A recent graduate from Corcoran College of Art + Design, Eleanor Barba is a performance artist who isn’t afraid to take artistic risks. Through her performances she explores the “tragic humor of sexuality in the 21st century” especially in the context of the lack of communication in families. She uses her body to create loaded messages to members of her family and to the audience.
In her latest piece performed at the Hillyer Art Space’s Blowout! DC Performance Art Festival on Saturday June 16, she did a bit of role playing with the audience. While speaking to us as if we were her grandmother, she talked about the tenuous relationships between grandmother, mother, and daughter – the mother’s guilt from the daughter’s sins, etc. - while potting and un-potting plants and wearing a negligée. She then created a powerful message using the soil, “I’m not sorry. I’m not happy.”
I caught up with her after the performance to talk about her work and performance art as a medium.
[The following interview was audio recorded and edited.]
Jamie Hurst: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background as an artist.
Eleanor Barba: I am a recent Corcoran graduate and I guess like when I was younger I just always liked art, and I loved abstract art and the non-representational things and I always thought that was really cool and I really liked the badass people. My parents are really supportive they always took me to different art museums and things. My brother… hated art so there was always that funny tension between us.
So then when it came down to college, it was more like college made me into an artist. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do until I got into art school … And it’s proven to be so nice and interesting to be always surrounded artists when that is what your mindset is like; and has been since you were a child. We [artists] always think a little bit differently.
All those artists that I saw that were cool and the original badasses, it was like now you can become one of them, and I’m blessed to surround myself with people like that.
JH: Yeah, it makes you feel more normal.
JH: So when did you start working in performance art, did you know that [it] was the medium you wanted to use?
EB: Not at all. Performance art is still something new to me. I have not done a lot of it. The piece I did for my thesis, the painting on my belly, I did that a few times, and it was really just kind of like just different ways to explore.
JH: I like the history of performance art and conceptual art, and think a lot about the art object as the refuse of the performance, and the artist as object.
EB: That’s why I like doing my work and that’s something that I like about that I can make something physical. Creating the stage like a play and then leaving it there. Leaving it in the gallery and having a video to show how it was made, because I think that is really interesting too. But I think performance art is really new to me and there are a lot of things I need to learn about it. I was the class speaker at graduation and the coaching advice I got was you know you’re going to make a mistake and the audience is really forgiving because they aren’t the one on stage, you know? I don’t know if it cheapens the performance or just make it a little bit better because there is a step of bravery to it? I think so, performance art more than others.
JH: I think it is brave physically, politically, and artistically because you are doing something in front of an audience. It’s not like you are hiding in your studio and no one knows the process. It’s just really vulnerable as a medium.
EB: Yeah, then there are other categories [to consider] like what if you are directing and not actually in the piece, is it still yours? It is a newer medium and I think it’s one that people… people who don’t… I’ll just use the word philistine. They come to these things are just flabbergasted that this it is happening. But when you go to art school you see so much crazy stuff.
JH: You become… numb.
EB: yeah, you become numb to it like, I’ve seen that before. So it’s this challenge of how to keep your work exciting but visually appealing to people who do just like paintings. And that’s why I like setting up the stage – or for my thesis, the pulley system – last time I was here [Hillyer] I rigged up a fern and taped it to a wall, I like having the set and setting up the stage for someone to continue to look at.
JH: Yeah, leaving the object behind.
EB: I think people like that too.
JH: And do you have other performance artists that you look to for inspiration?
EB: I’m so bad with names my teachers would be killing me right now. I think Marina Abramavic is an obvious one, although I have a love hate relationship with her. I look at a lot of more feminist art and I look to a lot of video art to grab inspiration…I really like Jeannine Antonelli, she’s not necessarily a performance artist but she does put herself in these weird positions, like with her body. She did one where she does plasters of her body. She did this one [piece] called Lick and Lather where she took busts of her head (27 of them). Lather, was made of soap. She washed them away, every single one of them. Then the other one [Lick] she cast them [the busts] in chocolate and she licked away her own faces. So I don’t really know what that means conceptually compared to my work but it’s something like using your body like that to create work is really interesting to me - kind of like with the painting on my belly, it’s sort of like Yves Kline.
JH: That’s totally what I thought of when I saw it.
EB: So I think a lot of comparisons that, again, don’t really fit in conceptually, but using your body as a tool is neat to me.
JH: Thinking about DC specifically, is there a place you like to go for inspiration or a place you like to hangout, like here [Hillyer]?
EB: These performance nights are a great. It’s an awesome opportunity… I think DC is up and coming on these performance nights and I think people like that. People like to go to performance art, it’s like going to a play. And it’s nice for things like this where there are so many performance artists and you get to see a wide array. You can see all the different ways you can do performance art. Just like paintings, performance can be used in different ways.
Where else do I go? I go to the movies a lot. I always feel inspired after I go to the movies. I also feel inspired after I leave IKEA. I don’t know why, yeah, I’m such a messy person, I know my house will never be that clean, so I try to take that energy and put it into something else.
JH: I’m always fascinated by performance art versus the commercial market of art - you aren’t making an object to sell. How do you deal with that?
EB: It is interesting; people would ask me that for the senior thesis because it stayed up so long. So if [someone] wanted to buy the banners I would obviously sell it to them or if they wanted to buy a video I would make a set of [them]. But it is hard because it’s not a pretty painting they can hang over their sofa. It’s really raw, it’s an experience. Performances are never as good taped as they are live, you know? And so it is a little bit more difficult. Performance artists could make a better living if more of these events happened - there is a Soap Box the third Thursday of every month.
JH: Well, thank you so much!
EB: Thank you!
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