Anya Liftig loves failure, absurdity, and peanut butter

New York-based performance artist attempts to scale a barricade covered in your favorite sandwich spread

When I call performance artist Anya Liftig at her apartment in Brooklyn, she’s making tea. It’s a pretty ordinary thing, I suppose, but still a bit disconcerting. Our phone conversation begins with some light chitchat about her life in New York, the rising rents, her SAT tutoring gig, but still it’s almost impossible to reconcile the friendly voice on the other end of the line and that cup of tea with my mental image of her upcoming Atlanta performance.

For three hours on the evening of July 7, in an empty lot on Airline Street near the Edgewood overpass in the Old Fourth Ward, Liftig, blindfolded and bound, will attempt to climb an enormous barricade covered in peanut butter. “I don’t know that I’ll be able to make it,” she says matter-of-factly. “Failure is one element that I’m very concerned with in my work, and that’s something I’m playing with in the piece.”

Liftig’s work combines elements of the symbolic, the provocative, the frightening, and the patently absurd into live, often very public, performances. It’s what she does when she’s not drinking tea. She’s danced and made out with a dead fish before putting it in a blender and drinking it; she’s fellated a cactus; she’s cuddled and cooed a life-size skin-tinted chocolate baby before gobbling it down in front of gobsmacked onlookers at a crowded New York park; she’s heaved 10 pounds of pizza dough out of her pants and then licked it into the shape of a human baby; she’s been pelted with 243 eggs (one for each month of ovulation); and she intervened in Marina Abramovi’s 2010 blockbuster MoMA show The Artist is Present, dressing exactly as the world’s most famous performance artist and staring into her eyes for seven hours straight. Liftig’s upcoming Atlanta work, titled I’m a Groucho Marxist, will be one of her largest and most ambitious pieces to date.

“In my work, I try to access a part of me that’s much younger and is really interested in these actions and desires I had as a kid,” she says. “You grow up, and you’re told you’re not supposed to put things in your mouth, but in performance that can actually be a means of working. ... The title I’m a Groucho Marxist was one of the slogans spray-painted on the wall of the Sorbonne during the May 1960 student uprising. It’s a really absurd notion, just as the idea of anybody building a barricade and trying to climb it is absurd and ridiculous.”

Liftig first began performing in a relatively non-absurd way. As a child growing up in Connecticut, she studied ballet and eventually became part of the Martha Graham Teenage Ensemble in New York. She studied English literature at Yale and occasionally acted in traditional college theater, but she put performing aside when she came to Georgia State University as a graduate student in photography.

At the end of her first year, one of her professors, Nancy Floyd, told her that her true calling was clearly performance art. “Over that summer I thought about it, and I realized that the photography I was making was really performative,” Lifting says. Her photographs at the time were self-portraits, often in costume or posing in specific locations such as a series of Atlanta strip malls. She changed her area of study and eventually did her graduate thesis in performance.

“Atlanta’s a great place to make art, particularly to be a young artist and an emerging artist,” she says. “I felt like the possibilities were really limitless in terms of connecting, like if you wanted to connect with the curator at the Contemporary or the head of some organization ... I got to test the waters and try different things that a lot of people coming out of art school in other places just had not had the opportunity to do. I felt like when I left Atlanta I had a really good résumé.” Liftig moved to New York in 2005 to be closer to family.

Atlanta arts organization Flux Projects is bringing Liftig back to Atlanta for I’m a Groucho Marxist. “We admired her risk-taking and her work being so purely performance,” says Flux Projects Executive Director Anne Dennington. “We’re looking for projects like hers that really push the boundaries of what’s been presented here in the public realm.” Liftig will also be part of the upcoming group show of performance art Deliverance with Laura Ginn, Jayson Scott Musson, and Clifford Owens at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center beginning July 13.

Though she often performs in galleries and theater spaces, Liftig says that performing in public is an important aspect of what she does. “I enjoy performing out in the world best,” she says. “You bring that strangeness of the performing persona and you marry it with the regular world. That to me makes sense as a way to be provocative and a way to live your life.”