South London Gallery
December 9th, 2011 – February 17th, 2012
Part new-work part retrospective, the current show at the South London Gallery entitled purely Dara Birnbaum begins the incredibly hard task of representing the work of an artist whose career spans three decades. Whilst the large Main Gallery on the ground floor houses Birnbaum's new work Arabesque (2011), the upstairs New Galleries works as a retrospective foundation of the show. At first sight this comes across as overtly-technical, in-fact the effect is one which requests for the viewer to build a connection to the past-works by re-association, asking for the viewer to suspend belief of Birnbaum's practice, playing Devil's Advocate by design.
Consisting of 4 large-scale projections mounted side-by-side Arabesque (2011) begins to un-pack Birnbaum's weighty fascination with the politicisation of women as culturally important figure-heads. Taken as impetus the work Arabesque Opus 18 written by the German composer Robert Schumann as a gift for his wife Clara, alongside the work Romanze 1 Opus 11 a return gift from Clara Schumann back to her husband Robert. Both Robert and Clara were highly talented pianists but the passage of time remains a very different celebrity and memory of their importance and role both within not just their relationship to one another but the subsequent canon of composition. Here, Birnbaum highlights this awkward relationship by commenting on the shear amount of coverage the track by Robert Schumann garners as opposed to that by Clara. Focusing specifically on YouTube as a vehicle to express the representation and historical referencing of each track, Birnbaum critiques the age-old argument of equality between the sexes by force of repetition. The copious amounts of people (Birnbaum only shows women playing the track) recording themselves attempting to play Arabasque Opus 18 as opposed to Clara's Romanze 1 Opus 11 proves the aching gap in gender-representation and the ever present reminder of the secondary role women still occupy within contemporary society.
The documentation of both tracks favours Robert Schumann's Arabesque Opus 18 for a far more glamourous history, this rite of passage for male composers within classical music marks an rarely-critiqued past which has few female counterparts. The poignancy of this un-relenting and difficult trajectory remains the currency of a present that still finds women in the minority within parliament and positions of power, putting up with less pay and working far more part-time roles. Whilst being a critique the work also acts as a conversation between both Robert and Clara as well as a warning from the crypt. Intersected with difficult texts from Clara's diary juxtaposed with the 1947 film Song of Love starring Katherine Hepburn and Paul Henreid both work to forge a painful memory of a supportive yet potentially frustrated Clara who spends her days and nights at the mercy of her relationship, caring for the mental downfall of her husband whilst maintaining the children and house-keep. Thankless in the work place of the home and within the context of Robert's latter fame, unduly swept under the carpet in terms of talent and musical contribution. Here the point seems to be one of complicating romanticism and the concept of love and passion in a bid to see clearly how contemporary models of power, work and authority pull emotional and purse strings. The depth of appropriation, not holey new-territory for Birnbaum resides as a document to the punishment of talent as girls to women all strike a balance of concentration and commitment to mastering the track. Even though Birnbaum has worked substantially with the found image, Arabasque (2011) comes across as incisive and particular in contrast with not just the earlier work on show but previous explorations per se. Here Birnbaum renders a different and far more luxurious approach; multi-layered and looping the work also resolves as a surround-soundscape exploration into composition.
Upstairs the viewer is faced with Birnbaum's complex visual history as both video and performance artist. The smaller rooms of the New Galleries work as claustrophobic museums detailing the hard-earned, erratic and highly-political works from Birnbaum's past. Liberty, a Dozen or So Views (1976) filmed on a Staten Island ferry see's the artists requesting for people to open-up about standard details of their body, weight, height, hair and eye colour as well as race-orientation – once filmed the camera is utilized as a tool to document the view of The Statue of Liberty by those interviewed. This double entendre works to shift the visual directorial moment from Birnbaum and open-up the irregularity for error as well as questioning how the camera works to provide proof of directorial authority from the person operating. This aside, the piece is a marked intrique-piece into the make-up and dimension of a 1970s America resounding to use the documentation of The Statue of Liberty as a changing and morphing dimension, meaning in itself a host of different registers and realities to all those who view her.
Placed next to this the work, Everything's Gonna Be Alright (1976) is an appropriation-piece stylised through the edit of the classic documentary. A man and woman dance languidly to the Bob Marley track "Everything's Gonna be Alright" intersperced with revealing insights into the relationships between politicians and 'their women,' with particular reference to John F Kennedy and Jackie Onasis. Here Birnbaum's pre-requisite insight into gender-politics bursts with condemnation of the age-old hieracrchy men have played against their female counterparts highlighting the difficult and deafening superiority held by men in the early to mid 20th century, a story increasingly pertinent today with the effect of revealing the work to be as fresh and relevant as that downstairs.
In the next door room rests a 6-piece assemblage, beyond which lies another video work. The functional dimensions requests for a space where Birnbaum's surround-sound echoes reverb into the viewers' subconscious. Here Birnbaum in-front of the camera asks for the viewer to belong within the context of her performance; placed or even rooted to the spot, spinning 360 degrees in order to view each video-piece. This root or sticking is marked clearly through the works Chaired Anxieties: Abandoned (1975) and Addendum: Autism (1975). The latter shows Birnbaum uncomfortably revolving or rocking on a chair, slipping and sweating, arching her feet and legs in a bid to move as close to the skeletal structure of the furniture as physically possible. Forcing a sweaty and grainy stare into the viewers eye-line, gripping the chair with taints of concentration and fear. Equally the work Chaired Anxieties: Abandoned (1975) relinquishes the viewer to Birnbaum's confrontational appetite not so much as requesting of the viewer dis-comfort, as forcing.
It is the forced which hangs in the air as the motivation for Birnbaum's on-going fascination with the role of identity within the critique of the present. The work has a fearless contemporanity which marks out Birnbaum's unrelenting and restless difficulty with the position of women within the present. The earlier works ability to come across as experimental and at points psychedelic alongside the mercilessly crisp latter works show the many levels to Birnbaum's continued argument and exploration of the role of women within a host of registers. The focus here being the need for the argument to exist, staged as inherently emotional and political. Birnbaum doesn't sherk or make excuses for her consistent attack, furthermore she upends this by citing the role of arts ability and potential responsibility to echo such concerns, so that the future no longer finds Clara playing second fiddle to her husband.
Sophie Risner is a freelance art writer and critic living in London. "I am less art critic and more art writer - I find the idea of critiquing art through writing difficult in a purely formalist fashion. I often lean towards the difficulty of language as a way into the inherent difficulty of art. Embracing all aspects which observe and inspire artist practice as a way to create a more fruitful and less didactic approach."view all articles from this author