Lesson: Skin Fruit: Ideas of Empathy in Janine Antoni's Work

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grades)
  • Subject Area: Visual Arts, Contemporary Art, Social Studies, Current Events, Creative Writing, English Language, ESL
  • Janine Antoni, "Saddle," 2000. Janine Antoni, "Saddle," 2000.


Written by Chio Flores and Shauna Skalitzky

There is an old adage that goes “you’ll never understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in his or her shoes.” For the artist Janine Antoni, this saying is at the core of her artistic process. Working primarily in sculpture, but also using performance art, photography, video, and installation, Antoni attempts to elicit a very visceral response from her viewers.[1] By developing her process around basic, everyday routines—eating, sleeping, and bathing—Antoni hopes the viewer will be able to relate to the artwork and empathize with the artist.[2] In this lesson students will be introduced to Antoni’s artwork and the idea of empathy. Through visual analysis and inquiry-based dialogues, students will discuss how the artist uses sculpture and performative actions to emotionally connect with viewers. The lesson culminates in a reflection on how one relates to others through empathy, using a process similar to Antoni’s, to create a project based on a current event.

Time: Two sixty-minute sessions


Students will:

  • Explore and analyze the work of artist Janine Antoni in the context of contemporary art
  • Understand the importance of process when making an artwork
  • Explore how the body can be used as a tool and/or material to make art
  • Develop insight about how the choice of material can inform meaning when making an artwork
  • Reflect on the idea of empathy
  • Culminate their discussion in the creation of a work of a performance piece; you can adapt this lesson to create a different work of art


Cast is to form (molten metal, or liquid plaster or plastic, for example) into a three-dimensional shape by pouring into a mold or matrix
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the emotions, thoughts, and feelings of another’s experience; it is also the projection of emotions onto an object so that the object appears to elicit those emotions
Installation is a work of art, often created in mixed mediums, that is exhibited in a large space with placement of objects specified by the artist
Mold is a hollow form used in the casting process (see definition above)
Performance art consists of an artist’s actions in a specific space—a museum or gallery setting, or any public or private space; often the public’s participation is encouraged or required by the artist, frequently used to convey social and political issues and documented through photography and/or video because of its ephemeral nature
Sculpture is a three-dimensional artwork that can transform spaces, created by shaping, combining, finding, carving, assembling, building, firing, or welding hard and/or malleable materials, commonly stone (either rock or marble), metal, glass, and wood


Images from the digital archive of the following artworks:

  • Saddle (2000)
  • Loving Care (1993)
  • Gnaw (1992)

For session one:

  • Journals/ sketchbooks
  • Pencils
  • Erasers
  • Large paper

 For session two:

  • Objects to use for a performance such as a ball, a newspaper, a pot, a chair, a mirror, a bucket, fabric, a lamp, a bell, etc.

Suggested Procedures

1.    Start your lesson by asking students what the word empathy means or what words they associate with empathy. Write their ideas on the board. Do not give students any feedback or guidance; let them know you will just collect their ideas at this point and that you will come back to these later.

2.    Have students break off into groups of three to four students to look at and discuss two of Antoni’s artworks: Saddle and Loving Care. Hand out copies of both artworks and a list of the following questions to assist in discussion:

Saddle, 2000, full rawhide

  • Take a moment to look at the image and describe what you see. What are the different materials, textures, shapes, or forms you might recognize?
  • Describe the figure’s position? How would you feel if you were in this position?
  • What do you associate this pose with?
  • By looking at the image, can you infer the process the artist used to create this work of art? Antoni created this sculpture by first casting a mold of herself in a crawling position. Then she draped a cow’s hide over the mold, allowing it to dry before removing the mold from beneath the rawhide.
  • After knowing more about Antoni’s process, why do you think the artist decided to use her own body for this work, as
  • What mood does this artwork convey?
  • The title of the piece is Saddle. What is a saddle? What connections can you make between the title and the sculpture?
  • Antoni said that the exhibition space the work was created for was attached to a dairy farm, and an important aspect of the work is that it is hollow inside. This is important because Antoni wanted the viewer to feel the absence of both the cow and the artist. How does her explanation of the work affect how you perceive the artwork?

