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.

Art, Books, and Creativity! The 2014 ABC Teacher Institute

After a long school year, how do teachers recharge their batteries and fill their minds with exciting new project ideas for the year to come? For a select group from as far away as Cleveland, Ohio, and as near as Cleveland Park, D.C., NMWA’s annual weeklong Art, Books, and Creativity (ABC) Teacher Institute is just the ticket. From July 14–18, 2014, 23 teachers ranging in subject areas from science to French, grades Pre-K through 12, spent the week with NMWA’s educators and institute instructors learning arts-integration techniques centered on the ABC curriculum.

During the ABC Teacher Institute, teachers created fantastic portfolios of artists' book samples to use in the classroom

During the ABC Teacher Institute, teachers created fantastic portfolios of artists’ book samples to use in the classroom; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Developed by NMWA through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the ABC curriculum unites visual and language arts through the creation of artists’ books. In addition to developing students’ visual literacy, critical thinking, and writing skills, ABC also focuses on the cultural contributions of women artists. The ABC Teacher Institute introduces teachers of all ages, abilities, and disciplines to the curriculum and provides them with resources to successfully integrate visual arts into their classrooms. During the institute, participants created a portfolio of artists’ books and writing samples as models for classroom lessons; learned the basics of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a method for facilitating discussions about art; and brainstormed numerous creative ideas for how to adapt the ABC curriculum for their own classrooms and subject areas.

While they are serious about their teaching, this year’s participants were not afraid to have fun and let the creative juices flow! Highlights of the week included creating “bug books” inspired by the work of Maria Sibylla Merian; learning landscape and pop-up book techniques from paper engineer Carol Barton, whose mind-boggling paper creations left everyone in awe; writing poems based on the Fibonacci sequence; collectively creating “exquisite corpse” sketches; and transforming newspaper into sculptural hats that any fashionable avant-gardist would love.

Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Participants capped off the Institute by presenting the lesson concepts that they developed throughout the week. These incorporated key aspects of the ABC curriculum while addressing the unique curricula, objectives, and standards of learning of the teachers who created them. Ideas included landscape books used to teach scales in music class, pop-up books to expand the vocabulary of ESL (English as a Second Language) students, flag books for a unit on quadrilateral polygons in math class, among others. The lesson concepts clearly demonstrated the myriad cross-curricular applications of the ABC curriculum and left everyone feeling inspired and impassioned.

As one participant reflected, “the energy and ideas were flying right up ’til the last minute! I think the enthusiasm of all of the presenters rubbed off on the participants and spurred us on. I feel refreshed as a teacher going into the summer vacation, and when has that ever happened before?”

To access the free ABC curriculum, visit artbookscreativity.org. To learn more about the annual ABC Teacher Institute, check out NMWA’s Teacher Institute page.

—Olivia Mendelson is an education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Meret Oppenheim’s “Table with Bird’s Feet”

On view at NMWA in Meret Oppenheim: Tender Friendships, through September 14, Table with Bird’s Feet is a Surrealist sculpture that blends an everyday object with the fantastical. It was first exhibited in an exhibition of avant-garde furniture in Paris in 1939, organized by Réne Drouin and Leo Castelli. In this work, Oppenheim transformed a prosaic utility object, a table, into a fantasy, supported by the bronze feet of a bird, and marked with imprints of birds’ feet on its oval surface. Under the artist’s supervision, the table was manufactured in a limited edition of thirty copies in 1973.

Table with Bird’s Feet, 1983; Top: wood, carved and goldplated; feet: bronze, 25 1/2 x 27 1/2 x 19 3/4 in.; On loan from Daphne Farago Collection, Delray Beach, Florida; Photograph by Suzanne Khalil; Image courtesy of Lisa Wenger and Martin A. Bühler, Meret Oppenheim Estate

Table with Bird’s Feet, 1983; Top: wood, carved and goldplated; feet: bronze, 25 1/2 x 27 1/2 x 19 3/4 in.; On loan from Daphne Farago Collection, Delray Beach, Florida; Photograph by Suzanne Khalil; Image courtesy of Lisa Wenger and Martin A. Bühler, Meret Oppenheim Estate

The table represents Oppenheim’s fascination with the natural world—these feet could belong to a heron, flamingo, or any other long-legged bird she might have encountered or sketched on one of her frequent walks.

