice, homosexuality is not evil, and women and openly gay men should be allowed in the clergy. But, Montano is willing to live in these political and spiritual paradoxes:
POPE BENEDICT. I OBEY. I AM ONLY WANTING CHANGE. BUT BE ALERTED THAT I AM LOYAL TO THE CHURCH'S BELIEFS. WHY THIS LOYALTY? I DO IT AS A PENANCE AND AS A WAY OF REPARATION FOR ALL OF THE MISTAKES OF MY PAST. BUT AGAIN, BEFORE I LEAVE, KNOW THAT I AM A FOUND SHEEP, LOST AND RETURNED, PRACTICING MY CATHOLICISM YOUR WAY.
In Montano’s religious reevaluation of what she had once made and called "art", she did not give up her art practice. She has chosen to work within her devotion to her church and within her vocation as a performance artist. It is a radical position on difficult ground for a contemporary artist. What does is mean to operate artistically from within faith and not the expected critique of faith? Contemporary artists working with religion are faced with, as James Elkins and David Morgan put it “a historical narrative rooted in the secular vision of artists as critical opponents of bourgeois respectability and such reactionary institutions of middle-class authority as church and state” (Elkins 2009, 17).
So what happens when an artist rejects this oppositional narrative? When they reject it in a cathedral or on a crowded street corner? There is much art-historical gnashing of teeth when politicians remove David Wojnarowicz’s ant covered cross or Chris Ofili’s Virgin from public view, but so often this debate remains framed by the assumption of religious critique. In this Montano is perhaps unique among her contemporaries. She questions and she obeys in the “contestable oxymoron” of a Catholic performance artist.
Lydia Brawner is a PhD Candidate in Performance Studies at New York University working with religion and performance. She serves on the editorial board of Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory.
Elkins, James and David Morgan. 2009. Re-enchantment. The art seminar. Vol. 7. New York: Routledge.
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