The following interview was conducted between Isla Leaver-Yap and Meredith Monk in her apartment, 3 March 2010.
MEREDITH MONK: What we have of 16mm Earrings is a document made by Robert Withers. We shot it in 1977; that’s already ten years after the piece was made, which was 1966. In the original performance I had an accumulation of sound loops, which made the environment completely haunting. To me, the film seems more fragmented. I was working to make an ironic relationship between the text and what was happening. The thing I like about the document of 16mm Earrings is that at least – I mean, looking at it now it’s a pretty moving rite of passage of a young woman coming into her sexuality. But the original performance had more power and sophistication.
ISLA LEAVER-YAP: 16mm Earrings was originally performed in the Judson Church. There was a blank feel to the space, with quite minimal props.
MM: I never thought of them as props, but more as canvas or environments. It’s kind of a map. It ended up having ‘Paper World’, which was the doll where there was the room where a large scale of the effigy doll burned. You see that there is a map concept, or overall environmental concept. Not props or objects. John Perreault’s review was interesting. He was a visual artist so he got a lot of what was going on.
ILY: I remember that he was talking about metaphor in an interesting way.
MM: That it wasn’t a metaphor for something else, but each thing was a metaphor for itself.
ILY: Yes. What was interesting to me when I looked in your notes in the New York Public Library was that I didn’t realise until then that the performance of 16mm Earrings was an incredibly synaesthetic experience. You had notes about the smell of formaldehyde and burning tires. Was that there in the original performance or was it more of an evocative note when you were developing the work?
MM: It was more what I was going for, but I didn’t get to smell! I was going for a totally synaesthetic, integrated, perceptual… a kind of poetry of the senses. After all these years of trying to find that, this was the absolute breakthrough piece for me. No one was doing anything like that at the time.
ILY: How did you feel about performing that kind of work at that time?
MM: I was very fulfilled.
ILY: But were you anxious, or did you feel you were going out on a limb with it? It’s an incredibly brave piece even for now. But when I was thinking about the Yvonne Rainer manifesto –
MM: Those guys were an older generation than me. I was fighting the Judson Dance Theatre in my mind. It was dialectic with the Judson Dance Theatre. She [Rainer] was saying ‘no’ to theatricality, I was saying ‘yes’; she was saying ‘no’ to magic, I was saying ‘yes’ to magic; ‘no’ to transcendence, ‘yes’ to transcendence. I was more influenced by Surrealism at that time.
ILY: I think that’s really evident, particularly when the piece opens and you’re sitting with your back to the audience, and on a chair covered with the white sheet. It’s just covered with your long hair and you can see part of your guitar from behind, in a riff on Man Ray or Meret Oppenheim.
MM: I was very inspired by the idea of making art about something that seemed ordinary but actually making art of the invisible, and dealing with very ordinary materials but dealing also with the extraordinary. You’re dealing with the dream or psychic reality: what’s between the cracks of what we think is reality. I’m still interested in that.
With the concept I had in 16mm Earrings I realised that anything in my life could be used as material: my hair, my body, my crossed eyes, anything about me physically or mentally, reading [Wilhelm Reich’s 1940] ‘The Function of Orgasm’. I could objectify it. It wasn’t that I felt I was doing a confessional piece at all; it was just the opposite of someone like Karen Finley. It was taking anything of my being and making that a plastic material, like paint.
ILY: The movements within it, particularly the Jane Jones sequence seem to be very slapstick at certain points, but there’s a certain cruelty or violence, for instance when you’re pulling at your hair in the black and white film section. There is a slippery point of humour.
MM: Yes. I’ve always loved comedy. I’ve always been interested in that line between humour and tragedy. I also allowed myself to view observation of reality as material.
ILY: What I found interesting about the Jane Jones sequence is the point where you don the dressing gown and hat, that act of transformation or physicalisation – a moment of blankness.
MM: Yes, that madness.
ILY: You seem to transform into another character with the costume attributes of Jane Jones.
MM: I was thinking a lot about persona, not so much about character, but the change of persona within a single piece. What John Perreault understood about that piece was that the work was very much about surfaces – texture, hair, and equivalence. The red crepe paper is fire on the screen, and the fire on the screen is burning the doll, my hair is fire. I had dyed my hair for the piece. So it’s about the equivalence of objects. I thought of them as rhymes within a poem – it’s the same thing visually with objects in this piece. There was the fish net dress you could see through, and the paper dress went over the other, so there was a kind of layering, layering, layering.
