In her video Linda Mary Montano: I Dreamed I Was Mother Teresa (2009), performance artist Linda Montano takes on the persona of Catholic nun and humanitarian Mother Teresa. She presents the gestures, gait, actions, and speech of this absent, beatified woman: wearing the habit of Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, she moves slowly before a handmade cross, her spine painfully curved. Accompanied by an audio track that includes singing, bells, and the voice of Mother Teresa speaking at the Philadelphia Eucharistic Conference in 1976, Montano pats a baby, bows her head in prayer, smiles, and gestures toward the camera. The video’s sepia tones and hazy surfaces locate this scene in the nostalgic past, while the obviously fake baby doll, a substitute for the real infants tended by the nun, parallels the substitution of the artist’s body for Mother Teresa.
Long recognized as a pioneer of American performance art, Montano recently has cast herself as a “Roman Catholic Performance Artist.” In Linda Mary Montano: I Dreamed I Was Mother Teresa and other new works, including St. Teresa of Avila (2007) and A Silent Three-Hour Prayer Retreat inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral (2007), Montano explicitly links her ongoing investment in religion with the medium of performance art itself. As a medium, performance art locates both the art-making subject and the art object in the body of the artist. The performance artist, then, embodies both being and doing. This media-specific insistence on embodiment and connection in time, place, and space echoes religious believers’ concerns with divine presence, as during the Catholic Eucharist, when Christ is considered actually present at the altar. Montano highlights the significance of this concept in her “Roman Catholic Performance Artist Manifesto” (2009) when she frames her commitment to the Catholic Church in terms of its status as “the Church of the Real EUCHARISTIC PRESENCE!!” Montano’s manifesto goes on to define her art practice in terms of her attention to presence: “In a spirit of research and study and dialogue and obedience, I remain a student of Real Presence.”
Montano’s work is rooted in her experience of convent life as a novice with the Maryknoll order in the early 1960s and in her return, in the late 1990s, to the Catholic faith. In her best-known performances, Montano metaphorically and metonymically enacted Catholic monastic and worship practices of endurance, self-imposed discipline, and transformative, habitual action. For example, in Art / Life One Year Performance 1983-1984 (1983-4), she was tied by an eight-foot rope to artist Tehching Hsieh for one year; her piece 7 Years of Living Art (1984-91) established a set of psychologically grueling year-long commitments that stipulated the details of her what she could wear, how she could speak, and how she should act in everyday life. By attempting to make religious experience visible, Montano’s recent performances continue her life-long engagement with Catholic forms and pivot on the complex notion of performance as presence.