Visit NMWA Wednesday, August 20, for a free noon gallery talk on Tender Friendships to learn more!

Artist Spotlight: Margaret Salmon’s Video Ode to New Mothers

In 2005 Margaret Salmon (b. 1975, NY) received the inaugural Max Mara Art Prize for Women, which awarded her the opportunity to complete a six-month residency in Italy to further develop her filmic video practice. Between attending intensive Italian courses at the American Academy in Rome and living like a local in the small town of Biella, she shot Ninna Nanna (2007), a triptych video installation featuring three new mothers with their young children, now on view in Total Art: Contemporary Video.

Installation view of Margaret Salmon, Ninna Nanna, 2007; 3-screen installation of 16-mm films transferred to DVD; Collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Museum purchase through the contributions of members of the  Contemporary Acquisitions Council and the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 2008; Photo Jake Erlich

Installation view of Margaret Salmon, Ninna Nanna, 2007; 3-screen installation of 16-mm films transferred to DVD; Collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Photo Jake Erlich

In NMWA’s galleries, three side-by-side projector screens hold shared moments between three mother-child pairs in their homes or going about errands. Captured by Salmon on her 16-mm handheld camera, the mothers provide musical accompaniment by singing the popular Florentine lullaby “Coscine di Pollo,” which translates affectionately to “Little Chicken Thighs.” Sometimes in sync, sometimes as solo performances, the ninna nanna—the Italian word for lullaby—is sung as a tired, absentminded mantra for the sustained quietude of both mother and child.

Margaret Salmon, Ninna Nanna, 2007; 3-screen installation of 16-mm films transferred to DVD; Collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Museum purchase through the contributions of members of the  Contemporary Acquisitions Council and the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 2008; Image courtesy of the artist and Office Baroque, Brussels

Margaret Salmon, Ninna Nanna, 2007; 3-screen installation of 16-mm films transferred to DVD; Collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Image courtesy of the artist and Office Baroque, Brussels

As a new mother herself during her residency in Italy, Salmon began observing and documenting the physical bonds and social reciprocities of the mother-child relationship. After Salmon met one of the featured mothers while they were both at the playground with their children, she visited several local women in their homes to record their daily routines without any direction or desired outcome. Salmon’s manner of filming was inspired by Italian neorealist cinema as well as cinéma vérité, film movements that prioritized accessible stories of everyday people over grand cinematic productions featuring theatrically trained actors.

Salmon was influenced by the inventive style of Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical 8 1/2 (1963), as well as Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a film chronicling the monotonous routines of a Belgian mother and housewife. Akerman’s film highlights the screen-worthy drama in domestic settings, regularly overlooked by filmmakers up to that point.

Alternating between black-and-white and color video, and regular and accelerated motion, Ninna Nanna is considered a poetic rendering of the daily minutiae of everyday life. While many of Salmon’s videos use this documentary style to reflect on the repetitious, quotidian details of our lives, this work remains focused on universal rituals and intimacies specific to motherhood.

The intense physicality of the work of mothering—feeding, bathing, rocking, toting—combined with the emotional work of soothing, cuddling, and playing, begets a sweet yet tedious intimacy between mother and child. The sense of intimacy is furthered by Salmon’s decision to film her subjects and edit the content on her own, without the help of a crew. This experience of mother-child closeness is echoed between the artist and subjects; it is extended to the viewer as Salmon’s camera lingers on detailed textures of faces, fabrics, furniture, and lighting within these family homes.

Margaret Salmon, Ninna Nanna, 2007; 3-screen installation of 16-mm films transferred to DVD; Collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Museum purchase through the contributions of members of the  Contemporary Acquisitions Council and the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 2008; Image courtesy of the artist and Office Baroque, Brussels; Photo Laura Hoffman

Margaret Salmon, Ninna Nanna, 2007; 3-screen installation of 16-mm films transferred to DVD; Collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Photo Laura Hoffman

Reminiscent of watching dear relatives’ home movies, Ninna Nanna allows the viewer to identify with the women’s contentment, isolation, and exhaustion. Salmon celebrates this rollercoaster experience in a video that is dedicated to the new, intensely interdependent relationship between mother and child, ultimately acknowledging the bond as an archetypal relationship that is experienced in some form by all humans.

