New York

Eleanor Antin

M. L. D'Arc Gallery

For those of us who were not in the cast, the performance of Grand Nurse Eleanor Antin Nightingale’s The Angel of Mercy was mercifully short. Many cramped spectators on the gallery floor remained frozen in position as Queen Victoria hung a medal on Eleanor, praying for a finale but unsure if the performance was to turn into an endurance test. The grand finale, as it indeed turned out to be, drew very little applause, a large silence and then a grateful surge toward the elevator door. Random reactions indicated a reigning confusion and doubt as to whether there was another act, or if the “play” was really over.

Somehow in retrospect the adventures of Grand Nurse that night seem a lot more entertaining, humorous and almost fun, though the delicate air of pathos shown in the accompanying photographs lining the gallery walls never quite made it to the “stage.”

Angel of Mercy was the portrayal of the life and times of Grand Nurse Eleanor during the Crimean War. A tongue-in-cheek re-telling of the real Florence Nightingale story, Antin’s text covered some Victorian family background as well as numerous vignettes of life at the front healing and dealing with “the boys.” The paper dolls Antin played with last year at the Clocktower have grown in size and stature to almost life-sized masonite silhouettes, painted from photographs of an impressive assortment of art-world friends and celebrities, dressed to kill in period costume.

Blame it on the nature of documentation, but watching the tedious performance was like being subjected to too many feet of unedited documentary footage. People complain over and over again that avant-garde video is boring—sometimes avant-garde performance has the same atmosphere of endless gray existence. Though there were indeed high and low points throughout the drama, the performance hung in a twilight zone between real theatre and what is generally accepted as a reading. Galleries are usually the place for simple presentations, not fully mounted productions. Angel of Mercy came closer to being a stage play than a reading, similar in flavor to The Belle of Amherst; a one-woman show with a vast cast of supported actors.

In its most successful moments, A of M was like eavesdropping on a private fantasy as Antin play-acted among her wooden troops, wiping tears and mending socks, pep-talking the weary and easing homesickness. One hilarious bit had Antin and a live assistant mechanically “amputating” limb after limb in a makeshift hospital at the front. Each victim got a cursory sip of whiskey; then his various parts were quickly removed. Though it played as comic relief, the near-accuracy of the act gave it the biting edge of true satire.

With the two performances over, the gallery was filled with the masonite people and the documenting photos. The installation is a separate entity from the performance. Instead of feeling like a display of leftover theatre props, the figures create an atmosphere of juxtaposed purposes. Antin tried to convey contradiction in her performance; the installation says it better, as parasoled ladies stroll arm in arm with their gentlemen among soldiers bandaged or aiming rifles. Face hidden, the photographer stands at the center of activity, mutely recording the scene. He is the central force behind the exhibition, both as a character and as the man (Philip Steinmetz) who took the photos. He was actually the one to make the fantasy “history” with his finger on the shutter. His are the only real shots in Antin’s Crimean War.

The photographs could easily be taken as true vintage shots. Though the situations are obvious set-ups and therefore often overly dramatic, their muted sepia tones capture the exact atmosphere of period photos. Many are extremely beautiful in their own right. Taps is a good example; one lone soldier is planted on top of a hill at twilight, bugle to his lips, exuding loneliness. Many others capture the quirky nostalgia of war perfectly, depicting the troops “at home” in their trenches, smiling fondly at the camera, Nurse Eleanor among them. All brave and young, their images are at once absurd and pathetic, yet comic. But we know the photos are frauds, and the safety of this fact lets us laugh.

This is the moment of Antin’s true success. Progressing from her earlier pieces trying on and discarding personalities, the Angel of Mercy exhibition easily combines fantasy with fact, implying fiction in the most serious of real moments and situations.

Deborah Perlberg