Janine Antoni

by Linda Weintraub
Copyright Linda Weintraub

Janine Antoni’s studio is dominated by a tightrope raised a half meter off the floor. She spends several hours each day upon it, developing her ability to balance. Practice began in January 2002 and culminated on the day prior to her exhibition opening eighteen months later in May 2003. Her walks occur only once. There are no photographic records of them. On exhibit is the tightrope structure, a sculpture entitled, To Draw a Line that enables viewers to infer the “lines” of the event they never observed: the heel and toe molded to the horizontal line of the tightrope; arms spread in parallel fashion; the sacrum and the sternum aligned to maintain an intersecting line of verticality. For the tightrope walker, however, this perfect cross of axes is a conceptual median around which her body deviates, not a physical possibility. Rope balancing demands continual compensation by degrees that elude one-to-one ratios. These complex ratios are calculated according to the ever-changing distributions of weight and distance from the wire, axis, and pivot of the body, slack and vibration of the rope. Each instant of equilibrium is unique, temporary, and precarious.

In her performance, Antoni will remain on the rope as long as she can, delaying the instant when she runs out of rebalancing alternatives. Then she falls.

She neither dares to defy gravity nor to tempt death. She practices tightrope walking to induce the inevitability of falling. In her preparations, equal effort was expended to master the laws of balance as to obey the laws of gravity. A mattress for refining the act of falling occupies a second area of her studio. Balancing and falling, despite their contrasting natures, depend equally upon absolute focus. For this reason, black dots for spotting occupy opposite ends of both practice areas. They center her energy physically and purge her mind of superfluities. Antoni exults, “I abandon all thoughts and surrender to the moment.”

Learning to fall skillfully, according to her trainer, involves screaming because tension and will are released along with the oxygen. Antoni thereby attains a heightened mental state that far exceeds the three meters that separate her body from the ground. Her falling is experienced as a timeless instant when all possibilities seem prescient, like a surge of artistic inspiration. She comments, “As I mature as an artist I become more comfortable being out of balance. That is the place where beauty is found. It is a tenuous, fragile place.” Despite the Catholic core of some of her earlier works, this fall refers more to exultation, art, and inspiration than to expulsion, sin, and punishment. Antoni does not fall from grace; she falls into it. In order to convey these positive connotations, she rehearsed long hours to avoid flailing in terror as she fell. Gradually, she overcame fear and learned to acquiesce.

A third working area in her studio is devoted to the handcrafting of rope. Here, too, the obsessive and resolute nature of her creative process is apparent. Her dogged experimentation with varying techniques, tools, and raw materials ultimately produced thirty meters of handmade rope consisting of 180 hand twisted strands of yarn fabricated out of 1,800 kilos of imported hemp. Antoni comments, “The only way to know how strong the rope is, is to take it to its breaking point. It is like falling. That is how you discover the limit of possibility.”

The artist encapsulates her working process when she states, “I begin with the idea of an experience I want to give myself. The meaning reveals itself to me through the experience.” The evolution of To Draw a Line can be traced back to an earlier involvement in rope making, which led to consideration of rope walking, which introduced her to the uplifting aspects of falling. Meticulous preparations followed: since feigning a fall would be more likely to trigger a giggle than a thoughtful response, she needed to learn to walk the rope. Antoni painstakingly consulted, experimented, rejected, revised, and gradually determined metaphoric devices, compositional schemes, shaping materials, and artistic processes that were capable of giving tangible representation to a fleeting kinesthetic experience that is unfamiliar to most viewers. Few people attempt to tightrope walk, fewer succeed, and even fewer welcome falling.

The central position within the work’s symmetrical composition is assigned to a taut rope that spans eight meters and is raised nearly three meters off the floor. Antoni also assigns this slender form the crucial role of anchoring two huge steel reels to the twenty-degree inclines on which they rest. Engineers calculated the thrust of the reels and the tensile strength of a rope that could safely prevent these circular forms from rolling down the inclines, gathering momentum, and crushing every object in their wake. They are enormous. Each reel measures three meters in diameter and weighs 800 kilos on its own. Their drums are then weighted with nearly ten tons of lead in order to support the artist’s weight and compensate for the inclines. The hemp rope aches with tension. Its potential energy is so palpable it overwhelms mundane references to tightrope walking and invokes a nobler theme—the precarious nature of equilibrium.

A mound of raw hemp is arranged beneath the rope where a rescue net might be located. Its soft, billowy contours provide a visual foil for the hard, geometric perfection of the reels. Hemp is as comforting as the reels are threatening. Its presence in such abundance invites contemplation of the pleasure of a fall. Indeed, Antoni refers to the heaped hemp as her “cloud.” Because it retains the imprint of her fallen body, viewers can reconstruct an activity they cannot observe—a tightrope walker’s glorious descent.

The mutuality of balancing and falling creates an inspirational cycle that is also made manifest in the physical components of the work. The raw hemp on the floor twists at the ends. Its strands become interlaced and form the rope that is wound around the reels and upon which the artist walks. It then splits apart to create a rope ladder whose threads are then unwound and returned to their formless state amid the raw hemp from which they originated. Thus, the same material that supports Antoni’s walk also cradles her fall. In the absolute center of the tightrope, a meter-long splice expands the theme of continuity. It is at this juncture that industrially manufactured hemp rope is interwoven with rope that Antoni and her assistants laboriously made by hand. These presumed opposites are thereby joined in the manner that falling becomes integral to balancing.

In sum, “to make art” is “to walk a line.” It demands the courage to accept precarious positions, to abandon certainty, to fall into inspiration as one might fall in love.