Little Legs and Big Imaginations: Tours for Pre-K Visitors

NMWA hosts free and hands-on thematic tours for students in kindergarten through high school. This April, the museum launches a pilot series of tours created specifically for early learners—children ages 3–6. As the Education Department’s intern, I collaborated with the museum’s summer Teacher Institute alumni to create a Pre-K tour for NMWA. Teachers answered surveys, provided feedback on lesson plans, and signed up to bring more than 140 Pre-K students test the museum’s pilot tour.

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Valerie Bundy reads Hanoch Piven’s book to preschoolers; Photo: NMWA

I wanted to create an art-filled tour that would hold the interest of young minds. I considered which museum spaces were best for a young, energetic audience. Are objects positioned low enough for young children to see? Is there space for ten kids to sit comfortably without obstructing other visitors’ paths? Which art materials are allowed in the galleries? How do kids with little legs maneuver quickly through the museum?

Feedback from teachers, personal experience, and collaboration with staff helped answer these questions.

We decided to offer tours that are shorter than 60 minutes, focus on two artworks, and begin before public hours. This project will introduce early learners to art concepts in three categories: colors, shapes, and portraits. Before exploring the collection, students will listen to a story related to the theme of the tour: My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss, Perfect Square by Michael Hall, or My Best Friend is as Sharp as a Pencil by Hanoch Piven.

On the tours, we will visit large artworks with a lot of visual interest—like Antoine Cécile Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot’s Young Woman Seated in the Shade of a Tree. Chakaia Booker’s attention-grabbing Acid Rain might be too accessible for little hands, so we wukk explain “museum manners.” They might be asked to look at Lynda Benglis’s Eridanus and re-create its shape and lines with their bodies, identify the colors in Elaine de Kooning’s Bacchus #3 using color-detective spyglasses, or pose like Lavinia Fontana’s Portrait of a Noblewoman before creating their own self-portraits.

Students explore Chakaia Booker’s Acid Rain

Students explore Chakaia Booker’s Acid Rain; Photo: NMWA

In the museum’s Great Hall, our tiny visitors will have the opportunity for hands-on material exploration. We will encourage them to experiment with the process of creating by using materials like oil pastels, colored pencils, glue, fabric, and paper scraps. Because the Great Hall’s marble floor would be uncomfortable to sit on, we ordered carpet squares for the kids. Prioritizing the process of making over the final product, we hope to expose Pre-K audiences to authentic materials and get them inspired by NMWA’s collection. The museum’s Great Hall often provides a stunning backdrop for various elegant events, but it’s exciting to think of the space filled with rainbow-colored carpet squares, art supplies, and preschoolers with big imaginations.

—Valerie Bundy is the winter/spring 2016 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She is a former Pre-K teacher who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in museum education at the George Washington University.

Merian’s Daughters: Monika E. de Vries Gohlke, Amy Lamb, and Janaina Tschäpe

Join NMWA on September 3, when contemporary artists engage in conversation about their “artistic foremother” Maria Sibylla Merian. During Merian’s Daughters, Super Natural artists Amy Lamb, Janaina Tschäpe, and Monika E. de Vries Gohlke will discuss their disparate ways of dealing with nature in their work. The three artists credit groundbreaking 17th-century artist and scientist Merian, whose work is also on view in Super Natural, as a major influence on their performances, photography, videos, and prints.

Amy Lamb, Purple Datura, 2015; Digital pigment print of photograph, 34 x 34 in.; Promised gift of the artist and Steven Scott Gallery, Baltimore; © 2015 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

Amy Lamb, Purple Datura, 2015; Digital pigment print of photograph, 34 x 34 in.; Promised gift of the artist and Steven Scott Gallery, Baltimore; © 2015 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

Maria Sibylla Merian revolutionized botany and zoology through her studies of flora and fauna. At age 52, Merian and her younger daughter embarked on a dangerous trip to the Dutch colony of Suriname, in South America, without a male companion. She spent two years studying and drawing the indigenous animals and plants. Her lavishly illustrated Insects of Surinam established her international reputation.