To learn more about the artist and Ninna Nanna, visit the museum for a short conversation piece with NMWA Digital Media Specialist Laura Hoffman on Wednesday, August 13, at noon!

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

Artist Spotlight: Behind the Scenes with Eve Sussman, the Rufus Corporation, and the Old Masters

When first exhibited at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, 89 Seconds at Alcázar (2004) was a runaway success. Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation, a collaborative of actors, choreographers, technicians, and artisans of all kinds, created the enthralling video installation that was called “the only obvious smashing work on view.”¹ The 10-minute video is a reimagined, moving meditation on Las Meninas (ca. 1656), by Spanish court painter Diego Velázquez (1599–1660). It envisions the moments leading up to and following the painting’s iconic, transient scene.

Installation view of Eve Sussman | Rufus Corporation, 89 Seconds at Alcázar, 2004; High-definition video installation

Installation view of Eve Sussman | Rufus Corporation, 89 Seconds at Alcázar, 2004; High-definition video installation

Velázquez’s enigmatic painting has garnered a cult-fandom among the art-obsessed. The slice-of-life, monumental scene in Las Meninas offers a very modern viewpoint, similar to a photographic snapshot but created more than 200 years before the camera. Velázquez’s composition is clever, even revolutionary. The painting shifts the traditional viewing perspective to focus on the creator of the image rather than the image the creator is representing.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656

At the foreground of Las Meninas, Velázquez depicts himself before of a massive canvas with brush and palette in hand; next to him are members of the Royal Spanish court. However, the most prominent element for art historians is the indistinct mirror that can be seen at the very center background of the painting. Velázquez’s inclusion of the mirror, depicting a bust-length view of the King and Queen of Spain, allows the viewer to see beyond the canvas. His perspective suggests that the viewer is standing in the space occupied by the King and Queen. For the centuries of art leading up to this work, representational painting was rendered as though the surface of a canvas might be substituted for a window into another world, where the spectator looked in. Instead, Velázquez presents a painting that looks out at the viewing looking in. It is a complex, behind-the-scenes glimpse at the process of art-making itself.

So what can account for this drastic change in perspective?

At the same time Las Meninas was developed, the Arnolfini Portrait (1434), by Jan van Eyck, was hanging in the halls of the Spanish palace, or alcázar, that Velázquez walked every day. It is likely that Velázquez was very familiar with this work—as a result, many historians see Las Meninas as a direct reference to the mirror-motif originally used in Van Eyck’s work.

The plot thickens, bringing us back to Sussman and the Rufus Corporation.

Eve Sussman | Rufus Corporation, Erin as María, production still from 89 Seconds at Alcázar, 2004; High-definition video installation; Image courtesy of Eve Sussman | Rufus Corporation, photo by Benedikt Partenheimer for the Rufus Corporation

Eve Sussman | Rufus Corporation, Erin as María, production still from 89 Seconds at Alcázar, 2004; High-definition video installation; Image courtesy of Eve Sussman | Rufus Corporation, photo by Benedikt Partenheimer for the Rufus Corporation

When Eve Sussman saw Velázquez’s Las Meninas at the Museo Nacional del Prado, she too was prompted to reimagine a painting that itself reimagined Van Eyck’s earlier work.

However, Sussman and the Rufus Corporation approached their journey into shifting spectatorship with a new medium and a new dynamic viewing perspective. And while the subject matter appropriates content from Velázquez’s work, Sussman describes 89 Seconds as “. . . about activating the viewpoint of the camera, so you see it’s not Las Meninas—it’s something different.”²

To learn more, visit NMWA on Wednesday, August 3, at noon for our weekly staff-led gallery talks. Associate Curator Virginia Treanor will facilitate a 30-minute conversation about 89 Seconds at Alcázar—join us during your lunch break, and return each Wednesday for up-close views of the other works in Total Art: Contemporary Video, on view at NMWA through October 12.

