Linda Mary Montano, Performance Artist
8.29.14 Saugerties, NY
Montano’s work from the '70s and early '80s was critical in the development of video by, for, and about women. She is a seminal figure in contemporary feminist performance art with a wicked, sardonic sense of humor. Montano consistently redefines boundaries through her art while continuously striving for nothingness.
Interview & Photos: Kate Orne
UD Your home here in Saugerties, NY is a magical and special place. Thank you for having me. I have looked at your website, blog and videos and there was something you would say in one of your performances, “Take my word with a grain of salt.” What was the significance of that phrase?
LMM I was setting myself up as a guru, a knower of someone else’s mind, body, or soul during the Seven Years of Living Art project. This is a performance where I sat in a window installation for seven full years at the New Museum in New York City. So before I would read their palms, do Tarot or give my “psychic” impressions, I would shake some salt in their hand from the salt shaker that I had on the table. Why? To give them back their power so that they didn’t think I knew everything. Of course, I THINK I do know everything but what had happened is, as a child I went to confession a lot, and I gave my sins to the priest. And I think I needed to heal that relationship, of giving myself over to that man in a dark confessional cubicle. And by becoming an art life counselor, I took back my power, I took back that authority, and I gave myself permission to know, permission to give my thoughts, permission to teach and instruct. Art for me is about healing the past, present, and future. And Seven Years of Living Art was a great transformer for me.
UD I read in your writings that your responses were creative responses. What would a creative response be?
LMM I don’t remember any specifics because it was ’84 to ’91. But I imagine that I would say, “If you’re angry, write down your angers on a piece of paper and then rip them up. Or make a cookie out of them or burn the papers or put them in a recipe and eat them.” I would do something performative; ask them to perform an action that brought their issue from their left brain over to their right brain. Art-like actions and “rituals” can change stuck stuff lodged in the dungeon of the subconscious.
UD The moral of your performances I feel is about confronting the ego. What is it about the ego that interests you?
LMM I grew up in this house where we both are sitting right now, and as a child, I noticed that our family was basically able to communicate through our minds, not our words. I also grew up with one set of grandparents from a foreign country, who didn’t speak English and with the other grandmother who was a performance artist. I got to ask a question, “Who am I?” And when I started studying Hinduism, the ego became fluctuating jello instead of a solid entity. I was always trying to get out of my ego, and my own — quote — psychological self, and it was much more comfortable to be someone else. Just like an actor or actress. So in many of my performances I "became" other people. In the 70's, I sat in front of a video camera for a year and acted as if I were from 7 different countries, inhabiting seven different personas with seven different professions. Eventually, I began performing as real people: Mother Teresa, Bob Dylan and Paul McMahon. Doing this morphing has allowed me to get out of my own way, and then re-enter and become more comfortable in my own skin. I have found that as I practice being "real" people like Bob (Dylan) and Mother Teresa, it is helping me be more real!!!
UD What’s the difference between a performance artist, like yourself — the kind of performance that you do and an actress?
LMM The performance artist is a complete entity in and of itself, outside of the limitations of degrees or training or expertise. When I began, a performance artist was someone who had permission to explore dreams, fantasies, nightmares, traumas, illness, food, nothing from the culture or everything from the culture and realigning it in a way that was completely self-referential, self-pleasing, and self-healing. Actors (female and male) get out of their skin for the sake of the director.
UD Is that similar to method acting?
LMM Yeah. But we don’t feel comfortable being tagged as actors — although there are some performance artists who have skills that are professionally applauded as “actors”. They have crossed over. But the old timers felt extremely comfortable not knowing anything and not being able to do anything, but to go into the liminal world of dream, imagination, and luminosity.
UD Can you share something about your participation in Tehching Hsieh’s performance piece, Art/Life: One-Year Performance where you were tied together with an 8 foot rope for a year in his performance?
LMM There is a great book written about his work titled Out of Now: The Lifework of Tehching Hsieh. It is a very beautiful book which contains documentation of all of his One-Year-Performances and has the 365 photos we took of the year-long performance. It was an honor for me to collaborate with him.
UD What’s your creative process like?
LMM I work extremely autobiographically. If I have something wrong with me, I make a video or a performance. If I have something right with me, I make a video or a performance or write a book. Need completely drives me. I read about the neuro-plasticity of the brain and the research being done on creativity and meditation and the ability for a creative mind to fix things. I am fascinated with the miraculous powers of the brain and art to heal, to mend the broken. My art also celebrates the ecstatic. My process is to work. Art is my job, and it’s also how I make a living.
UD What is it about humor that you find useful in your work?
LMM I think it’s because my mother was half Irish that’s why I tend to pull in the sardonic take on life/art. And my maternal grandmother was also radically ironic and Zen-like in her humor. She would take her teeth out and sing for me and draw cartoon characters. Her performances were my medicine. Humor became my medicine. I can thank my mother and grandmother for this.
UD You have a strong bond to your family. What do you think that comes from?
LMM I live as a single person, so I am able to do very intense research by looking at and healing family stories, issues and memories. That gives me a chance to clean up anything from my past that would be a hindrance to my enlightenment. How lucky is that! I do this by going into the attic of my mind, into the cellar of my feelings, and clean every single surface. It’s a soul cleaning, and it’s preparation for me to do the work of living. I really want to learn how to be a clear-human, and to live in gratitude to my family for the gifts they gave me.
UD You were raised in a strict Catholic home, and you became a devoted Buddhist practitioner. Later you returned to your roots in the Catholic Church. What kind of Catholic are you today? How did practicing another religion change you, or did it change you as a Catholic?
LMM Yeah, I’m happy to be back as a thinking Catholic, as an open door Catholic, as a feminist Catholic, as a woman priest Catholic, as a questioning of the hierarchy Catholic, as a supporter of women priests Catholic, as a Catholic who likes Dietrich Bonhoeffer and feminist theologians. I raise my glass to anyone who thinks or writes or questions and still goes to Holy Communion and Confession and participates in Eucharistic adoration but is still totally liberal and radical. I’m aspiring to be that kind of smart but totally contemplative Catholic.
UD What kind of influence has Upstate had on you as an artist?
LMM I did a video a long time ago, 20 years ago called, Always Creative. It was about these outrageous elders in their ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s who lived Upstate in the Hudson Valley. Now I’ve come back to living here again and hopefully I have some of their juice, some of their permission, some of their creativity, some of their outrageous ability to be themselves and take their teeth out AND SING!
UD Seven Years of Living Art focused on Art as a vehicle for meditation. In addition to setting you up to be a Guru, what other manifestations did the performance entail?
LMM I was living in the Zen Mountain Monastery before I joined Tehching Hsieh in his rope performance, so I wanted to continue to lead my life mindfully and fully and meditatively. I wouldn't say that I became a Guru....although I did appreciate that title, but I did perform awareness exercises to help me pay attention, wake up and stay focused in the here and now. For example, I wore one color of clothes each year, (all red for year one, all orange for year two). I listened to one drone tone for a certain number of hours a day and stayed silent in a colored space for a certain number of hours a day. I painted the room the color of the clothes I wore for each year. So actually, meditation was the penultimate reason for the performance and the exercises, an aid to the practice of meditation. Then I liked it so much that I continued another seven years, and it became 14 Years of Living Art.
UD What lies ahead for Linda Montano?
LMM I have made an ART BUCKET LIST. I am vowing not to do any more than what I write on my list because I have the kind of nature that can frantically CREATE!!! And not enjoy the peace of nothing. I am verging toward nothing.