Mother Mary Montano
The influential performance artist and onetime teacher at UT revisits Austin in the guise of a saint
Dressed in sunglasses and a nun's habit, performance artist Linda Mary Montano says rosary in front of a brilliant blue background: "Good afternoon, future catechism teachers of America," she begins, speaking directly to the camera, "My name is Sister Rose Augustine, and I'm a missionary sister just back from the Belgian Congo." Part of Montano's 1978 video omnibus of personae titled Learning to Talk, Montano-as-Sister-Rose then proceeds to pick up a giant pad of paper and, armed with a squeaky black marker, lectures on sin; the difference between mortal and venial sin, kinds of sexual sins, and a concluding diagram of two circles, one light and one dark, representing the soul in grace and the soul in sin.
Frightening and funny, Sister Rose Augustine is a nudge-nudge, wink-wink commentary on Catholicism and its earthly agents, both telegraphing and skewering Montano's childhood in the Catholic church and as a young novitiate with the Maryknoll Sisters in Ossining, N.Y. After exiting the novitiate and completing graduate school, Montano began developing an array of personae and experimenting with long-durational performance. She spent three days handcuffed to artist Tom Marioni in 1973 (Handcuff), and, 10 years later, would spend an entire year tied, via an 8-foot rope, to fellow performance artist Tehching Hsieh (Art/Life One Year Performance). Drawing on her experience as a novitiate, these performances tested Montano's body and mental resolve. The collaboration with Hsieh proved significant; soon after she and Hsieh were "untied," Montano embarked upon a seven-year performance piece titled Seven Years of Living Art, wherein she explored one of the seven chakras each year by dressing in the corresponding chakra's color, living in a colored space, and listening to a single tone. Montano would also appear monthly at the New Museum in New York to offer life/art counseling in a specially designed chakra storefront window.
In 1991, at the end of Seven Years of Living Art, Montano was offered a job as an assistant professor of art at the University of Texas at Austin. As Rachel Martin, performance artist and assistant dean of the College of Fine Arts, remembers, when Montano interviewed for the job, "it was like Keith Richards coming to town." While in residence at UT, Montano distinguished herself through her collaborations and close relationships with students and colleagues. "She taught performance art, but she also taught 3-D foundations, one of the core components of our curriculum," Martin says. "I give her kudos for teaching generations of art students to think more conceptually about making."
While at UT, Montano exhibited and performed nationally and internationally. She extended her Seven Years of Living Art for another seven years, becoming 14 Years of Living Art – which lasted throughout her time in Austin. "I was addicted to money," says Montano plainly, "addicted to being important. It was during my time at the University of Texas that I began to attend church again, because I needed grounding. You can't be there for students and not have something for yourself."
A spiritual polyglot, Montano travelled to Houston weekly to study Jainism with A.I. and Aruna Mehta, in addition to her ongoing practices of Buddhism and Catholicism. She fostered close collaborations with artist/musician Ellen Fullman and composer/accordionist Pauline Oliveros, all of which are well-documented in her archives, which were acquired last year by New York University's Fales Library – host to an array of "downtown" New York artists' materials.
Artist Andy Coolquitt, who was a graduate teaching assistant for Montano during her UT years, remembers Montano's performance classes as "pretty much a group therapy session; they didn't seem to have anything to do with art. Meditation and sharing were key components, yet Linda believed everyone always had something to offer. Linda used to say, 'Just switch it around in the mind, that's all you have to do.' In that way, she was key in the development of my work."
The opportunity for Montano to "switch it around in the mind" presented itself when she was denied tenure at UT in 1998 and subsequently returned to Kingston, N.Y., to take care of her ailing father, a period of time she refers to as Dad Art. In her final lecture/performance at the University of Texas, Montano riffed on the concept of endurance – closely tied to her body of work, her own upbringing ("My parents were from the Depression era, so I'm a hard worker."), and now a self-directed invective for life after academia:
"Let's now look at some universal reasons why we all endure. Endurance is built into our system because under this skin is a galaxy of networks, a mysterious world of muscles, bones, veins, and organs which endure our turbulent emotional states, endure our tortured thoughts, endure our various and punitive diets, endure the torture of climate changes and home-uprootings, endure our lovelessness, endure our fertile negative imaginings and paranoias, endure our tortured memories and traumatic secrets, endure our disrespect for authorities and bitterness toward everyone's good intention. See your body in great detail. Clear it of all past endurances that hurt."
After the death of her father, Montano stayed on in her childhood town, going to church as she had done when she was young. After years of exploring and grounding her own spiritual practice, Montano shifted her performance toward inhabiting real people: Bob Dylan (first performed at Austin's 1992 Pride Festival), Jill Johnston, Paul McMahon, and Mother Teresa.
"Inhabiting real people is a way to get used to the idea of not being anymore," says Montano, referring to the most permanent state of non-being: death, "And it's also about receiving as Bob Dylan or Mother Teresa. I get to respond in a way that Linda would never respond to the world. I began to perform as Mother Teresa because one day, doubled over from dystonia [a neurological condition in the Parkinson's family], all crippled, small, and half my size, a little voice in my head said, 'You look just like Mother Teresa.'"
After receiving permission from Mother Teresa's order, Montano began to bless and perform as the beatified nun. Indeed, she will perform as Mother Teresa for three seven-hour performances at the Vortex next week. Audiences are encouraged to stay for the entire time, but are welcome to come and go from the theatre as they wish. As in past performances, during her run at the Vortex, Montano-as-Mother-Teresa will be accompanied by "handlers" dressed like the backup dancers/musicians from Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" music video. The handlers provide protection and care for Mother Teresa, Montano notes, of "the kind I will someday need as I age." Montano also promises a special video "honoring the legacy of feminist Catholic theologians."
For many, Montano's return to Austin is a welcome surprise. Rachel Martin recalls having a conversation with Montano after she was denied tenure, asking the artist when she would likely return to Austin, "'Not for a very long time,' was the response, so I'm delighted she's coming back. She's obviously ready." Coolquitt sums up Montano's legacy as a "total courage to listen to your life, look into the world. Continue to be, continue to change. Letting life flow over you."
Montano's Vortex performances will signal her longest engagement with being Mother Teresa to date, and as she notes, "I go to bed at 7pm usually, so when the clock strikes midnight, I will be delirious. Expect miracles!"
Linda Mary Montano as Mother Teresa will be performed Oct. 8-10, 5pm-12mid, at the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd. Montano will also conduct a workshop, Laugh Your Chakras Awake, Saturday, Oct. 11, 11am-2pm. For more information, visit www.vortexrep.org.