ILY: Your research material for the piece is really interesting. I saw your torn magazine clippings of the astronaut testing the NASA string vest, and the headshot of a jet pilot with his helmet that has been solarised into a psychedelic rainbow. It’s interesting to see how that material transformed into the costumes or the projection of your head onto the paper helmet globe.
MM: I was also trying to deal with anti-acting acting. I was trying to deal with an emblematic idea of emotion, asking what happens if you exaggerate human emotion and try to make a sculpture out of it.
ILY: It makes me think of archetype. Some of those early etchings of the attributes of a criminal, or perhaps also the exaggeration in Noh Theatre.
MM: In Ellis Island there were these circles around one woman’s nose, or arrows pointing towards people’s eyes – that racial measuring. And also what you had mentioned before now about Phrenology, and these pictures of peoples brains, turning people into The Other.
ILY: To me the piece has relevance to a lot of contemporary performance that is being produced now. It’s remarkable for being very non-Minimalist despite the time you made the work in. It seems to approach something like the repeated gesture in a way very antithetical to Minimalism.
MM: Yes. It has the repeating sound loops in the space. I had a lot of pain about Minimalism. I wasn’t able to box my brain into one idea, and I somehow internalised feeling bad about that. Minimalism was so much the currency of that time. ‘Wow, could you just do a piece where you fall down for 10 minutes?’ Or something like that! I could never do it. But my mind went in a different direction. I was much more interested in layering of different sense mediums or perceptions. I wanted to create a mosaic way of working. By the time I got to making Juice and I came back to my singing voice, I found my way into a much more visceral way of working, and then I didn’t give a damn. But there was a struggle with or a contending with that form, because I couldn’t do it. I was like ‘I don’t want to do it, and I’ll never do it, so forget it’! I don’t even know why I cared about it so much, but it was such a strong force at that time towards the late 60s it got much more codified. I wanted to go for a more multidimensional form of reality. There were different worlds within one piece.
ILY: But within that there is also a strong anti-narrative stance.
ILY: There are key works that you’ve made that do use narrative, like Book of Days.
MM: But that’s one of the few, and even then narrative is not straight.
ILY: Yes, it’s full of psychic or temporal breaks, spatial breaks.
MM: Book of Days is more a way of thinking about how the mind works. It’s about how the mind associates rather than narrative. The mind is not linear.
ILY: The character of the madwoman in Book of Days is intriguing in the way that she denies the logic of the film. She’s cast out of the society within the film, and although she is this marginalised within her community, she still possesses an agency beyond it. Her living space, the cave, appears to me as an imaginary figment space. The space is part of her persecution for being a person outside the norm, of course. But that makes me think about how you use the archetypal character of the Seer.
MM: Yes, it’s important to Quarry and Vessel too.
ILY: In Vessel I thought of it more as a spiritual way of seeing.
MM: Vessel was very non-narrative. It was dealing with archetypes – archetype is a bad word but I’ll say it anyway. I’ve been thinking of archetype as a universal form that is within our psyche. But Jung seemed to think it was more culturally specific.
ILY: I was interested in archetype as the appearance of figures that deny the specifics of a personal psychology – or rather they perform their psychology instead of inhabiting it in an angst-ridden way. I was thinking maybe more specifically about the figure of the dictator in Quarry, and how he seems to embody a certain archetype that fragments at one point into a literal parade of different types of dictators both past and future. It seems to be very close in my mind to a form of Brechtian archetype, like Mother Courage for instance.
MM: But with Vessel, the Joan character was in her jeans and she was more this visionary character who literally hears these voices and she acts upon the voices out in the world. Most people hear the voices and go to the doctor, or not act upon those messages, or whatever they were – intuition, messages. That’s close to being an artist I think. Artists hear what is coming through and manifest that – you’re listening.
ILY: The use of Joan of Arc in Vessel is very specific to an individual historical figure. Have you used that before, where a character already has a narrative or a myth built around them prior to your interest?
MM: When I did Juice and Education of the Girlchild I was much more interested in personal myth. At the time of Vessel I was thinking about how some cultures you have public performance forms, and everybody knows all the characters where the audience knows the whole thing. I wondered what we had in our culture where you don’t have to tell the story because everyone already knows, and that allows you to be abstract with the elements. With Vessel it’s taking elements of Joan and fracturing them and taking those as starting points to be completely abstract.