 Loving Care, 1993. Performance with Natural Black Loving Care Hair Dye

  • Take a moment to look at this image and describe what you see.
  • Antoni is an artist who bases her works on banal routines like brushing teeth, eating lunch, etc. What aspect of the everyday might Antoni be drawing from?
  • Imagine yourself in this person’s position. What would the experience of painting the floor with your hair be like? How would your body feel after doing this?
  • Why might this person be “painting” the floor with his or her own hair and body?
  • Janine Antoni chooses the materials, processes, and techniques for her artworks based on what she wants to communicate through her art. In terms of its execution, what choices did Antoni make for the creation of Loving Care?
  • The use of the body as the material for the artwork is a type of art form known as performance art. Why do you this Antoni chose this process? What ideas might she be trying to communicate?
  • What affects the audience when viewing a performance piece versus looking at a painting, drawing, or sculpture? Is there a difference between our interactions with different forms? Why or why not?

3.    Based on the group discussions, come together as a class to discuss the two artworks as a whole. How are Saddle and Loving Care similar? How are they different? What is the viewer’s involvement in each?

4.    Activity: Augusto Boal’s “Image Theatre for the Theatre of the Oppressed” is a silent exercise in which one is able to translate a concept into a form through the use of the body.

  • Ask for four volunteers to participate in this exercise. These four students will create a living sculpture. Assign one student to be the sculptor, using the other three students to create a sculpture.
  • Have the sculptor pick out of a hat one abstract concept to sculpt (i.e. freedom, transformation, oppression, creation, conflict, challenge, etc.) explaining that once they pick their issue they should immediately begin sculpting their classmates into a pose that they think best exemplifies the issue.
  • The rest of the class should observe the sculpting process.
  • When the sculptor feels finished (approximately five minutes) the sculpture should freeze in place. Have the sculptor inform the rest of the class what issue they were sculpting and then allow three to four other students to come up and adjust the sculpture to improve a correct reading of the issue.
  • As a class discuss how this is similar to Antoni’s process and artwork. How is it different? How does each affect the viewer’s experience? Which one might be more effective in raising awareness of social issues? Why?

5.    As a class briefly analyze Gnaw, discussing Antoni’s process of sculpting it with her teeth. Explain to students that the work is a three-part installation consisting of 600 pounds of chocolate gnawed by the artist; 600 pounds of lard gnawed by the artist. This is displayed with 130 lipsticks made with pigment, beeswax, and chewed lard removed from the lard cube and twenty-seven heart-shaped packages made from the chewed chocolate removed from the chocolate cube. Ask students to imagine what it would be like to be the artist by having them write a brief artist’s statement on Gnaw, answering such questions as:

  • Why would the artist choose to use her teeth?
  • Why chocolate/lard?
  • What would it feel like to carve with your teeth?
  • What would these materials taste like?
  • What position would your body be in if you did this?
  • What do you think the artist hopes the viewer gets out of this work?

As inspiration, give each student a Hershey’s Kiss and each table a bar of soap or butter (lard) for a more sensory experience.
Have students share a few of their artist’s statements.

6.    Read some excerpts from Janine Antoni’s statement on Gnaw:

  • “I was interested in everyday activities like eating, so when I was conceiving this project I decided chocolate would be the most obvious choice for what I would eat. The lard relates to the chocolate because when you eat a lot of chocolate you get fat.”
  • “Chewing on the lard wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I’m really interested in the viewer empathizing with my process…that somewhere in your body you can imagine what it’s like to chew on 600 pounds of chocolate or chew on lard, and I’m very aware of the kind of visceral response you have to that. And I’m really trying to play [the chocolate and lard] up against each other and then have you walk in this display and be seduced by these objects. But with the memory of where they came from.”
  • “I call the piece Gnaw because I’m interested in the bite as a kind of primal urge. I love to look at a little baby when they put everything in their mouth in order to know it, and through that process, they destroy it. I was interested in the bite because it was both intimate and destructive.”[3]

How was your experience imagining this act similar or different to what Antoni felt?

