“I wanted to spend the rest of my life making artwork about things you can’t make artwork about.”

Meredith Monk. Photo courtesy Duke Performances.

That was Meredith Monk, high priestess of performance art, speaking on Oct. 25 in the auditorium of Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art. Monk is in Durham for a two-week residency sponsored by Duke Performances, which will culminate with two performances in which she will revisit her important 1973 work, Education of the Girlchild. In the meantime, Duke Performances is contributing to the greater cultural good by providing Monk and her ensemble time and a theater in which to develop new work. Universities have become the great patrons of new performing arts, and generally they get the glory of premiering the new work. But occasionally, they do something even more generous–they give with no expectation of immediate return. This is not the first time Duke Performances has provided such sustenance to important artists; DP deserves thanks from all of us for this kind of magnanimity. Their generosity extends to the community off-campus, too. Last night’s engrossing program, “Archeology of An Artist,” in which Monk talked, sang and showed video clips for 2 hours, was free. Even the parking.

Meredith Monk is almost 70 years old. She has been making her unique art for nearly 50 years, and is still in the avant-garde. She looks like she could live forever; her generous, acute mind is working full-tilt, and her voice is still very fine. But one day she will sing her last song (perhaps it will be “The Last Song,” from her work Impermanence) and you will kick yourself into next week if you have missed your opportunity to hear and see her. Nov. 2 and 3, Reynolds Theater. If nothing else, you will get a chance to better understand how her exploratory works have encouraged recent edge work like Maya Beiser’s CelloOpera, or Shen Wei’s painted dancers in the NCMA last summer. (Note: Monk’s percussionist, John Hollenbeck, will perform in Reynolds with his Large Ensemble on Dec. 8.)

Chris Vitiello has a good piece in this week’s Indyweek on Monk, and Duke Performances has a wonderful two-part interview with her on its blog, The Thread, so I’m just going to list some of last night’s compelling quotes.

“Singing was my early language. I sang before I read, before I spoke.”

“I was learning my body through music.”

“I went to New York in the mid-60s–it was a rich time for cross-media and breaking the boundaries of forms.”

“It was an imperative for me to integrate these forms…that was a way to counterbalance the fragmentation of our culture.”

“I try to start from zero. Each piece is a world I have to discover. It’s a little like being a detective.”

“Making artwork is very much the same practice as living life. When curiosity comes in, fear starts to go away.”

“I always have thought of my performance work as sacred, spiritual work.”

“I feel very privileged to be an artist, working with the un-nameable.”

“I try to connect to the magic in our ordinary world.”

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