Monday, February 2, 2015
Douglas Messerli | "Magnificent Obsessions" (on Eleanor Antin's An Artist's Life by Eleanora Antinova)
by Douglas Messerli
Eleanor Antin An Artist’s Life by Eleanora Antinova (read in manuscript)
As we know, however, all things have a limited existence, and it is clear, just as Antin has long ago abandoned her presentations of the King, the Nurse, and the Stewardess, that perhaps the day would come to bring her beautiful Ballerina’s life to a close. Fortunately, Antin has determined to announce this sad event by publishing one last volume of Antinova’s memoirs, An Artist’s Life by Eleanora Antinova.
Nearly all of these somewhat shadowy figures have great moments onstage or backstage, including Eleanora, particularly when she is chosen to dance a lead role (again after a rather comical series of events when the dancer Sergei Pavlovitch first choses falls into a faint, “her head on the barre” knocking her unconscious”). Eleanora even travels, when the White Russians of the company cannot (since it is now the Soviet Union) to Russia, in preparation for which each of the Russian members send trinkets, communications, and gifts to friends they left behind. There the Ballerina encounters numerous “spies,” including her own personal “protective” friend and the now-forgotten Russian filmmaker Antinov, who asks her to perform in one of his movies.
Returning to France and England, Antinova is finally awarded an opportunity to choreograph a new work, performing in the disastrously conceived Pocahontas—inexplicably performed in an English tavern—images of which Antin had previously provided in her documentary photographs.
But, in the end, we all know the story, so tragically recalled in Antinova’s previous performance, Help! I’m in Seattle, wherein Antiova’s balletic career ends in the seedy backstreets and small towns where Vaudeville and carney-like venues continued to exist long after they had disappeared from the larger cities. In the end, tragically, the metaphorical ups-and-downs of artistic life are transformed into a nightmarish dream of the rise and fall of a hotel elevator wherein Antinova loses her way, somehow getting off on a floor that no longer contains any remnants of the present or living beings, a kind of “third act” exit in which, alas, no flowers fall after the curtain drops—except perhaps in memory.
If An Artist’s Life at times reads a bit like a “fractured” fairy-tale, we recognize that it is inevitable for the character that has embodied it. If the real living artist has finally received her long deserved due for having created Antinova and the other embodiments of her art, the character is necessarily a figure in deflatus, something which ultimately, like the backdrops and tattered curtains, both authors and actors must leave behind after taking their bows.
I cried a few tears over Antin’s often witty, light-hearted and eventually sorrowful tales, and I’ll miss Eleanora, while looking forward, nonetheless, to other developments in Antin’s future work. Yet I know, even as Antin leaves the stage, her impishly determined little Ballerina might, when no one’s even looking, get up to do another quick pirouette en pointe, a little unsteady and shaking perhaps, but still standing as high as she might, maybe even shedding a tear behind a coy smile. If there’s anything Antin has proven is that, even if “art is not kind to her children,” they cannot be so easily killed off, for they live in the imaginations of all who encountered and embraced them. We want to believe, and Antin has ably given us, over all these years, something to believe in.
Los Angeles, January 30, 2015
Reprinted from Art Là-bas (February 2015).
*Eleanora Antinvova Plays was published by my own Sun & Moon Press.
** My Green Integer Press published Yevgeny Antinov’s The Man Without a World in 2002
***See my essay on the performance of Antinova’s Before the Revolution, “On Credit” in My Year 2012: Center’s Collapse. See also my writings about Antin, “Experiment and Traditional Forms in Contemporary Literature,” My Year 2000: Leaving Something Behind and “Reclaiming the Past,” in My Year 2008: In the Gap.