7.    Read Antoni’s quote on empathy: “Archimedes’ body was the tool for his experiment just as my body is the tool for making, but most importantly is that he came to this knowledge through the experience of his body. And that is why I do these kinds of extreme acts with my body. I feel that the viewer has a body too and can empathize with what I’ve put myself through to make the artwork.”[4]

8.    Return to the lists on empathy created at the beginning of class. In groups of three to four students have them discuss again what empathy is. Has your definition created at the beginning of class changed? Why is empathy important? What are the consequences of not having empathy? Based on the artworks looked at, what do you think Janine Antoni’s definition of empathy is? Share with the class the definition of empathy found in the vocabulary section. How are these definitions similar? Different?

Session 2: Creating a performance piece

1.    Let students know they will create a performance piece about a social issue that affects their community or a global issue that they feel strongly about. Their performance should instill empathy in the viewer.

2.    Have students make a list of three issues they feel affected by or really care about. Have them select the issue they feel most strongly about.

3.    You can provide students with objects to use in their performance, but they can also just use their bodies.

4.    Students can be given choices to create their piece. As a written text describing the actions to be made, as a storyboard with drawings and text, as a diagram, or as an action. Because performance art is ephemeral, artists who use this art form usually document it with photos, or video. Using a digital camera, have students present their performance in three shots.

5.    Have students share their performances and let students who are not performing know that their role as viewers is extremely important and could even be participatory, therefore essential to the piece. Go back to reflect on Antoni, who many times creates a performative piece involving a private action or daily life ritual. She then removes herself from the performance and creates a space for the viewers to experience her work in their own bodies, through empathy.

6.    Ask students to share their experience of using their own bodies to make an artwork and in their experience as viewers or witnesses. Go back to the definitions of the word empathy students gave you at the beginning of the lesson and ask them to make connections. Ask students: Why is empathy important? How can art make us reflect on ourselves and the world? How can we connect to ourselves and others through art and art making?

Extending the Lesson with T-E-A-R:
How does empathy work in Antoni’s work? Look at T-E-A-R (2008).
Suggested questions for discussion:

  • Take a moment to look at this artwork. What do you notice?
  • Antoni tells us: “I think of the work as the viewer’s coming in on the scene of a crime and I’ve left all these clues for them to uncover.” What are the clues she is giving us here? What story are you uncovering?
  • When viewers experience this work, they do not see how the lead ball was ”scarred.” Viewers can see the marks made by the ball destroying the building but they can only guess how this happened. However, Antoni has included the sound of the wrecking ball synchronized to her eye’s blinking. How can we draw a parallel between this idea off hiding what shaped this ball from the viewer and our lives?

 Look at a video of the piece here: http://videos.nola.com/times-picayune/2008/11/tear.html

Extending the Lesson into Civics:
Participate in or propose a civic event that raises awareness of a specific issue. For example, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes is a walk that raises awareness of sexual abuse. More information can be found at: http://www.walkamileinhershoes.org

Extending the Lesson into Contemporary Art:
Look at artist Gillian Wearing’s artworks Dancing in Peckham (1994), Homage to the woman with the bandaged face… (1995), and/or Self Portrait as… (2003). Wearing is an artist who draws inspiration from people she sees on the streets, hoping through her somewhat confessional process to learn more about herself by taking on/uncovering aspects of others mental, physical, and emotional being. After examining these artworks, have students explore through writing what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes, imagining what a day would feel like for this person. What is she thinking, feeling, doing, etc. in the form of a short story, photographs with captions, or diary entries.


  • Based on the students’ discussions and artwork did they:
  • Provide visual evidence to describe the work?
  • Understand the vocabulary and relate it to the discussion?
  • Synthesize their discussion in a completed performance piece?

Additional Resources:
For more information on the Theatre of the Oppressed, visit: www.theatreoftheoppressed.org/
Visit MoMA online for Janine Antoni’s complete artist statement on Gnaw: http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=82028


[1] Janine Antoni, “Audio Program Excerpt,” MoMA.org, 2009, http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A... (accessed 7 June 2010).
[2] Antoni, Loss and Desire, PBS Art:21 series, 2009, <http://video.pbs.org/video/1237723563> (accessed 7 June 2010).
[3] Antoni, “Audio Program Excerpt.”
[4] Antoni, Loss and Desire.

Lesson Plan: Skin Fruit: Ideas of Empathy in Janine Antoni's Work