At the very private opening of 'To Draw a Line', Janine Antoni's first New York show in four years, the artist began by climbing up on to the hemp rope she had spent months making. She inched forward and eventually reached the unstable midpoint between the huge metal spools across which her rope was drawn. After some nine minutes, just as a spectator's mobile phone rang, she fell off and flipped into a massive cushioning pile of hemp fibre seven and a half feet below. She then rejoined the crowd, to much applause, leaving the impression in the hemp where she had landed as the only trace of her presence. The performance was not to be repeated during the course of the show.
In early 2002 Antoni began practising tightrope walking after having been drawn to the idea through her continuing interest in the body. What began as an investigation into the physical aspects of balance (the roles our vertebrae and the inner ear, for example, play in keeping us upright) quickly shifted into a metaphorically loaded meditation as Antoni realized that balance is a kind of 'ideal state that we move through from our general point of imbalance'. Staying up demanded that she accept her precariousness. That year she made Touch (2002), a video of her walking a rope on the beach where she grew up in Grand Bahama. In the work the line is strung just above the horizon, so that Antoni's weight as she moves across the screen pushes it down to the exact illusory level where water meets sky. The conceit is simple and stunning.
For some time Antoni had also been interested in the process of spinning thread, in the way the activity transforms a vague cloud of fibre into a hard line. She and her assistants began spinning thick rope to match the strength of a manufactured cord, even employing the same hemp. Much of Antoni's practice has involved an effort to reconnect in some way with materials, largely because she believes we have lost an understanding of how things are made. To make that loss present, she joined the hand-made and machined ropes together, and decided her goal was to walk out to the splice and balance on the ropes' meeting-point as long as she could. To many of us watching, the attenuation of her energy and focus necessitated by the performance nicely echoed the concentrating process that had produced the taut woven cord beneath her feet.
Antoni insists, however, that her performance was not a test of endurance, as some of her earlier work might have led you to believe. Rather, she had decided, it would be about her inevitable fall from the rope - she had no plans to reach the other side. Much of the appeal that tightrope walking holds in the popular imagination, however, derives from the perceived physical risk to the performer, the threat of injury or death that might come with a false move. With her emphasis on the fall, I expected her to be balancing on a high rope above nothing other than the gallery's concrete floor. But with such real risk, the performance would have been an overly literal metaphor for the creative act. So why then was her fall interesting?
I don't think that it was, ultimately, however intriguing it was to learn about the training she undertook to do so gracefully and safely. Nor was I able to believe that the impression left by the fall would be enough to compel viewers to move beyond their disappointment at having not witnessed the performance, and to imagine the story, as Antoni would like them to, letting it grow in their minds without the burden of memory. Those of us who are able to find enjoyment imagining the great performance works of the 1970s, are able to do so largely because we only found out about them much after the fact, thereby feeling longing and fascination rather than exclusion. Throughout her career Antoni has repeatedly put herself out there and then taken herself away, provoking the desire that rises from absence, but at the risk of seeming coy. This is the main hazard of 'To Draw a Line' and it is a dangerous, if not quite unfamiliar, one. What if viewers never get past the hulking relic in the gallery to the point of engaging with the rich levels of meaning built into this work? What if they are not able to envision her up there, or to care about the fall that was so important to her? It is a big gamble; as yet, it is too early to know the outcome.
In those brief few minutes in which she was on the rope, I saw a range of wonderful scenarios. At one point a perturbed Antoni appeared to swat an insect off her leg. At another she seemed to be waving to a friend in the distance, as if trying to get their attention. As she regained her balance, her flailing got fainter and fainter, as if she were disappearing into a fog and slowly recognizing the vanity of her effort to be seen.
First published in Issue 79