If young Eleanor Antin was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she probably would have answered, “Everything.” In the new exhibit at the Wallach Art Gallery, “Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s ‘Selves,’” the artist shows that she has spent her life and career being everything—and, more importantly, everyone.
One of the pioneers of conceptual art, Antin once said, “I consider the usual aids to self-definition—sex, age, talent, time, and space—as tyrannical limitations upon my freedom of choice.” In order to resist this tyranny, Antin posed as four fictitious characters in the 1970s and 1980s—a king, a ballerina, a nurse, and a film director—and documented their experiences.
The exhibit, which runs through Dec. 7, consists of artistic media as eclectic as the characters they depict. Through film, photography, the written word, puppetry, and performance art installation, curator Emily Leibert has put together a cohesive visual autobiography of Antin’s many personas.
At the entrance of the gallery, two old-fashioned television screens serve as the “how-to” of Antin’s characters. They play behind-the-scenes footage of Antin physically applying makeup and costumes in order to alter her gender and race.
One series of vignettes depicts portraits of the fictional Eleanor Antinova, an African-American ballerina for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (a predominantly white company). Just to the right of the photographs is a video of the ballerina stumbling and off-balance, providing an uncomfortable contrast to the perfection and stillness of the photographs.
One of the most evocative works in the exhibition is “King,” which consists of black and white photographs of Antin in character as the king of San Diego’s Solana Beach. In the final room, Antin returns to the silver screen as Yevgeny Antinov, a Russian film director from the 1920s. The film leaves viewers feeling the immensity of lives this one woman has lived, understood, and enjoyed.
Antin’s methodology demonstrates that she is not merely playing dress-up but instead posing critical questions about how we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us, and the false idea of the self as a fixed and unchanging entity. Antin’s exhibition is a thought-provoking must-see and proves that wanting to be “everything” when you grow up is not only possible, but also a form of art.
Wallach Art Gallery is located on the eighth floor of Schermerhorn Hall.