ILY: You mentioned abstraction. Turtle Dreams seems to be a piece that is engaged in fracturing or atomising a psychic break.
MM: Or urban break. I always thought of it as an apocalyptic piece, after the bomb. It has this disaster in it.
ILY: Even with only four people, Turtle Dreams sets up a system, where anything that breaks or becomes individual from the system appears as violent or hysterical in some way. It seems those people cannot exist as individuals outside of the system you have orchestrated. It creates an odd dissonance. I know you first envisioned Turtle Dreams as a possible solo piece but then it split into those four people.
MM: A lot of my pieces are very pastoral or nature oriented and I was trying to see what it would be like working with urban reality as an inspiration. Right around that time I was less interested in a theatrical world that implied a fourth wall or implied a single reality for a whole evening. It was the early 1980s and I just wanted to do music concerts because I liked the freedom of being inside the same space at the same time as the audience, without implying that they’re ‘coming into’ a theatrical world. But with Turtle Dreams there was this direct communication where we are all in the same space together, there’s no illusion at all. Within that, every song could be a different world on a psychic level.
When I go to music concerts they can be so boring – like, ‘we do have eyes you know!’ Like, ‘am I going to close my eyes the whole time?’ So now, even in a music concert situation I’m very careful about what it looks like. But at that time I started to try to feed in elements to that situation – like one little element of movement. Turtle Dreams is a music piece that has a very simplified movement component. I was working on that music myself, and then I thought ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if the movement had a totally simple counterpoint? So instead of standing there singing, what about if we went from side to side?’ And from there, the piece seemed to make itself. It wasn’t a grid, but more of a web, and things would break out of that. When I was working on it I didn’t realise some things that I see now. There’s a certain fascist element to it, and I wasn’t conscious of that at the time. But it was a reflection of a sensibility that I was intuiting that was coming up in the world. With New Wave… I mean there was a fascist element to the 80s, Reagan, Thatcher… I was reflecting a societal thing. Do you get that at all?
ILY: Absolutely. It has uniformity.
MM: Yeah, it’s slick. There’s a flatness, a surface style to the people, and maybe a kind of narcissism too.
ILY: I remember Robert Een having these amazing 80s trousers.
MM: Those pinstripe trousers – he was like a pencil.
ILY: And hard lines.
MM: Hard lines. My work up to that point had a much softer edge. So I think I was exploring some opposite qualities to what I’d done up to that point. You could say Dolmen Music is maybe not pastoral, but it doesn’t have that hard edge that Turtle Dreams has. Turtle Dreams has an ironic relationship to reality.
ILY: Ironic how?
MM: It was my way of observing a sensibility that was coming up, and trying to understand where it was coming from. And where it was coming from Reagan getting everyone to shop, and this narcissism. Also it has a very Cassandra-like quality to it, like the prophet or the warning of disaster before the bomb. It’s before disaster and post disaster. It’s a reflection of the society then. But it was all non-verbal.
ILY: It’s an incredibly hypnotic piece, with the repetitive seductive movement, and an incredibly anxious moment when it seems sirens are going off. I was interested also in the form of cabaret in relation to Turtle Dreams. I think you mentioned previously that cabaret was a way to resolve your antagonism to the proscenium form?
MM: We did Turtle Dreams – the whole cabaret show – at this crazy place. In those days the West 20s was not that chic-y place that it Chelsea is now. It was really ‘funky’… This place was called Plexus. It was sort of a club, and we made this T-shaped runway. Later on I found out that my lighting designer had plugged the lights into a single socket that was coming from next door and we nearly burned the place down. But I loved it. Working site specifically like that is really part of my excitement about working. For that performance it was coming into a real situation and making these tables so the audience could have wine and making a whole environment as an installation. I love that.
ILY: I was wondering how you define cabaret or what your experience of cabaret has been in the past?
MM: I think I understand it in the way that the form has no continuity, but that it functions in acts. Of course it was structured in a very particular way, not trying to find any kind of weaving content at all, but more as a sense of complete units. I think that’s one very distinctive thing about cabaret.
ILY: There’s one definition of cabaret I’ve read which is about how it is one of the few forms to allow a simultaneous feeling of hostility and intimacy within the same space, because of its proximity. And that perhaps there’s also this clear psychological division of space.
MM: I think it was very like that. And generally as very warm performers we were not so used to that style.