Through studying insects, Merian paved the way for centuries of artist-scientists, including Amy Lamb, who cites Merian as a major influence on her career. A cellular biologist-turned-artist, Lamb admires women like Merian for their ability to cross over to the art world.

Lamb’s photographs emphasize the formal properties of her subjects—the color of a leaf, the ruffled edges of a petal, or the reflective qualities of a dew drop. Her photographs recall the painstaking detail found in Merian’s scientific drawings. While Merian emphasized biological detail to foster better scientific understanding, Lamb’s large-scale images elevate the minutiae of her flowers to monumental status.

Janaina Tschäpe, Moais from “100 Little Deaths,” 2002; Chromogenic color print, 31 x 47 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Janaina Tschäpe, Moais from “100 Little Deaths,” 2002; Chromogenic color print, 31 x 47 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Talented and independent, Merian set an example for women like Janaina Tschäpe. Merian ventured beyond 17th-century societal norms by traveling and studying in a foreign country with only her daughter as a companion. Tschäpe also traveled to remote locales for the benefit of her art. She created her “100 Little Deaths” series by photographing her body in natural environments around the world—from Capri to Angkor Wat.

Left: Monika E. de Vries Gohlke, “Caiman” After Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters, 2012; Etching and aquatint, hand colored, on paper, 11 1/4 x 15 1/4 in.; NMWA, Gift of the artist; Right: Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 69 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 2nd Ed., 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 14 1/4 x 20 1/2 in.; NNMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Left: Monika E. de Vries Gohlke, “Caiman” After Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters, 2012; Etching and aquatint, hand colored, on paper, 11 1/4 x 15 1/4 in.; NMWA, Gift of the artist; Right: Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 69 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 2nd Ed., 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 14 1/4 x 20 1/2 in.; NNMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Merian’s influence is evident in Monika E. de Vries Gohlke’s oeuvre. One of Gohlke’s prints, “Caiman” After Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters, is similar to Merian’s composition showing a caiman struggling with a snake, which is on view next to Gohlke’s drawing. The French phrase “L’homage”—visible on the ground below the fighting figures—underscores the relevance of Merian’s preceding work. Spiders and butterflies along the top of the drawing allude to Merian’s renowned artistic and scientific work on insects. Merian’s illustrations cover an adjacent wall within the same gallery as Gohlke’s Caiman.

Hear from the artists in person at NMWA about their work and Merian’s persistent influence—register today through the online calendar.

—Christy Slobogin was the summer publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Elisabetta Gut

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Elisabetta Gut, whose work is currently on view in NMWA’s galleries.

Elisabetta Gut (b.1934)

1. Who Knew?

Gut began her artistic career as a painter, but in the 1960s, she started to search for a new form of expression. Inspired by avant-garde artists’ use of experimental materials, she created her first book-object in 1964.

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Elisabetta Gut’s works (left to right): Book in a Cage, 1981; Gift of the artist; Libro-Seme (Seed-Book), 1983; Gift of the artist; Photographs by Lee Stalsworth

2. Lost & Found

Whether trapping a French-Italian dictionary in a cage or “growing” music from a seed, Gut often incorporates found objects in her work. Each object’s unique history is incorporated into a new context.

3. What’s in a Name?

Though Gut’s artist books encourage close looking rather than traditional reading, words still play a role. Her titles provide insight into the inspiration, materials, or thoughts behind a work.

Elisabetta Gut, The Firebird (From Stravinksy), 1985; Gift of H.G. Spencer in honor of Lorraine Grace - See more at: http://nmwa.org/works/firebird-stravinsky#sthash.GnLWHaCp.dpuf

Elisabetta Gut, The Firebird (From Stravinksy), 1985; Gift of H.G. Spencer in honor of Lorraine Grace

4. Art Begets Art

Gut’s work frequently draws inspiration from her favorite works of art, music, or poetry. The Firebird, for example, visually interprets music from Igor Stravinsky’s famous ballet.

5. Book as Art

Artists’ books blur the lines between visual art and literary art. Works by Elisabetta Gut are currently on view in both the exhibition Super Natural and the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center. See if you can find both works during your next visit!

—Ashley Harris is assistant educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Rachel Ruysch

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750), whose work will be on view at NMWA in Super Natural, June 5–September 13, 2015.

Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750)

1. Affinities
Ruysch’s maternal great-grandfather, grandfather, great-uncle, and several uncles pursued creative professions. Ruysch, like American portraitist Sarah Miriam Peale (1800–1885), came from a long line of artists. Coincidentally, Ruysch and Peale both had sisters named Anna, who were also painters.

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge, ca. 1745; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge, ca. 1745; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

2. Weird Science
Rachel’s father, Dr. Frederik Ruysch, specialized in women’s reproductive health. Additionally, he revolutionized preservation and embalming techniques, collected and displayed an array of botanical and anatomical specimens, and operated an early museum of curiosities. Rachel helped compose his dioramas, decorating the eclectic, macabre tableaux with shells, flowers, and lace.

3. Rosy Outlook
The Ruysch family crest sports a blue rose with five petals. Most of the artist’s still lifes include prominently displayed roses, likely a nod to her family name and history.

4. Retiring Nature?
Ruysch and her father committed their lives to studying and depicting aspects of the natural world. Passionate about their work, neither elected to retire. Ruysch’s pieces date from 1679, when her painting career blossomed at age 15, to a few years before her death at the ripe age of 86.

5. Giga-What?
NMWA collaborated with the Google Cultural Institute to usher Ruysch into the 21st century. Thanks to gigapixel technology, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge can be seen in minute detail online.

Catch a glimpse of this piece in person in Super Natural!

—Adrienne Gayoso is associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Sofonisba Anguissola

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Italian artist Sofonisba Anguissola (ca. 1532–1625), whose work is currently on view at NMWA in Picturing Mary.

1. All in the Family
Anguissola’s father, Amilcare, encouraged all of his children’s artistic pursuits. Sofonisba began her artistic training alongside her sister Elena, but it was her younger sisters Lucia and Europa who truly followed in their sister Sofonisba’s footsteps by pursuing careers as painters.

Sofonisba Anguissola (Cremona, ca. 1532–Palermo, 1625), Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1556; Oil on canvas, 26 × 22 3/8 in.; Muzeum-Zamek, Łańcut; inv. 916MT

Sofonisba Anguissola (Cremona, ca. 1532–Palermo, 1625), Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1556; Oil on canvas, 26 × 22 3/8 in.; Muzeum-Zamek, Łańcut; inv. 916MT

2. Mystifying Michelangelo
While Michelangelo didn’t officially take on Anguissola as a student, letters to him from Anguissola’s father show he gave advice to the young artist. He particularly praised Anguissola’s ability to render a crying boy in Boy Bitten by a Crayfish.

3. Like a Virgo
Anguissola often described herself as “virgo,” a young woman or virgin, in the Latin inscriptions she included on her self-portraits. In Self-Portrait, ca. 1556 the full inscription reads: “The maiden Sofonisba Anguissola, depicted by her own hand, from a mirror, at Cremona.”

4. Royal Affair
Anguissola’s talent eventually caught the attention of the wealthy Spanish court. In 1559, Phillip II of Spain invited Anguissola to court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabella. While there, Anguissola painted portraits of the royal family, gave the queen drawing lessons, and cared for the infantas.

5. So Nice We Showed It Thrice
NMWA’s 1995 exhibition Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman as well as Italian Women Artists in 2007 featured Anguissola’s Self-Portrait at the Easel. If you missed it, it’s back for Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea at NMWA, on view through April 12, 2015.

—Ashley Harris is the assistant educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  

Go Global with Mary

Did you know that NMWA launched its first-ever online exhibition, A Global Icon: Mary in Context, in conjunction with Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea?

NMWA’s digital engagement and curatorial teams collaborated with the Google Cultural Institute to present an online collection of images of Mary from around the world. The museum has been working with Google since joining the Google Art Project in March and being a pilot partner in Chromecast Backdrop since October.

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Take a tour of Mary in Context—the online exhibition is divided into six thematic sections that mirror Picturing Mary: Madonna and Child, Woman and Mother, Mother of the Crucified, Mary as Idea, A Singular Life, and Mary in the Life of Believers. Within each section, a short educational video introduces the theme, followed by a closer look into 3–4 artworks. Online visitors can examine these artworks in great detail and learn about Mary’s impact and significance to various cultures.

