Tuesday 20 December 2011

Dara Birnbaum at South London Gallery

Still from Addendum: Autism, 1975

Dara Birnbaum is currently showing an exhibition of both new and old works at the South London Gallery. I attended a talk she gave about her work with Stuart Comer from the Tate on the exhibition’s opening night and was surprised to realize how little I knew about how pioneering she’s been within video art.

In the central space at SLG, Birnbaum is showing a new, multi-screen installation piece, Arabesque, which features footage taken from YouTube of a number of amateur pianists, all female, playing Robert Schumann’s Arabesque Opus 18 from 1839, while a lone player performs Clara Schumann’s Romanze 1, Opus 11. Alongside these films Birnbaum is showing clips from the 1947 film Song of Love, which stars Katharine Hepburn and features Robert Schumann’s work, and excerpts from Clara Schumann’s diary. Birnbaum has long explored gender politics in her work, and her broad point here is to alert the audience to the wide recognition that Robert Schumann’s work enjoys today, while Clara’s music, arguably of the same calibre as her husband’s, remains comparatively obscure. Her installation also highlights another difference: that while Robert’s music now has multiple owners and has received multiple interpretations, Clara’s remains closely connected to her life and, in turn, her relationship with Robert. This could just be a point of gender difference, but in her talk Birnbaum also described it as a result of success: the more recognition a composition receives, the more “neutralised” the voice of its creator becomes, as other people take it on and, to use a piece of terrible talent show parlance, ‘make it their own’.

Still from Arabesque, 2011

Upstairs, Birnbaum is showing a series of early works from the seventies. She describes these works as sketches and they are suitably rough and ready, and experimental. The most impressive is Attack Piece from 1975, which is another swipe against the dominance of men over women, this time in the art world. In it Birnbaum is ‘armed’ with a stills camera while a number of men, including her artistic contemporaries, Dan Graham, David Askebold and Ian Murray, come at her with a video camera and try and invade her space. In the final piece, the resulting film footage is shown opposite the still images that Birnbaum captured, and the piece feels like a comment on both male and female relations as well as on new technologies (video) achieving dominance over old (photographs).

Installation view of Attack Piece, 1975. Photo: John Berens

This is the first time in 30 years that Birnbaum has had a solo show in the UK, and for those who don’t know her work, it is rather a tantalising, and somewhat limited, introduction. In her talk, she discussed a number of other seminal pieces that demonstrate more clearly the influence she has had on the development of video art. She spoke especially of the work Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-9), a video piece created with footage from the US TV show that she “stole”. We’re all used to artists (and amateurs) playing with TV imagery in order to both entertain and at times critique the power of television, but back in the seventies this was unexpected: “It was almost impossible to get inside that tube and get imagery out,” Birnbaum explained.

Installation view of Arabesque, 2011. Photo: John Berens. All images courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

Birnbaum also pioneered new ways of presenting video art: she fought against video works always being shown in darkened spaces, cinema-style, and instead built large installations in order to show them alongside other artworks. And she placed her works in unexpected places: Wonder Woman was first shown in the window of a hairdresser’s, and she was also one of the first artists to utilise video screens in public spaces to show art. Hearing Birnbaum discuss these works, as well as other, more overtly political pieces, made me long to see them. Surely a proper UK retrospective of her work is now overdue?

Dara Birnbaum's exhibition at South London Gallery runs until February 12. More info is at southlondongallery.org.

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