At once a choreographer, composer, actress, singer, and director, Meredith Monk is known for a body of work that is often considered unclassifiable. Since the 1960s, her practice has spanned across disciplines of dance, theater, visual arts, and film, and has included solo as well as ensemble pieces. Monk’s self-fashioned degree in “Interdisciplinary Performance,” obtained from Sarah Lawrence College in 1964, remains the best definition of her work, as the artist often combines multiple performative elements in individual pieces. Her approach results in works that cannot be singularly defined as dance, theater, concert, or film works, but are instead a unique synthesis of artistic disciplines, most broadly described as simply “performance art.”
One of Monk’s earliest pieces is 16 Millimeter Earrings, created in 1966 and originally staged at the Judson Church in New York. The performance began with Monk seated facing away from her audience while playing the guitar and singing, then went on to combine vocal recordings, theatrical acting, and film projections, and finally ended with the burning of an effigy meant to represent the artist herself. 16 Millimeter Earrings incorporated physical props, such as a slinky and red crepe paper streamers, as well as less tangible components. Audible during the performance were partial recordings of the traditional English folk song “Greensleeves” as well as passages from The Function of the Orgasm, written by the controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, which argues for sexual liberation as a panacea for all ills, both physical and psychological. Reflecting on the work in 2010, Monk commented: “With the concept I had in 16mm Earrings I realized that anything in my life could be used as material: my hair, my body, my crossed eyes, anything about me physically or mentally… It wasn’t that I felt I was doing a confessional piece at all… It was taking anything of my being and making that a plastic material, like paint.”
Monk was not alone in her engagement with the body’s potential as a plastic material. This theme was crucial to her peers working in “body art,” a form of performance art and sculpture that emerged in the 1960s, in which the artist’s body is both the subject and the object of the work. In various performances by Stelarc, the artist’s body was suspended using hooks attached to his skin, or extended through technological apparatuses fitted to his body. For Stelarc, the body functions as a site for experimentation or as a physical object that can be used as a component of a work larger than the body itself. For Marina Abramović, the body became a tool for exploring the artist’s mental or physical limits through artistic performance, and ultimately questioning the fundamental nature of the human body and mind. With its emphasis on the body as artistic material, Monk’s 16 Millimeter Earrings shares affinities with body art, and her use of the body as an object for examination evidences further commonality with the genre.
By seeing the body as a physical material, Monk recognized the possibility of separating it from her personal identity, which allowed 16 Millimeter Earrings to avoid being “confessional” in an autobiographical sense. In 16 Millimeter Earrings, Monk’s body is transformed into an anonymous female form and becomes a blank canvas for the multitude of artistic personae that she performs throughout the piece. Monk’s method of creating an anonymous performative body is a reflection of her training in theater and dance. While Monk has stated that she never imagined she was performing “characters” in 16 Millimeter Earrings, she nevertheless engages in the effacement of personal identity to allow a variety of personae to be played throughout the piece
When Monk created 16 Millimeter Earrings, many artists were experimenting with the idea of performance art, attempting to both define the practice and redefine the other performative arts that existed around it. Her unique synthesis of disciplines resulted in a piece that was difficult for early audiences to interpret, but which now stands squarely in the category of “performance art.” 16 Millimeter Earrings represents an early example of this new artistic discipline, with Monk’s conception of the body as a physical material an adoption of a theme that would underscore the future history of performance art.
Meredith Monk’s 16 Millimeter Earrings is included in the Walker exhibition Less Than One, on view April 7–December 31, 2016.