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

Notes:
1. Blake Gopnik, “Shifting Through the Whitney: Eve Sussman,” in the Washington Post, March 14, 2004. (http://www.rufuscorporation.com/wapost.jpg)
2. Eve Sussman as quoted in Carol Kino, “In the Studio: Eve Sussman,” in Art + Auction, July 2006. (http://www.rufuscorporation.com/anauc.html)

Artist Spotlight: Janaina Tschäpe, Goddess of Water and Melancholy

Janaina Tschäpe (b. 1973, Munich) is a Brazilian-German artist who creates paintings, drawings, photographs, and video art. Inspired by landscapes of the Amazonian rainforest in Brazil, as well as tales from the Romantic era of 19th-century Germany, she orchestrates images of cumbersomely costumed women placed in dramatic settings for videos and photographs.

Janaina Tschäpe, Lacrimacorpus (Zeitschneide); Production still from Lacrimacorpus,2004; Single-channel color video with sound; film transferred to DVD; Courtesy of the artist and Tierney Gardarin Gallery, New York

Janaina Tschäpe, Lacrimacorpus (Zeitschneide); Production still from Lacrimacorpus, 2004; Single-channel color video with sound; film transferred to DVD; Courtesy of the artist and Tierney Gardarin Gallery, New York

The artist’s first name, Janaina, refers to the Afro-Brazilian queen of the ocean, goddess of the sea, evolved from Yemanja of Yoruba religion. The artist identifies with her namesake by including a form of water in many of her projects, like Aquatica (2014), The Ocean Within (2013), Blood Sea (2004), and The Moat and the Moon (2003). Currently on view in Total Art: Contemporary Video, Tschäpe’s Lacrimacorpus dissolvens (2004) alludes to the story of a sad, self-loathing mythical creature that also behaves according to its name, dissolving in a pool of its own tears.

The short video features a female figure dressed in period costume from Goethe’s Faust.² Covered head to toe in swaths of beige fabric flowing over a large hoop skirt, the woman’s face and hands are also completely hidden by a hooded bonnet and extra-long sleeves. But the most unusual element of the ensemble is an unwieldy inflatable-teardrop collar encircling her neck.

Set to a careening piano melody, the woman spins in circles inside the weathered, abandoned room of a palace in Weimar, Germany, a hub of the German Enlightenment as well as the site of Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald. The sound of a turning crank opens the video, with a Rückenfigur¹ gazing out the window toward the gardens. Soft piano music begins to play, and the woman turns slowly in circles with a melancholic lilt. As the tune reaches a forceful tempo and crescendo, the woman also picks up speed and intensity.

Installation view with works by Tschäpe

Installation view with works by Tschäpe; Photo by Laura Hoffman

Uneven centripetal forces (and dizziness) eventually send her off balance until she melts slowly to the ground onto her back, arms spread wide as if crucified, exhausted, dissolved. Not the willful, skilled performance expected from the typical music-box ballerina, the woman’s repetitive, hypnotic “dance” seems compelled by a force unseen. The video plays on a loop, the woman stuck forever in this dizzying pattern of helplessness. Does she feel implicated in the horrific events that have occurred there, permanently tied to the trauma and shame? Does the loss of agency and burdensome sorrow represent an experience of 19th-century womanhood?

Accompanied by production stills from the shoot, the inclusion of Lacrimacorpus dissolvens in Total Art represents an instance in which the artist is in control of more than one medium. Tschäpe makes decisions not simply as the artist, but also as director, costume designer, choreographer, sound editor, and videographer. While the woman in the video may not have authority over her situation, Tschäpe carefully crafts an image of a character lost in a physically altering state of grief.

To learn more about the artist and Lacrimacorpus dissolvens, visit the museum for a short conversation with Curatorial Assistant Stephanie Midon on Wednesday, July 30 at noon, or attend Tschäpe’s talk at NMWA on September 19.

—Kelly Johnson is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She is pursuing her MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Curatorial Practice.

Notes:

1. Figure shown with back to the viewer, alluding to landscape imagery made popular during the period of German Romanticism by painter Caspar David Friedrich in the 19th century.

Judy’s Diamond Jubilee

Today is a very special day for the legendary Judy Chicago—her 75th birthday!

