linda montano is living art

Endurance artist & yogi, Linda Montano blurs the line between life & art in her latest project: the 24/7 care of her aged father.

It was the late 1980s and I was an art student enrolled in a class on “Performance Art.” The instructor brought in heaps of images and videos of people spurting blood, polemicizing and proclaiming, making weird noises with found objects, making spectacles of themselves in public (on purpose!), tying themselves together with a rope and living bound for an entire year. And they called all that art. What kind of person does this kind of work? Who were these artists? Where could I sign up?

I learned that Linda Montano – the woman who tied herself to another artist for a year – was one of a handful of pioneering artists responsible for redefining contemporary arts practices. Her sustained commitment to eliminating the boundaries between art and life – along with her exploration of performance as spiritual endeavour and practice of healing – has sent influential repercussions rippling throughout the Western art community.
And Montano unwittingly became my role model.

Fifteen years later, I find myself getting ready to call Linda Montano. I’m nervous as all get-out. I know she is particularly approachable: she is a performance artist whose practice embodies humanity.
] Talking to people is part of what she does. Now this icon of the art world is about to talk to me, and I’m trying to stay relaxed enough to focus properly on my list of questions. I take a deep breath and she answers the phone. “I need you to call me back later. I have to reschedule nurse duties. Can you call at 4:15?” She goes on, “And I want us to do the interview blindfolded.”

I hang up; my mind races. Nurse duties. Yes, I heard tell of the new project she was working on: Dad Art. It feels funny to call it a “project” – she is in the midst of full-time caregiving for her ailing father. But since she is an artist who readily treats many of her life situations as artworks, I suppose it is appropriate, after all.

I exhale slowly and regroup. More time to calm down and get used to the idea of our interview. Then it hits me: I’m being invited into performance with my Art-Guru. I am utterly thrilled by the proposition, but the fresh batch of butterflies again swarming in my belly suggests I am still terrified. And much more so than before – being asked to cover my eyes means being asked to fly without a safety net and means I won’t be able to see my questions.

It’s 4:15 p.m. I settle in to place my second call. Montano answers, I hit the record button and reach for my blue flowered scarf. I start to gush about how honoured I am to have this opportunity, not only to chat with her but also to be initiated into her orbit through this special request. Then I muster the courage to tell her how anxious my sight-sense deprivation is making me.

She makes a sympathetic sound and remarks, “I think I learned this from composer Pauline Oliveros. I actually met her when I was doing a piece for three days, blindfolded. I was doing a lot of blindfold work and in this performance, she was a listener – so I started learning how to listen from her.”

She continues, “You know you have the prerogative in every way and you must look at your questions if you need to. I’m just being bossy about this – because I am!” We both laugh. Her easy tone and humour immediately relieve me. I think I am going to follow her approach: intent listening, paying attention and trusting the process. I have abandoned my script.

Linda Montano was born in 1942, in a small town in upstate New York. The second-to-youngest of four children, she grew up a devout Catholic, enthralled by ceremony, ritual and the Saints. She was also surrounded by cultural activity: her father played in an orchestra he helped found, while her mother sang in the orchestra and painted. In the late 1950s, after completing only one year of an art major at a women’s Catholic college, Montano’s fascination with the Divine – and a need to do humanitarian service – prompted her to leave her studies and join the Maryknoll Sisters, a convent of missionary nuns. Two years later, however, this experiment had gone awry, leaving Montano grappling with a severe eating disorder. She returned to her studies and eventually pursued an MA in Florence, Italy, then an MFA back in the US.

It was in 1970, while teaching sculpture at another Catholic college, that Montano discovered yoga. A Hatha specialist had come to teach at their school and Montano’s interest was piqued. She began to practise and eventually traced this instructor’s lineage back to a yogi and medical doctor from India named Ramamurti Mishra. After a chance meeting with Dr. Mishra in San Francisco, Montano went on to practise and study under his guidance.

Montano, who at the time was still a practising Catholic and professional artist working in sculpture, acknowledges the impact that yoga has had on her art and spiritual life. It has acted as an important catalyst that led her not only to what she calls the “cultivation and expansion of her soul,” but also away from “object making” and directly into performance; using her body to become “living art.”