Left: Unknown artist, Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, 18th century; Wood, ivory, pigment, gilding, gessoed cloth, and silver, 25 7/8 x 27 x 10 1/4 in.; Brooklyn Museum, Frank L. Babbott Fund; inv. 42.384; Right: Unknown artist, Chapter 19 of Qur'an (Surat Maryam), 15th century; Ink and pigments on thin laid paper, 15 3/4 x 12 3/16 in.; Walters Art Museum; inv. W.563.274B

Left: Unknown artist, Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, 18th century; Wood, ivory, pigment, gilding, gessoed cloth, and silver, 25 7/8 x 27 x 10 1/4 in.; Brooklyn Museum, Frank L. Babbott Fund; inv. 42.384; Right: Unknown artist, Chapter 19 of Qur’an (Surat Maryam), 15th century; Ink and pigments on thin laid paper, 15 3/4 x 12 3/16 in.; Walters Art Museum; inv. W.563.274B

Echoing Picturing Mary, the online exhibition provides a historical context of the Virgin Mary, highlighting artwork spanning the 12th–19th centuries. These images represent a wide array of artwork about Mary, including the Black Madonna and Our Lady of Guadalupe. The online exhibition was curated to include a diverse range of mediums—from Chinese porcelain to Indian manuscripts to African pendants.

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Explore near or far! Check out the online exhibition and NMWA’s other online features, including an interactive preview of Picturing Mary and a YouTube playlist of related videos about Mary from Khan Academy’s Smarthistory, from the comfort of your home or at NMWA. These digital offerings are now available in the museum’s galleries for the first time.

—Laura Hoffman is the Manager of Digital Engagement at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 

5 Fast Facts: Artemisia Gentileschi

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (Rome, 1593–Naples? 1656), whose work is currently on view at NMWA in Picturing Mary.

1. Wunderkind
Gentileschi completed several of her best-known works, including Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino) (1609–1610) and Susanna and the Elders (1610) before her 18th birthday. Check out Madonna and Child at NMWA in Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, December 5, 2014–April 12, 2015.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

2. Baroque, not Broke
Considered the only female artist to follow the tenets of Caravaggism (after Caravaggio), Gentileschi skillfully depicted extreme contrast between light and dark in works like Judith and Holofernes. This ability to evoke drama caught the eye of wealthy patrons including King Philip II (Spain) and Charles I (England).

3. Mistaken identity
Artemisia trained and worked side-by-side with her father, Orazio, in his painting studio. Owing to their similar aesthetic and entwined professional relationship, scholars today disagree on the attributions of many works from the Gentileschi workshop.

4. In the stars
Gentileschi led a progressive life for a woman of her time by sustaining a career independent of male oversight. Finding a kindred spirit in the unconventional Galileo, she befriended the famed astronomer while living in Florence and maintained their relationship through letter-writing.

5. Wanderlust
Gentileschi lived and worked in Florence, Naples, London, and Rome. Gentileschi’s legacy lives on in these cities, all of which are home to works by her hand. Stateside, you can see her paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Columbus Museum of Art, and Detroit Institute of Arts.

—Adrienne Gayoso is associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Behind the Scenes in the Registrar’s Office: Crates, Notes, and Dust Motes

Visitors to the National Museum of Women in the Arts have no doubt seen Anne Vallayer-Coster’s majestic portrait of Madame de Saint-Huberty in the Role of Dido, which currently hangs on the east wall of the mezzanine level. However, many do not understand the behind-the-scenes work involved in the preservation of this grand painting. While interning in the office of the registrar this summer, I learned about the various ways in which the office safeguards and organizes nearly 5,000 works in the collection.

Cleaning-Madame-de-Saint-Huberty_webBelieve it or not, dusting is one of the most important preventive measures undertaken by the registrars. Dust hardens like cement, so these pesky particles can actually damage objects if ignored for too long. On one afternoon, I learned how to gently remove the dust that had accumulated within the intricate floral frame surrounding Madame de Saint-Huberty in the Role of Dido. With slow and careful strokes, I brushed the dust of the small crevices, guiding it into the hose of a special low-suction HEPA vacuum positioned a safe distance from the surface of the painting. My brush never actually touched the surface of the paint, though. You may notice that many works are framed with a layer of glass in front, which shields the art from damaging debris. Even small measures like these can ensure a work’s long-term safety.

