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Turning Postpartum Depression into Performance Art

In October 2011, Marni Kotak gave birth to her first child in front of an audience, as part of a live performance at the New York Microscope Gallery. Following the birth of her son, she was diagnosed with postpartum depression and hospitalized.

Marni Kotak during her six-week-long performance, Mad Meds

For most people, significant life events are usually private affairs that take place in the company of a select group of loved ones. For performance artist Marni Kotak, however, reality and spectacle are inextricably intertwined.

In October 2011, Kotak gave birth to her first child in front of an audience, as part of a live performance at the New York Microscope Gallery. Following the birth of her son Ajax, in February 2012 Kotak was diagnosed with postpartum depression, hospitalized, and put on medication.

Kotak has now returned to the gallery for her latest exhibition, Mad Meds—a live performance during which she will be gradually weaning herself off of the drugs she was prescribed while in the hospital.

I spoke with her about turning her life into a show.

VICE: Hi, Marni, could you describe the space that you’ve created in the gallery?
I have created what I call "The Shrine to My Madness." The curtains and bedding are covered in imagery from the Tivoli Bays nature reserve around Bard College in New York, where I went to undergraduate school; the walls are painted gold, and I gold-leafed a real hospital bed.

I believe that exercise is really important for mental health, and it’s often not part of a stay in a psych ward, so I also gold-leafed an elliptical machine and weights. I call that piece "Work It Out at the Hospital."

There’s also a waiting room called "Waiting for Wisdom"—everything in it is printed with the imagery from Tivoli Bays. Finally, I have two sculptures hanging on the wall in the space: One is called "All the Meds I Took," which are the pill bottles of all the medication that I’ve taken since February. So the space references an actual hospital, but it's actually an effort to reconceive the space.

"A Shrine to My Madness"

What is the significance of the colors you chose?
I chose gold because I feel that, first of all, the experience of madness should be seen as akin to a spiritual journey rather than something that needs to be feared and hidden away in white rooms and hospitals. I feel like it’s something that needs to be embraced by society, maybe as a rite of passage, and there should be rituals around it. So everything is gold because it is a shrine—hence the name "The Shrine to My Madness."

The other side is that everything in the space is gold and green, as a way for me to comment on the money behind the pharmaceutical industry but trying to invert it and say: “Instead of these drugs being valuable, how about we take my real experience of going through this process as what is really valuable?”

How are you addressing this stigma that our society has attached to mental illness?
By being so open about my own experience. What’s been really interesting for me is that close to 90 percent of the people who have come into this exhibition have sat on my bed, and I feel like I’m holding some kind of confessional. People are telling me about their own experiences with mental health struggles and medication. I heard that one in four Americans have a diagnosable mental illness, but I think that the numbers are even higher. That is my experience here, anyway.

"Waiting for Wisdom"

I read in a 2013 report that nearly 70 percent of Americans are on at least one prescription drug, so it seems very high.
Yeah, that sounds about right. Abilify, an antipsychotic medication, is the number-one selling drug across all categories in America. Even more than blood-pressure medication. So that to me, the idea that there is that many people on that powerful of a drug, is astounding. I feel like they’re being overprescribed.

What are your thoughts on this strong relationship between the public and prescription drugs?
The author Robert Whittaker wrote this book Anatomy of an Epidemic, and it’s about the relationship between the prescribing of drugs and the growing number of the disabled mentally ill in America. I feel that we’re in a time of overdiagnosis and over-prescription of pills, and I don’t feel that the side effects of these pills are being explained enough to the people who are taking them.

From what I’ve experienced (and from talking to others who have been on medication), doctors seem quicker to prescribe medication to combat the side effects of another medication than think twice about prescribing that first drug. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the pharmaceutical industry is obviously profiting largely off of this. Plus they have financial relationships with the psychiatrists that prescribe the drugs, so it’s all tied together in that way.



"Abilify Wean"

So is it possible to wean yourself off of prescription drugs?
Yes, I’m definitely trying to offer that up as an example and create that dialogue. I've got this piece I call "Abilify Wean," in which I’m using the liquid form of Abilify. It helps me control every intake, so I can wean off of it really, really slowly. I want to get these ideas to the general public so that there’s more models for how to take drugs.

What can visitors to the exhibition expect to see?
I’m here during the gallery hours, and they’re totally welcome to sit down and have a chat with me. I might be resting in the bed but sometimes I’m working out on the elliptical or with the weights. I also have a journal, and I sometimes get massages from a masseuse who comes in. I might try and incorporate some other people from the community to come in as well and do sessions with me like yoga, acupuncture, things like that.

"All the Meds I Took," a medicine cabinet showing all of the meds taken by Marni during her stay at Beth Israel Hospital in February 2012

After the public birth of your son, some critics called you narcissistic. How would you respond to that?
I guess one simple response is that when I do these things, I think about them as larger than myself. I’m thinking of myself as kind of like a vessel for other people to accustom themselves to these processes.

If I wanted to get attention there’s probably much better ways to do it, you know? I’m taking these risks, and I’m doing things that I really believe in; they’re not easy ways to get attention.

In his most recent book, Alain de Botton speaks about art as therapy and how it’s great that artists are stepping away from “art being for art's sake” and remembering that it needs to be relevant and direct. What do you think about that?
I do believe that art needs to be direct and relevant. I bring real life into the gallery space with my work, which I find makes it highly relevant. And the process of coming off of the medication in this manner is very therapeutic for me, because it’s the way that I want to do it for myself.

And do you hope it will be therapeutic for other people as well?
I hope so; that’s what I’m going for.

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