“Because of yoga I was beginning to understand aspects of quiet, of weight, of peace, of contentment, of pure, pure presence. And of nurturing – of all the soul qualities that had aspects of beauty. These are things that I had cut off in my Catholic training because I was fixated on the crucifixion and not the resurrection. I realized early on that I had missed out because I wasn’t a man and I wasn’t able to be a priest in the Catholic tradition. I didn’t have that ability to create the transformation that the priest was able to create, or to create public ecstasy for the group of people. But I was smart enough to know that if I did [these art “Happenings”] I could approximate what I had so loved as a child, which was this montage of sounds, sights, smells and mystery. So as a performance artist, I’ve realized the child’s dream of becoming priestess.”

One of Montano’s most well-known performances is based on her personal interpretation of the yogic chakra system. This durational piece titled, 7 Years of Living Art + Another 7 Years of Living Art = 14 Years of Living Art lasted from 1984 to 1998. Working from root centre, to crown, then back down again, each year was dedicated to a different chakra. Wearing one colour per year – chosen to represent a given year’s chakra – she would meditate for a minimum of three hours each day in a room painted the designated colour and carry out the daily task of living with an underlined concentration on that year’s energy centre. Between 1984–91, at the New Museum in New York City, Montano provided art/life counseling and Tarot readings for one day out of each month in a gallery also painted that same colour. During the first three years, additional directives were imposed: Montano would speak in a specific accent (not her own) for twelve months at a time to everyone except immediate family and would listen to a single pitch for seven hours a day while meditating in her painted room. Eventually the last two vows were dropped, but the intention and devotion remained. At the core was a desire to live more consciously and in a state of constant awareness.

The ensemble of her work is about living more spontaneously and fully, about locating internal balance and serenity, about centring attention, about finding a voice. Her “living art” manifesto not only proposes that “life can be art,” it also provides practical instruction on how to make “living art,” in order to achieve this state of focused intention and presence.

Looking at the progression of work in retrospect, Montano comments, “I started meditating publicly and I called that ‘art.’ I would sit for hours at a time, doing a lot of endurance pieces. They became manifestations of ways to practise my yoga as art. The undercurrent was healing. I was improvising my own healing as art.”

Montano writes: “I can come to realizations and places which I can then apply to life … Art is the place where I practise for life. I would do anything within the context of work or art or whatever it was called, that was where all my permission was.” While my own struggle is to bridge the gap between a spiritual path and an art practice, Montano, for the last four decades, has consistently brought discipline and spirituality into focus while framing numerous life experiences as “art pieces.”

Montano humbly deflects the suggestion that her process could potentially benefit others. She doesn’t deny the possibility, but her lifestyle of relative isolation explains how rarely she actually witnesses its influence. “Basically, to tell you the truth, it’s only when I look on the Internet and see my name so many times that I think, ‘Oh, my God, maybe this work does resonate with others.’”

How could it not, if part of what she does is engage in person-to-person contact? What began as art/life counseling during her first set of 7 Years of Living Art persists in similar manifestations. At the opening of 14 Years of Living Art, a retrospective exhibition in Montréal*, Montano spent the evening sitting in her Sacramental Chakra Chaise, consulting with gallery-goers on all matters of life (and art).

This practice of one-on-one intimate engagement is about the desire to produce a “living art” moment – an evocative, ephemeral encounter that exists solely in the present, then in the memories of the participants. It is at once the active making of creative exchange, as well as an opportunity for transformative growth.

Montano’s most recent piece is Dad Art.

Montano began Dad Art upon returning home to live with her aging father. Henry Montano, a first-generation Italian-American who came of age during the Depression, is a man she deeply admires but previously hardly knew. Wanting to become reacquainted, in typical Montano fashion she proposed a creative collaboration. He accepted. They each played characters for the other, with Montano videotaping their performances. This resulted in a blossoming friendship.