Over her 75 years, Judy Chicago has made a prominent name for herself as an artist, author, educator, and source of inspiration for men and women all over the globe. After producing installation pieces such as Womanhouse (1972) and The Dinner Party (1975), Chicago achieved international stardom as a pioneer of the feminist art movement in the 1970s.

Judy Chicago at NMWA with museum Founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Photo Laura Hoffman

Judy Chicago at NMWA with museum Founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Photo: Laura Hoffman

In order to commemorate this dynamic period of Chicago’s career and the coinciding feminist movement, NMWA held an exhibition of her work earlier this year, Judy Chicago: Circa ’75. In March, Chicago visited the museum for an opportunity to speak to NMWA’s members and guests about the exhibition as well as her newest book, Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education.

During the conversation, Chicago applauded NMWA, saying, “as long as MoMA is a museum of men, we need a museum for women in the arts.” She described her regular past visits to the museum, noting how “every time I walk into [NMWA] I see my predecessors and what they had to go through to get here.”

At the end of the discussion, NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling presented Chicago with personalized cards to celebrate her birthday and pay homage to her incredible artistic achievements. Chicago was touched by the heartfelt gesture by the members, noting that she wanted to read their notes right then and there.

Cards from NMWA members to Chicago: “Thank you for sharing wisdom and beauty with your powerful art!”

Cards from NMWA members to Chicago: “Thank you for sharing wisdom and beauty with your powerful art!”

In Institutional Time, Chicago discusses her legacy, stating “I became determined to use my time on earth to create art—as much of it as possible . . . and to make a place for myself in art history.” Now, on her 75th birthday, Chicago has irrefutably, permanently left her mark on modern discourses of art history. Happy birthday to this visionary artist!

—Olivia Zvara is the member relations intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: The Collaboration of Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter

In 2005, spouses Ingrid Mwangi (b. 1975, Nairobi, Kenya) and Robert Hutter (b. 1964, Ludwigshafen, Germany) began working as a collaborative artistic force. Today, they exhibit their joint works under the combined name of Mwangi Hutter and aim to show their “shared vision . . . [to] overcome gender and ethnic boundaries.”¹

Mwangi Hutter, Neger Don't Call Me (installation view), 2000; DVD, speakers, four wood chairs, and Dolby surround sound; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C., Image courtesy of the artists

Mwangi Hutter, Neger Don’t Call Me (installation view), 2000; DVD, speakers, four
wood chairs, and Dolby surround sound; National Museum of Women in the Arts,
Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C., Image courtesy of
the artists

Mwangi Hutter’s Neger Don’t Call Me (2000) is one of the 10 video pieces in NMWA’s Total Art: Contemporary Video exhibition. To introduce the work and mark the opening of the show, Ingrid Mwangi visited the museum on June 6, 2014. She spoke with visitors about the production of Neger Don’t Call Me, and offered a preview of three of Mwangi Hutter’s most recent video collaborations.

Ingrid Mwangi at NMWA on June 6, discussing Mwnagi Hutter's video installation and (background) photographic series Shades of Skin

Ingrid Mwangi at NMWA on June 6, discussing Mwnagi Hutter’s video installation and (background) photographic series Shades of Skin

Ingrid Mwangi is the daughter of a German mother and a Kenyan father. Growing up between Germany and Kenya, Mwangi felt the constraints of finding her identity. During her lecture at NMWA, she explained that her dreadlocked hair in Neger Don’t Call Me acts signifies one aspect of her identity. The camera shows her face as it is covered and uncovered with sculptural masks made of her own dreadlocks, while the dialogue (in Mwangi’s own voice) recalls memories from her childhood related to the use of the German word neger, or negro, as it translates in English. “Many people can’t say the word because they are so wounded by it,” Mwangi shared, “. . . but for me, the more I used it, the history behind the word dissolved.”

In addition to the projected video, Neger Don’t Call Me includes four wooden chairs with speakers attached under their seats. The fragmented sentences offer insight into Mwangi’s experiences with stereotypes and discrimination after leaving Kenya for Germany. Her voice reverberates between the speakers mounted on the gallery walls and the chairs as they jump from source to source, suggesting a collective experience.

