Janine Antoni’s incarnations of intimacy

The Bahamian American artist Janine Antoni was one of the emerging young artist that showed her work in the “Aperto” section of the 45th Venice Biennale. This show marked an historical shift in exhibition making with no less than thirteen curators and one-hundred-twenty artists participating. A rough sixteen years later most of these curators and artists have gained critical acclaim and Janine Antoni is certainly one of them. Since receiving her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design the artist has pushed and challenged the legacy of minimal art, performance art, surrealism. Janine Antoni’s works could be considered a reaction against artists excluding their body or “artistic touch” from the production of their artworks. However, instead of retreating to the romantic notion of singular mark making by a genius individual, like in abstract expressionist paintings, Janine Antoni deploys more mundane activities to add to or deduct from her artworks. Such an approach is evident in the work “Lick and Lather” from 1993. Here the artist casted herself into bust-sculptures made from chocolate and soap. The chocolate versions of the busts were extensively licked by the artist whereas soap ones joined her for a bath. This resulted in defaced and vulnerable self-image conceived in the most intimate way possible.

anine Antoni, Lick and Lather, 1993
Janine Antoni, Mortar and Pestle, 1999

Janine Antoni’s practice seems to explore how personal intimacy and interpersonal intimacy could be transcended through images, objects and materials. Her close family members and romantic partner often become part of her work. Despite of this very personal aspect, Antoni does depict her relations with a sense of interchangeability. This interchangeability subsequently allows us to imagine ourselves within the work as we recognize archetypical impressions of human bonding. The eye and tongue in “Mortar and pestle” could become the tongue and eye of any advanced intimate partnership. The impressions of the artist’s mouth and her mother’s hand in the work “Umbilical” could belong to anyone and could furthermore apply to multiple forms of care taking between a parent and a sibling. Antoni’s oeuvre allows for the application of multiple meanings and therefore retains relevance. Today we could easily connect Antoni’s work to the replacement of human agency by artificial intelligence.

Janine Antoni, Wean, 1989

Perhaps not in the literal sense but one could argue that a work like “Wean” from 1989 is remotely prophetic and illustrates the precursor of the AI predicament. From left to right this visual sentence displays an impression of the artist’s breast, her nipple, three latex nipples used for baby bottles, and the store-bought packaging they come in. The stages of the baby’s separation from the mother in this case become a metaphor for the present and near future.

Janine Antoni, to long, 2015
Janine Antoni, INGROWN, 1998

The opposite of separation appears with Antoni’s more recent sculptures where hollow life casts, various skeletal parts and domestic objects unite in impossible arrangements. Estrangement in this case emerges from dead things gaining a sense of human vitality due to their metaphorical significance. A work like “To twine” from 2015 is completely lifeless and back-breaking from a biological perspective yet incredibly sweet and vital as a metaphor. This furthermore applies to the way in which the two spines are inextricably merged at their tails. This is not what actually happens during an intimate exchange with our romantic partner but it is precisely what we feel happening during the act. Antoni seems to suggest that there is no way back from falling in love. Till death do us part does not apply here.

Doron Beuns