The registrars also carefully control the environment of the museum, for changes in temperature and humidity can have harmful effects on art. While we removed Madame de Saint-Huberty and other works for routine cleaning, the museum’s chief preparator improved the insulation inside the walls of the gallery space, guaranteeing that the paintings would be in a more protective environment. In fact, a temperature-controlled storage vault houses the majority of the museum’s collection inside massive crates, ceiling-high filing systems, and cocoons of bubble wrap. Only three percent of the collection’s 4,800 works are actually on display!

After routine care, Anne Vallayer-Coster's painting was returned to its place on the gallery wall for visitors to enjoy; Photo Daniel Schwartz

After routine care, Anne Vallayer-Coster’s painting was returned to its place on the gallery wall for visitors to enjoy; Photo Daniel Schwartz

While working within the maze of art storage, I began to realize that keeping accurate records is equally as important as ensuring the physical safety of the collection. After all, how could we study a sculpture without knowing the basic information about it, or even where to locate it? For the past year, the office of the registrar has been working on a collections inventory to ensure the intellectual safety of the objects. Throughout the summer, I helped photograph, measure, and document hundreds of works on paper, knowing that all of this information would allow future scholars to better understand them.

Working behind the scenes these past few months has given me a greater appreciation for the importance of safeguarding the physical and intellectual well-being of the art. After all, without preservation, education would not be possible. Visitors walk through NMWA’s gallery spaces because they want to learn about the groundbreaking accomplishments of women artists. The dedicated efforts of registrars and collections managers ensure that this experience may happen.

—Amy Root was a summer 2014 intern in the registrar’s office at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Click here to learn more about interning at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Alex Prager’s La Petite Mort

Alex Prager (b. 1979, Los Angeles) is a self-taught photographer and filmmaker known for large-scale pictures of actresses in eccentrically costumed and choreographed crowds. La Petite Mort (2012), which is the most recent work of the 10 on view in Total Art: Contemporary Video, reflects an evolution in Prager’s practice. For Prager, photography is integral to her work process, and every series is informed by a basic emotion the artist wants to evoke. This short film links the potentially sublime experiences of sex and death, advancing Prager’s fascination with emotional experience.

Alex Prager, La Petite Mort, 2012; Film HD, shot on Red Epic camera, with color and sound; Courtesy of the artist, M+B Gallery, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York and Hong Kong

Alex Prager, La Petite Mort, 2012; Film HD, shot on Red Epic camera, with color and sound; Courtesy of the artist, M+B Gallery, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York and Hong Kong

Prager began taking photographs as a teen, while traveling across Europe. After attending an exhibition of photography by William Eggleston at the Getty Museum in 1999, she decided to pursue professional photography. She purchased her first camera and darkroom equipment off of eBay, and learned photo development techniques from a “how-to” book. Influenced by Hollywood and her interest in acting, Prager started taking bird’s-eye-view photos of friends, relatives, professional actors, and extras interacting on elaborate sets.

Since then, Prager’s work has been featured in Vogue, W, the New York Times (winning an Emmy Award for the star-studded, commissioned short-film series Touch of Evil), and an ad campaign for IFC’s hit comedy series Portlandia, based on the Face in the Crowd series. The cinematic style of Prager’s saccharine photographs and videos is part Hitchcock, part Cindy Sherman, with a little bit of 1980s-era Saturday Night Live. It remains unclear whether her work should incite horror, revulsion, intrigue, or laughter. With every series, the kitschy theatrical settings, vintage costumes, and over-the-top acting clash with the hyper-real film quality, creating tension between artifice and authenticity.

La Petite Mort is a short, surreal portrayal of a woman’s overwhelming bodily transcendence by way of death and love (the title of the video is also a French term for orgasm, “the little death”). Prager shot the video with a high-definition Red EPIC camera, and collaborated with a talented group including narrator Gary Oldman and French actress Judith Godrèche.

