photo by Esther Neff

All started with a crazy dog. An interview with Anya Liftig

Anya Liftig is a New York-based live artist I met last February in London at ]performance s p a c e ['s Valentine's Day dinner. That day I fell in love with her expressiveness and ability to go deep into our inner instincts with the lightness of a dancer.

The first time we met it was at ]performance s p a c e [ and you were the anthropomorphic cat of Pester Prey. Animals are often partners and material of your artworks, how do you explore this ‘cross-species communication’?

When I was about eight years old, my family adopted a crazy dog named Tasha. This dog was so crazy that she would run around in circles in the backyard for hours and hours. We had a rule in our house that the dog couldn’t come upstairs. No matter what we put to block her from getting upstairs, Tasha would take a running leap and end up in our bedrooms. My parents were so fed up that they hired a dog psychiatrist. She had a degree in Animal Behavior and had one-on-one therapy sessions with Tasha. She said that Tasha felt rejected by us and just wanted to spend more time with us, that she was lonely. Once we let her come upstairs and stopped treating her like, well, like a dog, she became the perfect pet.  I was always fascinated by that woman. How did she figure out what Tasha wanted? Was she really talking to her? Later on, I got my own dog and became an artist.  The works of William Wegman, Joseph Beuys and Carolee Schnemann have all been very influential at various points. There is a special connection between animals and artists, perhaps because we all live our lives as observers of the mainstream of human life.

Right now I am thinking a great deal about making love with nature and the natural world. I am interested in the failure of man made words to express feelings and ideas and am exploring the natural world for a different way to communicate.  I like the silence of two mushrooms talking to each other and the taciturn intelligence of the root system of an oak tree.

Your works address difficult themes such as self-doubt, failure and feminism in the attempt to terrify yourself and challenge the audience. Can you explain what your approach is?

My approach is pretty simple. If I feel something is risky, if it is something that makes me or scared, then I try it. I have a very experiential approach to performance. The best feeling, and also the most terrifying, is being in the middle of a show and having no idea what is going to happen. I don’t mean that it is improvisational; you have a plan but the tiny nuances of reaction and feeling, they unfold themselves right in front of the audience.

My ideal performance is one in which the audience is initially drawn in by something they find funny or absurd. It brings them into the performance moment. As they keep watching, that funny thing starts to become decadent, bizarre, perverted–all too much.  It is still the same action that drew them in, but its sheer persistence makes it wrong.  It forces them to ask questions. Who is this person doing this action? Why are they doing it? Why are they (the viewer) still watching?  At what point did the action change from funny to demented?  This type of work also makes the viewer complicit in the piece.

I really enjoy being stupid on stage. By stupid I mean, really literal. Just exploring objects and what their alternate functions might be. Many of my performances have developed simply from some attachment to an object that I just wanted to play with. Kind of like a monkey.

What role does irony play in your work?

Without irony, I’d still be painting still lives of bottles.

You have been involved in political campaigns since you were a student. Do you define your practice political? Is the barricade of I’m a Groucho Marxist your personal idea of guerrilla warfare?

My practice is political because it occurs in public.

The barricade of Groucho is more the barricade that I see in my mind. It is the obstacle course of trying to overcome any challenge, particularly any mental hurdle that you just can surmount. It is the physical embodiment of the terrible paralyzing fears that keep you up at night, the old disappointments that hold you back from taking bigger risks, your failures, you biases, your inability to communicate, your inability to understand, and your weaknesses. Your own personal pile of garbage that you can’t conquer. It is the definition of the personal being transformed into the political and vice versa. People have traditionally built barricades to defend themselves against these exact same failures in governments and repressive regimes throughout history.

In your guerrilla intervention into Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present Retrospective at MOMA, you sat all day opposite to her wearing similar clothes and hair-style. How did you train yourself for this counter-performance?

I am not someone who is known for sitting very still, unless I am sleeping, and even then I kick and squirm. So I knew right away that this would be a major challenge. I tried to give myself a crash-course in meditation and how to make the body still. At the same time, I scrounged up a costume and wig, which was much harder than I thought it would be. I also spent time hanging out in the atrium at MOMA just watching Marina, the other sitters and the museum guards to see how they communicated and how to be at the front of the line in the morning. Basically, I watched the web feed all the time and I tried to immerse myself into the life of the atrium through the tools that were available to the public.

 

As a very eclectic artist, you move freely from dance to writing and even photography. Tell me more about your experience as a photojournalist in your ‘Leica adventures’ around the world.

I have always been in love with photography. Much of my formal art training is actually in photo and I spent several years after college as a freelance photojournalist.  When I travel, I carry a Leica M6 that belonged to my grandfather. I use a wide angle lens that he won in Germany when he was stationed there after WWII gambling on a pinball game. I have been very lucky to travel to many countries in my life, often to show or to shoot artwork. Experiencing a country as a photographer makes you consider the light, the space and the people in a place in a different way.

I think people are surprised when they see my black and white work because they expect it to be just as irreverent as my performance work, but it is very lyrical and quiet.  I was deeply influenced by my mentor, Tod Papageorge, who is a legendary street photographer and a purist about framing and natural light. The Leica M6 is such a special tool. It is almost totally silent and allows you to move like a cat.  No one knows that you are shooting. My close friends and family know that they can count on me to have a Leica in my hands at any important gathering.

In the last period you have been very busy, where we can meet you in the coming months?

I have some very exciting new shows coming up in the next few months:

June 3: for Bushwick Open Studios, IV Soliders, Monolith Show, Brooklyn, NY

June 5: Video, Dining In, Showing as part of Rapid Pulse International Performance Festival, Chicago, IL

June 15/16: New Voices in Live Performance, Dangling Modifier, Brooklyn, NY (curated by Anya Liftig) 7:30 pm at Center for Performance Research (performances by John Burtle, Tess Dworman, Panoply Performance Lab)

June 15: Appearing with Annie Sprinkle at Grace Exhibition Space, Brooklyn, NY

June 22: The Compendium: Technics (New Voices in Live Performance Series) (curated by The Compendium) 7:30 pm at Center for Performance Research, Brooklyn, NY

June 28: Artist Talk, I‘m a Groucho Marxist, Flux Projects, Atlanta, Georgia

July 7: I’m a Groucho Marxist, Public Performance Project, Sponsored by Flux Projects, Atlanta, Georgia

July 12: Opening, Deliverance, Group Show, Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center (with Clifford Owens, Jayson Scott and Laura Gwin)

July 14: Artist Talk: Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center

August 12: Performance, Deliverance, Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center