December 2009: Reflections on the Electric Mirror: New Feminist Video
May 1, 2009–January 10, 2010
Curated by Lauren Ross, Interim Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum.
Lauren Ross is also a curator and director of Arts Programs at Friends of the Highline here in New York, and previously worked as the director of White Columns. She has curated emerging artists as well as feminist themed exhibitions in past years, and in the New Feminist Video collection we see these interests combine to showcase new talent in the genre. Since her involvement with the Brooklyn Museum she has curated “Patricia Cronin: Harriet Hosmer, Lost and Found" which is currently on view until January 24th 2010. Ross has also given public talks on what kinds of services are offered by non-profit exhibition spaces on par with commercial venues. She has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum was built as a vital new venue for showcasing art that recognizes and explores the female point of view, and is certainly the only one of its kind in this country. Since opening in the spring of 2007 it has held period exhibitions for example “Pharaohs, Queens, and Goddesses” investigating the role of female deities in ancient Egyptian history, as well as an exhibition showcasing international feminist art since 1990 – entitled “Global Feminisms”. In addition there was a of solo show highlighting the body of work of female artist Ghada Amer. “Spatially the [Center’s] plan is organized as a series of distinct yet interconnected experiences. Judy Chicago's iconic work, The Dinner Party, is the centerpiece of the overall design and is integrally related to the other spaces within the new Center.”1
Judy Chicago’s piece of course, must be acknowledged as playing an important role in the interpretation of each exhibition, and no doubt is an essential part of the process of curation of works for the space, no matter who the curator may be. Chicago’s thirty-nine dinner settings, each representing a famous woman in history, are therefore undeniably the ultimate locus of all new works shown in the peripheral gallery space. Each new artist and her work must be situated in relation to her historical predecessors, i.e. the new works are new invitees to ‘the dinner party’ as it were.
Entering Reflections in the Electric Mirror the viewer is presented with a pathway through seven different viewing stations, five of which are set up as triangular rooms one steps into and sits down in. The other is in open space because of its sculptural component, and the final station is a separate blackened room with a larger projection on the wall simulates a movie theater experience.
Midway between the third and fourth stations we encounter a first written statement by curator Lauren Ross. The works are meant to function as a diverse collection of mirror reflections of the women artists captured in them, for though they might engage in role-play they are all participating in varying degrees of self-examination. The exhibition’s title, Reflections on the Electric Mirror, “is taken from an essay written in the 1970s by the feminist artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman that examines the links between television and video art.”
After passing through two more stations one comes upon a second statement pertaining to the new feminist videos surrounding, entitled “Feminist Video Art of the 1970s”, asking the viewer to understand the contemporary video in direct relationship and comparison to that of the previous generation:
“Video-recording equipment was commonly used for television production during the 1960s, but its availability to the public was extremely limited. Later in the decade, the “PortaPak” was introduced—a relatively lightweight and portable video camera with a playback device—and the age of do-it-yourself video was born. Artists quickly adopted video as a means for personal expression and political activism. Female artists took up the new technology at the same rate as their male counterparts, arguably making video the first artistic medium to be pioneered equally by both genders.
Feminists embraced video as a tool to explicitly explore issues relating to their own bodies, experiences, and identities. By performing (often alone in front of a stationary camera, these artists isolated and emphasized their own images in order to express their desires, frustrations, and political views. Many felt a sense of urgency about retaining authority over their own representation in an art world that often viewed women as models and muses rather than creators. “
The statement functions as a deliberate historical reference point, just as does the Dinner Party. In this instance we are left to consider if and how video art has changed since the 1970s. Stills are taken from the video works of Susan Mogul, Martha Rosler, Nancy Angelo, Valie Export, and Dara Birnbaum and are placed on the wall to accompany this historical reminder forcing us to pause. Interestingly enough, the women named in this artist set from the 70s, as well as those emerging artists included in the current exhibition only hold but two non-Americans, presenting a question of representation and recognition in the choices made by the curator.
The exhibition and its historical references are comprised largely of artists from the United States. Is it a clue to the level of acknowledgement available to women like these in other parts of the world? Or is it merely a major oversight on the part of the curator and left to the viewer’s interpretation? The exhibit could be faulted for being ethnocentric at best, representing almost exclusively white American females in their 30s. However, one could perhaps defend the curatorial choices made by acknowledging the “Global Feminisms” exhibit at the Sackler Center in 2007 that showcased more than eighty international female artists working in varying types of media.
As for the works included videos range from Klara Liden’s “celebratory and self punishing” pieces in which the artist performs a rambunctious striptease on a subway in Sweden (Paralyzed). Her repeated slapping herself in a black and white kitchen setting as she confesses how poor she is at doing the dishes, keeping in contact with her grandmother, and paying her rent on time (Ohrya, translated as the Swedish word for vermin). Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn’s Whacker in which we view the expanse of a southern California suburb, and a woman who seems determined to ‘whack’ all the weeds that have overwhelmed the solitary hillside empty lot betwixt the residential homes.
Kate Gilmore videotapes herself placing what appear to be heavy wooden white blocks on pedestals fastened to the wall in a red cardigan and printed skirt, the proof of which are the white blocks installed next to the video screen in the gallery space itself. California artist Cathy Begien recounts a night out drinking with friends and strangers in her short video Black Out-- and as the tale of debauchery unfolds she is blindfolded, put a party hat on, and passed bottles of Corona and PBR from friends standing outside the frame, each one of these illustrative props proving more and more entertaining as she fumbles through her story.
Begien mentions something about a sex club towards the end and soon enough she is emotionally wrought and simultaneously crying and laughing. An anonymous friend comes into the frame and cries on her shoulder, and then the credits appear with little vignettes of each friend that helped nostalgic of 70s TV sitcom spotlights. The last two pieces in the collection are Shannon Plumb’s Commercials and the parody news broadcast New Report by collaborative duo K8 Hardy and Wynne Greenwood and both function as references to the long standing relationship between TV’s inception in the 1950s and the marketing delivered to that 1950s stay-at-home wife and mother. Plumb comes through as Charlie Chaplin and Tracey Ullman’s love child in handmade costumes and props and old black and white ragtime piano accompanied shorts, the artist plays the comedienne and shows us how ridiculous television just so often is and the slew of things commercials try to convince us we need (from the Don’t Smoke Pill to peanut butter crackers).
Lastly the sense of urgency with which broadcast journalism cannot survive without– is made a laughing stock when beret-clad, cotton candy microphone holding, Hardy and Greenwood bring us ‘serious’ and ‘important’ news from station WKRH, “Pregnant with Information,” on the importance of taking a bath, taking Xanax when we feel anxious, and last but not least, heading to Brooklyn to burn our bras when we feel powerless).
All in all, Lauren Ross has put together a rather funny show, as many of the works succeed in surprising one a little with their clever and refreshing, disarming humor. This is not an intimidating set as feminist group shows can unfortunately sometimes come off, but rather an inviting one. The works touch on true and melancholic subjects (loneliness, self-inflicted pain, the mundane domestic, anxiety) but they re-appropriate female stereotypes in order to discuss these items in ways that make us laugh out loud.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief