Defying the Canon: Performing Histories (1)

By Natalie Musteata


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“History repeats itself,” or so goes the age-old adage—a lesson in the possibility of reasserting the past, albeit with a difference, in the present. In the last few decades, artists working primarily in media and performance have probed the idea of historical reconstitution. Restaging, rethinking, remaking. Through these actions they have subjected history to revision and renewed interpretation. The prevalence of this approach has been the focus of several exhibitions, including “A Little Bit of History Repeated” (Kunst-Werke, Berlin; 2001), “Life: Once More” (Witte de With, Rotterdam; 2005), “Again for Tomorrow” (Royal College of Art, London; 2006), “Ahistoric Occasion: Artists Making History” (Mass MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts; 2006), and “History Will Repeat Itself: Strategies of Re-enactment in Contemporary Art” (Kunst-Werke, Berlin; 2007).

"Performing Histories (1)", the first in a two-part exhibition of newly acquired media artworks at the Museum of Modern Art, is a compelling addendum to this string of exhibitions. Organized by Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art Sabine Breitweiser and Curatorial Assistant Martin Hartung, the show features seven cross-generational artists who have “deconstructed, reassembled, and re-performed history.” The title wall itself, which features “Performing” in capitalized bold white letters, and “Histories” as an irregular Tetris-like construction, announces history’s slippery course and its skewed perspectives—history is, after all, subject to constant renegotiation and rewriting; it is also not “one” but inherently multiple. Although the exact relationship between the works included may seem tenuous at first, on closer examination the exhibition’s thesis highlights the tenets of anti-canonical histories: feminism’s “personal is political” dictum, former Eastern Europe’s communist past, and colonialism’s racial politics.

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Sharon Hayes’s (b. 1970) conceptually provocative media installations (recently the subject of solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Reina Sofia in Madrid) position her as one of the leading voices in contemporary art. Here she is introduced with one of her earliest works, The Interpreter Project (2001), a four-channel video installation, which explores the construction of “feminized” historical narratives. Displayed on four back-to-back cubic monitors, each video shows an unedited head-on shot of Hayes. Sporting headphones, she repeats the words of tour guides of historic sites, such as the former houses of Clara Barton, Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Maggie Walker—the only U.S. National Historic Sites consecrated to women. As Hayes stoically re-delivers the guides’ narratives, a projector, propped up on stacks of history books written about these women, displays a series of exterior shots of their homes. Several times removed, Hayes here acts as a “re-interpreter” of women’s histories, which she reveals to be mediated, incomplete, and subjectively assembled from books and anecdotic accounts.

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In She Sees in Herself a New Woman Every Day (1976), Martha Rosler (b. 1943), America’s preeminent political artist, reflects on gender identity by reexamining her own complex history as a young Jewish adolescent in relation to her mother. The photo-text installation includes twelve color pictures of her feet wearing different shoes arranged in a grid directly on the floor, and a 17-minute tape recording of Rosler engaged in an imaginary conversation with her mother around the theme of shoes. Although she begins by recounting her childhood admiration of her mother’s “wonderful shoes,” the one-sided conversation quickly turns to darker, uneasy memories of her mother dressing her in red rain boots several sizes too large, or getting hit over the head with a shoe by her mother for smoking a cigarette. The complex generational differences about how women ought to look, act and think is captured in the work’s narrative structure. Different histories of what it means to be female separate two generations of women of Jewish descent.

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Interest in the once-underground artists of the former Eastern European Bloc has grown exponentially in the last few years. One such example is the Romanian conceptual artist Ion Grigorescu (b. 1945), a subversive figure, who dismissed the socialist-realist state-sanctioned aesthetic, producing politically inflected performances and pioneering films instead. “Performing Histories (1)” presents two works by Grigorescu. Boxing (1977) is a double-exposure film in which the naked artist frantically spares with himself in his small unkempt apartment. Grigorescu notes that in this work “the image of one fighter progressively fades although he is the stronger one and will eventually win.” This doubling and splitting appears also in Dialogue With Ceausescu (1978), where Grigorescu plays again two opposing roles—one of himself, and another in which he wears a mask with the face of Nicolae Ceausescu. Like Rosler, Grigorescu carries on an imagined dialogue, an “impossible conversation,” in which he interviews the now defunct dictator about the economy, progress, and the revolution. In order to compensate for the lack of sound, Grigorescu superimposed the words of each speaker over their bodies, thus rendering them physically and psychologically imprisoned by their own words. Due to the strict ideological control in 1970s Romania, Grigorescu made most of his films in secrecy, alone in the confines of his tiny Bucharest flat.

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One of the foremost Lithuanian film and video artists, Deimantas Narkevicius (b. 1964) engages with historical material to probe the extent to which our understanding of the past is partial, constructed and mediated. In Once in the XX Century (2004) Narkevicius addresses his country’s collective amnesia by performing a simple gesture: reversing footage from the Lithuanian National television archive of the dismantling of a larger-than-life-size bronze statue of Lenin in Vilnius following the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Consequently, in less than eight minutes, we witness cheering crowds of flag-waving Lithuanians celebrating the arrival and erection of the founding father of the Soviet Union. Lenin’s customary salute—one arm outstretched to the people—is turned into a superman-like gesture as he soars heroically through the sky and back onto his pedestal, where the expectant gatherers awaiting his displacement are turned back into his silent compliant followers.

If Narkevicius’s video could be read as a cautionary tale on the cyclicality of history, Austrian artist Dorit Margreiter’s (b. 1967) ostalgic multimedia installation zentrum (2004-2011) purposefully brings back to life an obsolete modernist neon sign from the socialist housing project Brühlzentrum in Leipzig of the former German Democratic Republic. A 16mm black-and-white film shows her crew applying reflective foil to the broken neon tubes, causing them to momentarily flicker anew, while three neighboring posters featuring Margreiter’s “zentrum,” a typeface inspired by the New Typography movement of the 1920s, recall modernism’s utopian goals and ideals.

The last two artists, namely the French artist of Algerian descent Kader Attia (b. 1970) and American institutional critique artist Andrea Fraser (b. 1965), reflect on the relationship between the colonized other, Western aesthetics, and museological structures. In Attia’s two-screen slideshow projection, Open Your Eyes (2010), photographs of World War II soldiers’ cosmetically reconstructed, disfigured faces are juxtaposed with images of restored African masks, sculptures, and objects from the collections of Western institutions, such as the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. Phrases addressing modernism, its values, orthodoxies and myths, such as the “myth of perfection,” are interspersed throughout the slideshow to further illuminate the East/West split. Attia turns into historian, archaeologist and ethnologist to reflect on the concept of “repair:” whereas African societies create something new out of the broken, Western ones try to “put things back into order,” to achieve perfection.

Meanwhile, Fraser’s two-channel video installation, Soldadera (Scenes from Un banquete en Tetlapayac, a film by Olivier Debroise) (1998/2001), addresses the complicated ties between Latin American artists and their Western benefactors. The work revolves around a 1930 letter from dealer Frances Flynn Paine to Mrs. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, in which Paine argues that American support for the Mexican avant-garde, in addition to artistic recognition and fame, would quell, even suppress their “Red” communist ideas. A facsimile of the letter recalls the time of the Mexican revolution and the problem of North American influence on Mexico in the 1930s. On two angled screens, the artist performs a double role. On one side, she is a revolutionary—a woman riding a horse waving a scarlet revolutionary banner—and on the other she plays Ms. Paine, pictured in the midst of an audience, applauding something outside the frame. Due to the split-screen format, it appears as if Ms. Paine is celebrating the revolutionary ethos—pictured on the adjacent screen—of which she disapproved in her letter. Fraser’s installation, following filmmaker and novelist Olivier Debroise, revisits, as well as retrieves, Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished “film symphony,” Que Viva México!, whose final section, Soldadera, was meant to incite revolutionary feeling.

Spatially displaced from the rest of the show, Fraser’s second work in the exhibition, The Public Life of Art: The Museum (1988-89), stationed just outside the entrance to the Media and Performance Galleries on a monitor, is an appropriate endnote to “Performing Histories (1)”. Shot in the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the work—made collaboratively with artist Louise Lawler—was Fraser’s first museum tour performance realized for the camera. Here, Fraser begins to formulate the social history of the art museum later developed in her renowned Museum Highlights (1989), and the ways in which corporate art sponsorship and economic social policy, specifically Reaganomics, have shaped and affected institutional history.

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A number of currents run through the exhibition: the relationship between Western power and colonized societies, the reconstitution of political narratives, the role of alternative personal and public histories, and the legacy of modernism (a subject Ms. Breitweiser previously investigated in a larger group exhibition, “Modernologies”, at MACBA in 2009). In addition to the subtle themes explored, “Performing Histories (1)” could also be described as an exhibition of modern apparatuses, so diverse is its media presentation. The show’s smart design—a series of distinct installations assembled in a simple winding plan—allows viewers to engage and re-engage with the material through intersecting paths, thus negating any sense of a singular prescribed itinerary.

"Performing Histories (1)" continues through March 11, 2013. “Performing Histories (2)” will present works by Wael Shawky (b. 1971, Egypt) and Chen Shaoxiong (b. 1962, China) from April to October 2013. The two-part exhibition is accompanied by a program of live performances in the Museum galleries.

Natalie Musteata is a Performa Magazine writer in residence.


All photos courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art. 



*Photo credits:

Top row:
Kader Attia. Open Your Eyes. 2010. Photo credit: Musée du Service de Santé des Armées – Paris, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art – Washington DC, Royal Museum for Central Africa – Tervuren.

Second row, left to right:
Andrea Fraser (Performer, script); Louise Lawler (Production design); Terry McCoy (Producer). The Public Life of Art: The Museum. 1988-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2012 Terry McCoy/McCoy Projects, Inc.

Andrea Fraser. Soldadera (Scenes from Un banquete en Tetlapayac, a film by Olivier Debroise). 1998/2001. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Installation view, Modernologies, MACBA, 2009. © Photographer: Tony Coll. Courtesy of Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA).

Third row:
Martha Rosler. She Sees in Herself A New Woman Every Day (detail). 1976. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2012 Martha Rosler.

Fourth row:
Ion Grigorescu. Boxing. 1977. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2012 Ion Grigorescu.

Fifth row:
Sharon Hayes. The Interpreter Project. 2001. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Sharon Hayes.

Sixth row, from left to right:
Dorit Margreiter. zentrum. 2004-2011. Installation View. Gallery for Contemporary Art, Leipzig, 2006. Photo: Andreas Enrico Grunert. © 2012 Dorit Margreiter.

Dorit Margreiter. zentrum. 2004-2011. © 2012 Dorit Margreiter.

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