Published on July 1st, 2012 | by Alison Kjeldgaard0
Interview with Performance Artist Anya Liftig
Performance artist Anya Liftig has eaten fish guts, slathered herself in chocolate frosting, and willingly had 243 eggs thrown at her. She has eaten food with her feet, licked a cactus until her tongue bled, and walked the streets of New York pretending to gorge on a baby. All in the name of art.
Liftig’s work has been featured in venues and museums around the globe and written about in such publications as the New York Times Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. A graduate of Yale University, Liftig layers her strange, fascinating and often humorous performances with highly intellectual theories. For example, “Want Me Like Time” (in which the artist “birthed” a wad of pizza dough, then licked and sucked it into the shape of a human baby) came from the expression “to lick into shape,” originally coined by Aristotle’s theory that bear cubs are born as amorphous shapes and need to be licked into shape by their mother. Many of her other performances explore how the mouth acts as the site of confrontation with knowledge and how animals play a role in understanding the human self.
Liftig has always shown had an aptitude for creating and performing art, considering her first performance to have been in the fourth grade when she built a fortress out of books and lived inside for nearly a week. Growing up in an affluent suburb of New York City, Liftig had ample opportunity to develop her artistic side early on, beginning with ballet and theatrical performances. Childhood summers were spent in a diametrically opposite environment with her mother’s family in rural Kentucky (which led to her Jewish father dubbing Liftig and her siblings “Jewbillies”).
Tellingly, one of her role models is Serbian artist Marina Abramovic, known for testing the limits of the body and mind through performance. Most recently, she made headlines for her 736-hour and 30-minute “The Artist is Present” performance at New York’s MoMA, during which Abramovic sat motionless at a table in the museum’s atrium. Museum visitors were invited to sit for as long as they wanted across from the artist and Liftig was one visitor. She created her own performance, “The Anxiety of Influence,” from the that experience (the title derives from Harold Bloom’s work of literary theory about rising above the influence of idols). She arrived at MoMA as the first visitor in line – dressed exactly like Abramovic in a long blue dress with her hair braided over one shoulder – and confronted her artistic idol by sitting directly across from her, motionless, from the museum’s opening to its close (over six hours).
One of her upcoming performances, “I’m a Groucho Marxist,” similarly tests the artist’s bodily limits. In an old parking lot in Atlanta, Liftig will attempt to climb a barricade constructed out of repurposed steel and covered in peanut butter while blindfolded and partially bound. The performance evokes Atlanta’s barricaded past, dividing whites from blacks, the title coming from a slogan painted on the walls of the Sorbonne in the late sixties that symbolized a rally against oppressive forces threatening individual expression.
We had the chance to chat with Liftig about becoming an artist, the dangers of peanut butter, and licking things.
Art Animal: Have your parents always known that you would become an artist?
Anya Liftig: My parents said that they always knew. Little kids usually play with their hands and everything that kids played with their hands, I played with my feet. Everything that you’d play with a certain way, I’d play with differently. They always took it for granted that I kind of always saw the world upside down and it made sense to me in my own way. They were very encouraging of that. I don’t think they thought of it as particularly artistic in the sense of clay or traditional media. I think they just thought that I was funny and goofy, and doing my own thing.
AA: When was your first performance?
AL: The first time that I remember being on stage was playing Peppermint Patty in a production of Charlie Brown when I was about three and a half. I remember painting freckles on my face and wearing my mom’s hippie glasses. I remember being slightly pissed that I wanted to be Lucy but being cast for Peppermint Patty.
AA: Has performance always come naturally to you? Do you still get nervous before you start performing?
AL: Yeah, I definitely still get nervous. I mean, I’ve done a lot of different types of performance in theater and art, but I definitely still get nervous. There’s still that exhilaration, and thrill and a high. It’s not like anything else that I’ve ever experienced anywhere else in life.
AA: How do you go about developing a character on stage? Does that take as much time developing the performance?
AL: I don’t really want a character – so to speak – but I construct some type of alternate being or something that has its own person, a separate person. The way I do that, I guess, is I collect images, video, sound – things that I want to emulate and react against. So it’s not really a character like, “this is a person who would do this,” or “how would this character react.” It’s more of a state of mind.
AA: In “The Human Factor,” you begin your performance very humorously and then build into something more gruesome. Is this something you aim to do in your work?
AL: I think that those performances are very reflective of how I feel about the world around me. But my goal is to do something that will initially grab the audience – that is sort of humorous or absurd – and kind of draw the audience in. Then we spend time together and the audience becomes complicit in the enjoyment of the action in its absurdity. The audience is also complicit in violence and the strange places that the performance goes to. So the audience is pulled in and then also repulsed. I think that for me, rather than just doing one thing or the other – just drawing somebody in and then meeting them there or just repulsing them – I want to do both of those things and get in between those places.
AA: Has the audience ever reacted in a completely different way from what you were expecting?
AL: Yeah, I never really know how the audience is going to react. I mean, I was honestly surprised when they laughed initially [in “The Human Factor”] in certain places, or sometimes the voracity of their laughter. I think that there are different things that audiences find funny. Every audience is individual and every audience finds different things gruesome and horrific.
AA: I think the last time I spoke with you was right before your “Adoring Appetite” performance in Art in Odd Places, in which you and your collaborator, Caitlin Berrigan, walked through New York pretending to be mothers eating cream-filled babies. How did people react?
AL: I think that any time we do public performance like that – or anytime that you do roaming public performance like that – it can be difficult and exciting. Very exciting.
AA: Do you feel like you have to adapt faster in public than if you were performing in a gallery?
AL: You have to be really on your toes. You want to be open to possibility, and you want to be open to spontaneity, but you also have to be aware that just a split second could change the direction that you’re not really thinking of – that you as an artist might lose control of.
AA: To shift gears, I was going to ask about using food in your performances. Is that one of your favorite mediums to work with? Has food ever not worked the way you wanted it to in a performance?
AL: Sure, yeah, food is one of my favorite mediums. It’s certainly not worked at times. Certainly one of the difficulties of food. It’s a medium that you use quite a bit, particularly in performance art. I think because it’s cheap, because it’s easy to obtain in different places and there are a lot of practicalities that make it very appealing.
AA: You also eat a lot of unusual things: like fish guts, food off of your feet, flowers. Have you ever gotten sick?
AL: I’ve never gotten sick. I’ve felt uncomfortable. I have to say that “Adoring Appetite” was hard. Caitlin and I were eating a lot of the material that we made the babies out of: essentially palm oil and sugar. It was basically like a sludge going through your body. Although it was edible, it was not fun. So, you know, that’s the only thing that’s made me ill.
I’d say that the worst thing in terms of food was one time in grad school – I slathered my face with chocolate frosting and took photographs. That made my skin erupt into, like, 8 million different directions. It was awful. My skin was just decimated. But I learned after that: don’t slather yourself in chocolate frosting.
AA: As much as you might want to…
AL: Unless it’s the right one. I’m getting ready to do a project that involves peanut butter. A lot of peanut butter, which I understand you can choke from. There are actually people who die from eating – from choking – on peanut butter.
AA: This is for your upcoming “I’m a Groucho Marxist” project. How do you come up with such an idea, and ideas for new artistic performances in general?
AL: I guess my working method is that I think of something that would be really stupid and impossible and then try to do it.
AA: So for this project were you like, “Mmmm. Peanut butter,” and it went from there?
AL: I was like, “I’m really into licking things. What’s the hardest thing I could lick?”