Istvan Kantor aka Monty Cantsin
Interviewed by Daniel Baird
When I first met Hungarian born, New York and Toronto based artist Istvan Kantor aka Monty Cantsin over a decade ago, he was embroiled in the elaborately produced videos and theatrical performances of his now legendary Machine Sex Action Group. These works, which at once proposed an aggressive critique of the alienation created by a hyper-consumerist, corporate surveillance culture and the liberating potential of sexuality, involved scores of performers, often ensnared in wires, writhing and convulsing, as well as robotic filing cabinets and jarring sound environments. When Kantor won the Governor General’s Award in 2004, I wrote the catalogue for his show at the National Gallery of Canada, as well as a profile in Canadian Art and an extensive interview in The Brooklyn Rail, a New York based magazine of art, politics, and culture. In the ensuing years Kantor toured Japan, had residencies in Indonesia and Berlin, and mounted major exhibitions in Estonia, Poland, and New York, not to mention his constant stream of performances, installations, interventions, music, and a variety of art objects produced in Toronto. Kantor himself looks like a work of art. He wears revolutionary style outfits, a red armband, military hats, and dark glasses. As a young student and insurgent, Kantor defected from Budapest to Paris in 1976 where he got political refugee status.
About a year later, he immigrated to Montreal. There, in a completely new environment, he initiated the Neoist Conspiracy in 1979. He is best known as Monty Cantsin, the open-pop-star icon of Neoism. Last year, Kantor/Cantsin found himself teaching and making art in China and Inner Mongolia. I caught up with him recently in his studio in Toronto, where he is preparing for another trip to China.
Your trip to China and Inner Mongolia seemed especially productive for you, in part because your Hungarian ancestors probably originated from that part of the world. How did that trip come about?
I had met the Chinese-German performance artist Cai Qing on a previous trip to Asia, and he interviewed me for a book he published on performance art. Performance art is relatively new to China, but it is becoming increasingly popular and important there, so the book did extremely well in universities. Cai Qing arranged for me to come to China and participate in performance art events in both China and Inner Mongolia, to teach at the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts in Wuhan, and to meet many of the local artists, including Ai Weiwei in Beijing. I met with Ai Weiwei for an afternoon, and it turned out we had mutual friends, since we both lived in New York in the 1980s. I wanted to undertake a project I called Blood China in which I mixed my blood in the Yangtse and Yellow Rivers, the cradle of Chinese civilization. But one of the students in the academy misunderstood what I was doing and reported me to the authorities, so I had to meet with the authorities and promise not to carry out the action in the Yangtse River. I ended up just flushing my blood down the toilet in the hope that it would make it to the rivers, and I carried out the performance itself in secret. Also, in collaboration with Cai Qing, I started a new project called Roots, in which I left my blood in vials at the 99 Museum in Beijing for them to disperse drop by drop across China; my blood is now literally becoming part of the land. The big idea here is that the dispersion of the whole body—DNA, identity, everything—is a way of reclaiming history. The Chinese experience was really inspiring to me, and now that I am going back, I hope to be able to pursue other projects and collaborate with local artists.
The symbolic blood X you did at the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art got an enormous amount of attention in the press—you were in The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and numerous other publications—and in a way it reminded people of your long history in the New York art world, dating back to the Lower East Side scene of the 1980s.
On August 20, 2014, early in the afternoon, I did an intervention at the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum. I’ve done interventions of this kind in which I put a blood X on the museum wall. I’ve done it many times over the years, since 1979. The Jeff Koons show was a big retrospective at an institution that has helped turn artists’ works into amazing amounts of money. I thought this was a good statement, and a way of raising questions, because it exposes the way that the corporate art mafia alienates art from people. Today museums are prisons. The supreme measure of art is money. Personally, I have nothing against Jeff Koons; he has a sense of humour and I like his early work, but what I object to is the corporate takeover of the art world. I put the X behind one of his most famous works, his silver bunny sculpture, and I had photographers and video people document the action—fortunately they were not arrested. Since I did not cause any damage to the art, the museum just had the police take me to a mental asylum. I went in an ambulance with a police escort passing through red lights! The nurse who came with me kept asking things like, “Do you want to kill Jeff Koons?” and “Do you want to blow up the Whitney?” I said I only want to brainwash Jeff Koons and turn him into Monty Cantsin. And, no, I don’t want to blow up the Whitney, I would like to burn it down; I prefer fire. At the hospital, I explained who I was and what I was doing, but, at first, the doctors did not believe me. I told them that I went to medical university and that I was a paramedic nurse; I know how to take blood from my arm. The more I told them about my life, my activities, and myself, the more they believed that I was a lunatic. But, then they looked me up on the Internet and called my ex-wife and one of my grown up children. The doctors ended up giving me a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder and told me I could stay if I wanted to. I laughed the entire walk back to the Lower East Side; what artist doesn’t have a narcissistic personality?
I spent a lot of time this summer wandering around Toronto, and I kept finding mattresses with “Monty Cantsin” scrawled on them. Could you tell me about this project?
If you would have wandered in New York, you could have seen the same landscape. I call it “The Mattress Crime Project.” It actually started when I defaced a mattress in a gallery in New York. I was at an opening and, as I was leaving, I saw a mattress at the door with the names of artists scribbled all over it. I assumed it was some kind of guest book object, so I took out the black felt marker I always carry with me and signed it “Monty Cantsin.” I was surprised when the police arrived, and I ended up spending the night in jail. This time I was arrested for vandalism, graffiti, and for carrying a black marker. I never knew that black markers are considered such dangerous items, almost like weapons. It was completely ridiculous because, since bedbugs started to be common, you can find old mattresses on the street all the time. In fact, it turned out that the artist himself had found the mattress the day before! In a way, I’m glad he turned my interest to the mattress, even though I might have to go to prison if the judge at the Criminal Court of New York City finds me guilty of vandalism. This project is definitely related to graffiti, but I also think of it as a way of turning a common, household furniture object—a mattress—into a hyper-Duchampian work of art signed by Monty Cantsin. It’s actually the Monty Cantsin signature that does the job and turns the mattress into an iconic object of Neoism. The beauty is that anyone can do it. Anyone can be Monty Cantsin.
Photographer: MARTIN RONDEAU
Stylist: KATHIA CAMBRON