Linda Montano, Student of Real Presence

Curator's Note

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.

Videos and texts by Linda Montano are available at her blog, on Facebook and YouTube, and at Video Data Bank.


Karen, thanks for this wonderful post, which has the added virtue of referring back to so many things that we have talked about this week: India (Mother Teresa's Calcutta), religion and the body (as in Vince's post), flickering filmic addresses (as in Jenna's), and, perhaps most hauntingly, church bells (enter Isaac).

I was hoping you could say a little more about the relationship of performance art to film/ video-- which, it would seem to me, threatens to undermine Montano's insistence on divine presence. This piece seems to be, as you suggest, much more about absences and substitutions-- of the doll for a real baby, of Montano for Mother Teresa. The latter's recorded voice, meanwhile, lends a mediatized edge to what she is saying: "For it is by dying that one awakens into eternal life." I suppose similar things could be said about the eucharist as sign-- a sign that also evokes and memorializes a death.

Bart, thanks for raising this really important question.  The idea of presence is much-debated in film and video studies, and from my perspective as an art historian, documentations of performance art only complicate the issue.  Performance art as a medium is predicated on presence in that the artist is the art object; the presence of the artist IS the artwork.  The relation between the artist and the viewer is more complicated:  even private performances, or artworks done for the camera alone, anticipate an audience, if only the self.  For Montano, the paradox of this presence-in-absence is linked to exactly the kind of theological paradox you draw attention to with your references to eternal life and to the Eucharist.


Perhaps to continue the theme of presence/absence, I'm really struck by the written text at the end of this video, in which she advertises her availability to bring this "prayer performance" to a live audience, at the conclusion of which she will offer an individual prayer for each member of the audience.  This is offered in the spirit of Mother Teresa, the intercessor, she says.  Of course, we are dealing here with a religious tradition in which the role of intercessors, intermiedaries, mediators, is of such heightened importance.  Perhaps Montano is not so much embodying or enacting Mother Teresa as serving as an intercessor, mediating between us and her -- yet Mother Teresa herself is presumed to mediate between us and God.  So we have an added level of separation here, another level of mediation.  Does that make her "prayer performance" more prayer or performance?  And is that question simply another way of getting at the Catholic/Protestant divide?  Do these intermediaries/intercessors alienate us from the divine, enacting a "mere" performance of the sacred, or do these mediators paradoxically bring us closer?

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