What do lard, soap, chocolate and maple trees have in common?
Artist Janine Antoni has sculpted, molded and even licked each of them into works of art.
Born and raised in the Bahamas, Antoni sets aside traditional tools and mediums to build out-of-the-ordinary exhibitions. Paint brushes are replaced by her own hair and eyelashes, chisels are replaced by her teeth, and natural wear and tear is replaced by bathing or licking.
In a “Meet the Artist” program at The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden earlier this week, Antoni spoke to nearly 300 attendees about the fuzzy line between performance and art.
“My desire is to be both the model and the master,” she said.
Her exhibition, called “Lick and Lather,” now on display at the Hirshhorn, features two cast busts of herself: One covered in rich chocolate and the other in pearly soap. Antoni licked the chocolate cast until it was smooth and used the soap in her baths over the course of three months.
“I washed myself with myself and fed myself with myself,” Antoni said.
Antoni said she uses unorthodox materials to challenge herself and her audience. She tries to think about her performance-art works in terms of all five senses.
“I have a deep love for the viewer. They are my imaginary friend. I imagine them going up to my sculpture,” she said. “What will lead them in what direction of the piece?”
Some of her sculptures and art pieces are more enjoyable to create than others.
For one of her first installations, called “Gnaw,” she carefully bit away at 600 pounds of chocolate and another 600 pounds of lard, only to spit them out and eventually create heart-shaped packages for chocolate and hundreds of tubes of lipstick.
Antoni said this 1992 installation was her “art school exorcism,” and that her choice of sweet and fatty media was based on the cause-and-effect relationship between the two.
“I would talk about the body by the residue it left on the object. I still want to eat chocolate. Lard, on the other hand, I never want to see again,” she said.
For another piece, a painting called “Butterfly Kisses,” she blinked 1,114 times on canvas with her eyelashes coated in thick layers of Covergirl mascara.
Antoni tries to create pieces with their own individual background stories. Rather than leaving her exhibits a little confused or flustered, she said she hopes her audience will share the dynamic space inside her head. That’s why she likes to explain her inspiration and process.
In one of her performance pieces, “Loving Care,” Antoni dips her long hair in black dye and mops the floors, guiding those watching with the streak marks. She said that when she was a child, her mother would tell her to “go out and play” while she mopped the kitchen floor. The kitchen was her mother’s territory, she said, and so is the environment where she does her performance.
The average museum-goer can understand such parallels between ordinary experience and Antoni’s unusual work, but her pieces can be more challenging.
In one of her photographs, “Mortar and Pestle,” she licks her husband’s eyeball. Antoni admitted that the image – the clarity of their pores, the intensity of the shot’s focus and its fleshy, oddly sexual nature – “freaked people out.”
“I thought that I was making a very sweet and tender image. [I wanted to] taste [my] husband’s vision,” she said.