Alex Prager, La Petite Mort, 2012; Film HD, shot on Red Epic camera, with color and sound; Courtesy of the artist, M+B Gallery, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York and Hong Kong; Installation photo Laura Hoffman

Alex Prager, La Petite Mort, 2012; Film HD, shot on Red Epic camera, with color and sound; Courtesy of the artist, M+B Gallery, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York and Hong Kong; Installation photo Laura Hoffman

The lush video’s narrative begins with narration describing a mother’s ecstasy in labor, abruptly cutting to a speeding train headed straight toward a woman, her eyes fluttering in anticipation of the impact. The crash sends her flying backward into a pond, where she indulgently swims until surfacing to face a judgmental crowd. Lambasted by each character’s glare, she eventually reaches her “love interest” standing behind the crowd alone. She collapses to the ground as the crowd disappears and the train conductor rushes to her limp body.

The video concludes with this narration:

It has been said that the act of dying and the act of transcendent love are two experiences cut from the same cloth—the former a grand exit, the latter a slow escape. Indeed, many of the world’s greatest poets have long considered a passionate interlude as man’s closest moment to seeing god.

Just like her Face in the Crowd photographs, La Petite Mort requires more than one viewing to fully take in every detail and metaphor. To learn more, visit NMWA for a short conversation with NMWA Curatorial Assistant Stephanie Midon on Wednesday, August 27, at noon!

—Kelly Johnson is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Dara Birnbaum—Video as Subject and Form

On view in Total Art: Contemporary Video, Dara Birnbaum’s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978–79) opens with several minutes of footage showing intense explosions, transformations, and sampled disco tunes. Just as a viewer becomes comfortable with the repeating imagery, the camera turns to the super-heroine as she bumps into a surprised friend and says, “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.” It the only segment in the nearly six-minute video work in which the main figure speaks; the rest is all action.

Dara Birnbaum, Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978–79; Single-channel color video and stereo sound, 5 min. 50 sec.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Elizabeth A. Sackler

Dara Birnbaum, Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978–79; Single-channel color video and stereo sound, 5 min. 50 sec.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Elizabeth A. Sackler

Dara Birnbaum (b. 1946, New York) used this abbreviated dialogue in her single-channel video work with a specific goal in mind. As the earliest work in Total Art, Birnbaum’s video serves as an example of the genesis of the medium, but her work is distinct from that of other video artists. Rather than create new recordings with a video camera, Birnbaum repurposed footage from the CBS television show Wonder Woman (1975–79). Critics have often noted that many video artists use television’s technology and language to create works detached from the medium, but here Birnbaum directly incorporated television as both her subject and form.

Provocation is at the heart of Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman. In highlighting the technological transformation and repeatedly showing the footage, Birnbaum awakens viewers to the sexualized and violence imagery that was shown in the television series but rarely questioned. In 1983, a few years after completing Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, Birnbaum wrote an article that expanded upon her video work and the goals. She states:

Much of the videowork completed from 1978 to 1982 had been an attempt to slow down ‘technological speed’ and to ‘arrest’ movements of TV-time for the viewer. For it is the speed at which issues are absorbed and consumed by the medium of video/television, without examination and without self-questioning, that remains astonishing…By dislocating the visual and altering the syntax, images were cut from their original narrative flow and then countered with additional musical texts. The viewer was to be caught in a limbo of alteration where he/she was able to plunge headlong into the very experience of TV—unveiling TV’s stereotyped gestures of power and submission, of self-presentation and concealment, of male and female ego.¹

The explosive Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman asks viewers to take another look at the technologies and images that create such perspectives. To learn more visit NMWA on Wednesday, June 25, at noon, for one of our weekly staff-led gallery talks. Put your lunch break to good use and join Director of Education Deborah Gaston as she facilitates a 30-minute discussion and viewing of Birnbaum’s iconic Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman.

 —J. Rachel Gustafson is a curatorial fellow at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Notes:

1. Dara Birnbaum, from “Watching Television: A Video Event Conference,” October 1983, as quoted in Robin Reidy, “Pop-Pop Video,” American Film (January/February, 1985), 61.