‘I am fertile ground’ : Janine Antoni shares her artwork with Framingham State

By Cara McCarthy, Associate Editor 

The Mazmanian Art Gallery continued their Tuesday Talks series earlier this week with artist Janine Antoni.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person presentations for the fall semester have been postponed. Instead, the Mazmanian Art Gallery will be holding virtual presentations through Zoom every few weeks with their featured presenter.

Antoni, who was born in the Bahamas, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College and her Master of Fine Arts from Rhode Island School of Design.

Her work has been featured in many exhibitions both nationally and internationally.

Antoni started by showing the virtual audience one of the first pieces she created out of graduate school, a work titled “Wean.” This piece, according to Antoni, represents a child weaning off of their mother’s breast and instead moving on to bottles.

“I was thinking of stages of separation we go through with our own bodies as we are weaned into the culture,” Antoni said. “I was trying to figure out how to make a piece about absence with an object present in the room.”

The piece incorporates several imprints starting with a negative imprint of her breast. The next imprint is her nipple, followed by three imprints of baby bottle nipples and the packaging they came in.

This is not the only piece of artwork Antoni has done that incorporates her own body into the work.

According to the Mazmanian Art Gallery website, “Janine Antoni is a visual artist who is known for her unusual processes. Her body is both her tool for making and the source from which her meaning arises.”

Another piece Antoni talked about in her presentation was her work that was made out of 500 pounds of chocolate.

“I chewed on it [the chocolate] for a month and half,” she said.

Antoni also said, “I wanted to work with the tradition of figurative sculpture, but rather than to describe the body, I thought I would describe it by the residue left on the object.

“So, then I thought, rather than use a hammer and chisel, I would imitate an everyday activity like eating and replace the hammer and chisel with my mouth,” Antoni added.

She also did the same exact thing with 500 pounds of lard. “And, believe it or not, I chewed on that as well,” Antoni said to the audience.

Unfortunately, Antoni shared that the next morning, her cube of lard expanded and fell off of the pedestal.

“The one part of the piece I can’t control is the fat. And, of course, we know how hard it is to control fat in our own bodies,” she said.

As for the parts of both cubes she bit off, Antoni melted them down and made different items with her materials.

“I spit it [the chocolate] out and I melted it into these heart shaped packages for candy,” she said. “With the lard that I spit out, I spit it out, mixed it with pigment and beeswax, and made 150 lipsticks.”

After all of her work, she put all the pieces of art together to make the scene look like a ’70s department store. Together, the collection of all four pieces was titled “Gnaw.”

She also shared with the audience one of her performance pieces titled “Loving Care” in which she used black hair dye and mopped the floor with her hair. Antoni did this in a room full of people and said she “slowly mopped the people out of the room.”

Antoni said, “‘Loving Care’ is really about wanting to be the model and the master at the same time and the inherent conflict of that desire.”

She used the same method in her piece “Butterfly Kisses” in which she used black mascara and winked onto a canvas to make her piece.

“I thought it was the drawing equivalent to ‘Loving Care,’ but they are kind of in relationship to each other,” Antoni said.

One of her most intense pieces involved the most common everyday activity, sleep. She said she found herself asking, “what is the material of sleep?” to which she concluded that dreams would be her material for this piece. After this realization, she titled the piece “Slumber.”

After much research, she found, and used, a polysomnogram which is a machine used to track sleeping patterns. “It’s kind of like an EKG machine, but it’s really actually able to record your rapid eye movement,” she said.

Antoni, along with the help of a sleep doctor, was able to mimic the sheets that recorded her rapid eye movement in her sleep into a blanket she made.

“I would wake up in the morning, take my nightgown, rip it into shreds, and use it as the material to weave my eye movement into the blanket,” she said.

Antoni built a room where she would do this work across the world and would sleep with that blanket every night.

She also shared that while she was doing this project around the world, she noticed all of the different cultures she was surrounded by.

“In London, people have this great literary knowledge. So, they were quoting me all the stories of the woman weaving – Shakespeare, and the ‘Lady of Shalott,’” she said.

She also referred to her time in Zurich, Spain, and Greece.

Antoni said a person who saw her exhibit made her realize her loom was her own dreamcatcher as she weaved her dreams into her blanket.

“I have to say, it really changed the way I make work in the sense of how the work is received,” she said.

Through her work, she has also used art to express her bond with her family. Antoni has several pieces of art dedicated to her parents and her daughter. One piece she made in honor of her daughter was titled “One Another.”

The photograph, which was taken by her husband originally, shows her young daughter first learning how to use a spoon. Instead of putting the spoon in her mouth, her daughter put the spoon in Antoni’s belly button.

“I screamed to her dad, ‘Paul, she’s making my work! Come and take a picture,’” she said.

She also made several works involving her parents.

Antoni created her piece, “If I Die Before I Wake,” as a porcelain nightlight in which she made a mold of her hand against her mother’s.

On one side, you can see the youth in Antoni’s hands while on the other side you can see her mother’s age come through the mold.

She said she drew inspiration from the religious prayer she used to say with her mom every night before bed.

“Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep / If I die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take,” she recited.

Antoni added, “For me, to put my hand up next to hers is to see her aging, and to try to come to terms with my ultimate aging and death.”

The final project she shared with the audience was titled “I am fertile ground.”

Her most recent work was done at the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn where she said she was able to work in the catacombs.

She said the project incorporated Five Rhythms dance moves, a style she has been doing for years.

“It was almost like a message my body was giving me and I would repeat that gesture trying to understand why,” she said. “Why does it feel so comforting and so necessary?”

She said she drew inspiration for this project through religious icons.

One piece in the collection is of her feet covered in gold, and the piece resembles that of a religious icon.

“The image matches the picture’s place, so the image is actually a porthole to the divine,” she said.

Her process involved reciting a saying and continued the dance until she got the perfect photos.

After editing her photos, she framed them in the stance of a religious icon, with one foot on either side, and the Earth being the focus of the photograph.

“Normally, in the altarpiece structure, you would have the main deity in the center and angels on the side,” she said. “So my main deity was the Earth.”

Along with the religious icon photo, she had separate photographs of one of her dancers doing the same dance, in dark lighting, with a different saying beneath it incorporated into the photo.

The photograph, sharing its name with the project, “I am fertile ground,” incorporated the words, “The earth supports me. The earth holds me. The earth receives me. I am fertile ground.”