In the midst of this rekindling, her father tragically suffered a stroke, at which time her duties intensified. “From that day on it’s been a 24/7 caregiving performance. I call it ‘performance.’ And I have devoted my total self to this performance.”

Initially, Montano wanted to videotape her father and record his aging process. But once the stroke happened, the overwhelming sense of pain she experienced over his loss of power made it so difficult to look at him that the camera lens became her tool for seeing. This strategy enabled her not only to continue being directly involved in his caretaking, it became the creative device through which to mediate and transform her own experience of pain and loss into wonderment and perseverance. She did this for two years, taping ten minutes at a time of her father being fed, or washed or helped into his wheelchair. This wasn’t, as she puts it, “continuous, performative taping of him 24 hours a day – it wasn’t that kind of vow-taking. It was just whenever. But it was a lot.”

She has witnessed an incredible evolution in her father as well. The cognitive effects of his stroke sparked a desire in him to paint what Montano describes as fantastic canvases. “I feel like I’m living with this Zen painter, this guru, this teacher. He emanates Light. It’s turned into this opportunity to hang out with a very enlightened being. He is just gorgeous. People have come into the house and looked at him and cried at how gorgeous he is.”

Montano sees this piece as an undertaking unlike any other she has previously embraced. She has welcomed the challenge with wisdom, poignant optimism and benevolent insights: “The parent-child relationship is the most, most fraught with karma. Having not had children and not made relationships priorities, I had no idea how to take care of anyone but myself. This [caregiving performance] was commitment. And it completely hammered me into the ground so that I resprouted as another being. It gave birth to a new me.

“I want everyone who’s reading this to take one minute to visualize themselves in relation to their mother, and visualize themselves in relation to their father and then visualize Divine presence, shining Light on them so there’s a triangle of Divine presence: themselves, Mother, Father. And prepare for any kind of future performance that all of us somehow get to do with Mother and Father. I know that anyone interested in the spiritual life has opened the door for an opportunity to do the ‘Mother-Father’ work and the ‘Mother-Father’ art and the ‘Mother-Father’ healing. I pray that each of the readers has the chance to do this.”

I think about the nature of collaboration and compassion within relationships – the ways in which both are brought onto the table in a steady stream of implicit negotiations. In particular, I think about my own father, with whom I’ve been struggling for most of my life. After years of therapy, yoga and intense self-reflection, some degree of resolution has already come to pass. I’ve just learned that my father has been struck with the early stages of prostate cancer. I’m not overly worried – because it has been detected so soon, I am confident that whatever treatment he chooses will be successful. But I am aware of the emotional shift that has taken place since receiving this news. The time for healing this rift is now. He is mortal and I want my heart to make a peaceful pact with his.

Without a doubt Montano’s current performance with her father – a journey toward health and wholeness – springs directly from her heart centre. Reconsidering the succession of her work, I see clearly how it demonstrates the culmination of her lifetime of art experiments. “That process has been the only way I can deal with this situation. My whole art/life has prepared me for this performance.”

Montano concludes by acknowledging the simultaneous gift and dilemma of her father’s condition. Previously she developed performances with a set of directives and a fixed duration. Those were staples of her practice. This time, the performance directs her: “I have no control. Only God knows how long it will be.”

It’s 5:30 p.m. I hang up the phone feeling as if I have just awoken from a deep sleep. My vision is still blurry as I remove the scarf, rub my eyes and step out onto the street. On my bike ride home, I’m filled with an unexpected serenity. I think about how Montano’s project – as well as this interview – is essentially about Giving Up Control.

Whether it is a set of predetermined questions or preplanned rules of practice, whether as writer, artist, daughter or healer, I’m once again reminded that within every endeavour and throughout all stages of life come the opportunities to resist the unknown with fear or to relinquish the tight grasp at illusions of security with faith. The force of this revelation engulfs me.

Victoria Stanton is a performance artist based in Montréal, QC. She has presented text-based/visual performance and videos in Canada, the US, Europe, Australia and Japan. She is co-author with Vincent Tinguely of Impure: Reinventing the Word (conundrum press, 2001) a book about the theory and practice of spoken word performance.


Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life