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Caught in the Act

Photo by Becky Cohen
LEAVE YOURSELF SOME TIME TO GO THROUGH ELEANOR Antin's retrospective. Uh-oh, you're thinking, it's one of those multimedia installation things whose film and video sequences conspire to keep us on our butts, gawking at obscure gestures unfolding in excruciating choreographies, isn't it? Or it's all textbooky conceptual annotation slapped onto the wall, dry prose to plod through as our feet and minds go numb (at disconcertingly different rates), right? Well, yes, there is some written stuff at the start of the show, Antin's early quasi-conceptual work; and, Lord knows, film and video pieces constitute the bulk of the 30-year survey. But nothing is boring. Clever to a fault, perhaps, or cloying from time to time, but not boring.

In fact, those early annotations are a delight to read, and those film and video works are largely beguiling, captivating, even magical. You must leave yourself some time because you will be sucked into a world you won't be anxious to leave, a world of people and images and stories that seem strangely familiar in their strangeness, their long-ago-ness. You may see your childhood fantasies reflected back at you. You might locate your adult realities here as well -- or, perhaps, your adult fantasies.

The greater part of Antin's oeuvre is adult fantasy -- the good clean fun (if occasionally ribald) kind. She proffers escapist drama, historical fiction and romantic projection not as fantastical transport, nor as metaphorical parallel, but as philosophical investigation, as well as social polemic. Antin is something of a neo-Platonic feminist, rehearsing, amplifying and validating the kinds of imaginary lives women elaborate for themselves. The housewife thus becomes a king, The King of Solana Beach -- not a queen, invested with mere authority, but a king, invested with the responsibility supposedly borne by men alone. The nurse becomes a soap-opera heroine (The Adventures of a Nurse, The Nurse and the Hijackers) and a 19th-century legend (Angel of Mercy's "Eleanor Nightingale"). The wannabe dancer (Caught in the Act) who can barely jeté, much less stand en pointe, becomes the only American ballerina in the legendary Ballets Russes -- and then a star in revolutionary Russian cinema, and an exile in her native land, and so forth.

Yet Antin doesn't fool us for a minute, nor does she intend to. She enacts her stories so as to set up expectations of dramatic illusion, as in the theater or the movies (whose traditions as well as techniques she knowingly apes and distorts), but leaves enough clues to let you know her enactments are that and no more. The seams show; like a magician nonchalantly tipping his hand while executing an otherwise flawless trick, Antin doesn't undermine the conviction of her fiction so much as reveal its conveyance. She doesn't admit the fakery, she simply exposes it. Our compliance in it thereby becomes that much less passive.

What Antin embroils us in is a layering of fakery, a stratification of fact and fancy that makes her narratives -- deceptively simple on the surface and deceptively complex just beneath -- coherent. Yevgeny Antinov, ã
for instance, the Russian-Jewish filmmaker who made the purported "lost masterpiece" of early Soviet cinema The Last Night of Rasputin, is as much a figment of Antin's imagination as is the story the film tells. Antin imitated the style of old silent movies to make the film seem like a true "rediscovered" classic -- which happens to star Antin's own character, Eleanora Antinova, who happens to be Antinov's widow, who happens to be an African-American woman who happens to have been a diva danseuse for Diaghilev, who happened to have seen her do her non-dance dance, a sequence of poses learned from photographs of ballerinas in books, and on that basis invited her to join his legendary troupe. Got that?

It's an implausible story within a story within a story within a story, told with wit and panache -- and a touch of ham. Trained as an actor and a writer, Antin in performance, and in self-documentation, makes use not only of her gifts but of her shortcomings. She's nothing like a ballerina physically, and her onstage style is more old-school declamation than new-school naturalism (although she ad-libs well). Actually, this stiltedness is itself a fabrication, the reanimation of an anachronistic manner that gives Eleanora Antinova the aura of a bygone era -- and clues us further to Antin's artifice.

Accustomed as we are to the virtual realities of screen naturalism and method acting, the degree to which Antin admits her phoniness proves jarring. This quintessentially postmodernist gambit makes the audience complicit in its own suspension of disbelief. In approximating
artifacts such as mid-19th-century photographs, early-20th-century theatrical wardrobes, mid-20th-century movie theaters and late-20th-century television storyboards, Antin seeks not to envelop us
in anachronism, but to show that such
removal from contemporary reality can
never be complete.

UNLIKE HER FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES IN Fluxus and happenings, whose experiments in conflating art and life influenced her own, Eleanor Antin does not confound distinctions between art and life but highlights the crucial presence of art(ifice) in life. A product of the New York art and intellectual scene of the 1960s who moved to San Diego at the end of that decade, Antin took to heart the Duchampian lessons of her time and came to a different conclusion than did the Conceptual artists who were her coevals. In raiding life for art, she exploited rather than suppressed her literary and theatrical bent, keeping her own voice in her work rather than pretending to the Conceptualists' emphatic self-effacement. The life she mixed up with art was her life and the life around her.

Antin's droll approach to biography and autobiography is evident in early pieces such as California Lives (1969) and Portraits of Eight New York Women (1970), terse wall-mounted paragraphs "illustrated" by equally spare tableaus of objects, and Domestic Peace (1971-72), handwritten documentation of verbal sparring between Antin and her mother and the pseudo-seismographic diagramming of their resulting emotional states. Her equally humorous approach to fictive narrative emerges in what is probably her best-known work, 100 Boots. "Told" as a series of 51 post cards sent out between 1971 and 1973 (a pioneering work of mail art), 100 Boots features 50 pairs of black rubber galoshes that tread resolutely through the Southern California landscape until they head for New York. Now available as a book from Running Press, 100 Boots is an almost entirely visual "road novel" that, in its initial mailing, recapitulated the stay-tuned-next-week suspense of old movie and TV serials.

In her evocation and exploitation of forms and styles of actual and inferred narrative, from movie marquees to library cards to Victorian photography to German Expressionist cinema, Antin collapses the daunting sprawl of social, cultural and personal history into the manageable intimacy of fantasy. Not that she avoids the issues of her day; she contributed early on to the emerging feminist discourse with such works as Portraits of Eight New York Women and the 1972 diet-documentation Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, and her portrayal of alter ego Antinova as an African-American has deliberately confused racial identity (even more than The King of Solana Beach played with gender identity). But even in these, Antin's approach has been, if not satirical, at least pitched toward some form of entertaining narrative -- and, increasingly, narrative entertainment. One picture is worth a thousand words, admits the writer-turned-artist, but, insists the erstwhile actor, actions speak louder still.

ELEANOR ANTIN | At THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. | Through August 23

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