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Antoni sculpture Conjure Up
Antoni sculpture Conjure Up with hands

Janine Antoni, I Conjure Up, 2019, mixed media gilded with 24 karat gold leaf, installed at the Catacombs, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY.

Photo: Christopher Burke

Brooklyn. Saturday October 19, 2019 and we could not have chosen a more beautiful day to meet in the Catacombs at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY - which is the site of Janine Antoni's most recent site specific work, "I am Fertile Ground". Bright blue skies on a gently chilly early autumn day; family of the deceased and local hipsters walked the landscaped paths or sat by ponds inhabited by waterfowl. This is the second time I have had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Antoni for Grrrh..., the first time more than a decade ago. With the help of a map (and a kind Cemetery employee), I made my way to the Catacombs. Observing Ms. Antoni perform the gestures and attestations that comprise the performative aspect of this work was a meditative and spiritually moving experience. After observing each of the segments, we sat on a nearby step and spoke about the work, life, aging, death and fresh blueberries.

Marsha Gordon – I have so many questions. Should we talk about the setting, the Catacombs at Greenwood Cemetery, or should we start with the words and gestures you chose and performed?

Janine Antoni – I've been working on this for two years but the inception of this piece happened way before. It was a happy marriage between things that I'd been thinking about and the cemetery as a context. The curator, Harry (Harry J. Weil), found me because I was on a panel, talking about death, how we might prepare ourselves to die, and what that looks like. He thought, “She’s a good pairing for the cemetery,” and that’s how the two came together. But, as you know, the issues I'm concerned with here are the issues I'm always talking about.

MG – You're always talking about the body.

JA – Right. And the body dies so it's inevitable that I talk about death. Death, birth and everything in between. The older bodies in these works are my parents. The ear is my dad's and the hand is my mom's. I photographed them in bed. I put the gold on their body and I just let them do what they do and I captured that image. 

MG – Gold leaf? Gold paint?

JA – Gold paint. So there's gold in the photograph. Then there's gold leaf on the surface of the photographs and the frames are also gilded.

MG – What does the gold mean?

JA – I came to all of this through the religious icon. I read that there is a belief that when you pray to the icon it's not just a representation of the deity you're praying to but that the saint or deity looks back at you through the image. It is a beautiful idea. The image as a porthole to the divine. Visually how they create that effect is that the gold leaf brings the background to the front so that the image can punch the surface and literally become a window. Isn't that exquisite?

MG – Do you think the icon is a facilitator for entering a deeper space or is it actually that space itself?

JA – Both. It’s a question of whether you see form and content as inextricably tied. There is the illusion of going into the picture that facilitates the spiritual possibility of entering into that deeper space. The pictorial illusion can allow those that have faith to be in contact with the spiritual. Then the artwork can become more than the sum of its parts. Some people know this space and some don’t.

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