In a 2003 exhibition catalogue, Mwangi discussed the sound, dialogue, and language in Neger Don’t Call Me:

Using the example of the German word ‘Neger’ . . . a word in which the history of racist ideology still echoes, I explain the feeling of wrongness I sensed when faced with the use of discriminating words or ignorant action. With this piece I wish to show the constant dialogue which occurs between self and society, in this case especially dealing with the continuing problem of being judged and categorized due to skin-colour.²

At noon on Wednesday, July 9, Assistant Educator Ashley W. Harris will discuss Mwangi Hutter’s Neger Don’t Call Me during a 30-minute viewing and “Conversation Piece.” Join us during your lunch break to learn more about this emotionally-charged video.

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

Notes:

1. Ingrid Mwangi as quoted at NMWA, June 6, 2014.

2. Ingrid Mwangi, “Neger Don’t Call Me/Coloured/Down by the River/To Be in the World/Your Own Soul/Wild at Heart/Static Drift: Selected Works and Texts by Ingrid Mwangiin Ingrid Mwangi: Your Own Soul (Saarbrücken: Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, 2003), 9.

Artist Spotlight: Pipilotti Rist’s Red Room and Blue Bodily Letter

One of the nine gallery spaces in Total Art: Contemporary Video is vividly painted with an oblong white space centered on a red wall. This was not a random design decision, but rather a feature of the installation at the request of the artist, Pipilotti Rist (b. 1962, Rheintal, Switzerland), who created the video piece featured in the crimson gallery.

Pipilotti Rist, Blauer Liebesbrief (Blue Bodily Letter), 1992/98; Audio-video installation; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.

Pipilotti Rist, Blauer Liebesbrief (Blue Bodily Letter), 1992/98; Audio-video installation; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.

Rist’s Blauer Leibesbrief (Blue Bodily Letter) (1992/98) is part of a genre of video works that are as connected to the installation space as the projected imagery. NMWA’s installations of each of the ten works in the exhibition required specific parameters. The museum’s curatorial and design team worked with the Total Art artists and their galleries to ensure the installation of each video reflected the artist’s original thought process and the work’s integrity. Notably, Rist’s Blauer Leibesbrief—projected at an angle to overlap the oblong white space—was the only work to break from the traditional mode of straight projection and dark, movie theater-esque walls.

NMWA members looking at Rist's video installation and a series of her prints on Member Preview Day; Photo Laura Hoffman

NMWA members looking at Rist’s video installation and a series of her prints on Member Preview Day; Photo Laura Hoffman

The immersive qualities of video art are largely dependent on proper installation, and Rist’s video was no different. The looped imagery in Blauer Leibesbrief is shown through the progression of a handheld camera that sweeps over the artist’s nude body as she lays motionless in a wooded landscape with jewels adorning her body. The work is projected at a sharp right angle, forming a trapezoidal shape on the wall. This work was one of the artist’s first experiments in altering the projector’s orientation.

Pipilotti Rist’s practice aims to introduce viewers to unexpected new perspectives:

“Art’s task is to contribute to evolution, to encourage the mind, to guarantee a detached view of social changes, to conjure up positive energies, to create sensuousness, to reconcile reason and instinct, to research possibilities, to destroy clichés and prejudices. Most people don’t see it that way.”¹

However, there is more to Blauer Leibesbrief than its installation methods. The video’s content reinterprets the female nude motif and its traditional relationship to the viewer’s gaze in the art historical and cinematic canons. Rather than show Rist’s body from a distanced, full-length perspective, the artist obscures the viewer’s gaze, inhibiting an erotic reading by placing the camera as close to the body as it can get. In that sense, Blauer Leibesbrief follows Rist’s explanation of art’s function as it dismantles banality—both in method and content.

Visit NMWA on Wednesday, July 2, at noon for NMWA’s weekly staff-led gallery talks to learn more about Rist’s Blauer Leibesbrief (Blue Bodily Letter). Chief Curator Kathryn Wat will lead a 30-minute conversation and viewing of the work—come make the most of your lunch hour!

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

Notes:

1.Pipilotti Rist as quoted in Hans Ulrich Obrist, “I rist, she rists, he rists, we rist, you rist, they rist, tourist: Hans Ulrich Obrist in Conversation with Pipilotti Rist,” in Pipilotti Rist (New York: Phaidon Press, Inc., 2001), 10.

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.