Dara Birnbaum has made a career of turning our pop art imagination against itself. Her best works, from the seminal Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978) to Pop-Pop Video: General Hospital/Olympic Women Speed Skating (1980), manipulate popular media to address political and sexual inequalities. Now, YouTube is doing for this generation what television did for previous ones. It’s no wonder that Birnbaum, a pioneer of the feminist art movement, would turn to YouTube for her latest feminist critique, Arabesque (2011), the iconic video artist’s first exhibition in a decade.
Through August 26, Marian Goodman Gallery screens the new four-channel video Arabesque in conjunction with selections from her earlier work. Nine monitors showcase the artist’s single-channel video work from the mid-70s, and another room displays Birnbaum’s earliest surviving installation, Attack Piece (1975). This remarkable piece anticipates what Arabesque, as well as so much of Birnbaum’s work, would be all about – the sanctity of the female artistic realm. A two-channel work, Attack Piece was conceived during a weekend she spent with such established artists as Dan Graham and Ian Murray. “I was young, filled with energy, and I had gone to Nova Scotia with all these artists, all males,” she tells me. “They all sat there, just talking about big ideas about art. I was intimidated.”
Equipped with a still camera, Birnbaum decided to translate these tense, contradictory feelings into a two-channel installation. On one screen, we look through the eyes of the female. She is immobile, artistically handicapped; she can only document reality through choppy, arrhythmic still images. The men around her, on the opposing screen, are mobile and free. They invade her artistic space with the power of their fluid cameras.
This unending power struggle between the male and female artist is an idea Birnbaum pursues further with Arabesque. One of the more intriguing figures of the Romantic era, Clara Schumann is a stereotype in our cultural memory. She’s either the pious, devoted wife who kept the family together while her husband, composer Robert Schumann, crumbled, or the strong, passionate artist with a creative capacity of her own. This kind of simplistic discourse diminishes the human qualities of the musician – there’s no in-between.
Just a few months ago, Birnbaum scoured YouTube for performances of Robert Schumann’s famous Arabesque Opus 18 and Clara Schumann’s lesser-known, but equally grand, Romanze 1, Opus 11, pieces the couple composed for each other. There was only one existing performance of Clara’s composition, while there were several of Robert’s. Birnbaum explores this rather marked gender dichotomy by setting these YouTube clips against each other on three channels. A fourth channel displays stills from Clarence Brown’s Song of Love, a 1947 film about the Schumanns. Clara, played by Katharine Hepburn, is, in Birnbaum’s words, “grotesquely melodramatic” – overdrawn, garish, and verging on camp. These stills underscore how we’ve dehumanized Clara Schumann into a caricature.
To instead give a palpable human voice to Clara, Birnbaum intersperses these YouTube videos with excerpts from Clara’s diaries. The letters reveal a tense, quivering nervousness behind the image of matriarchal breadwinner. Birnbaum gives credence to Clara’s voice. She endows Clara with a distinct fragility, allowing her to transcend the confines of the devoted wife or empowered pianist.
Though Birnbaum’s work is never apolitical, Arabesque marks a thematic shift towards the politic of the individual. She’s lived through Vietnam, the Revolutions of 1989, and the Gulf War, and her hope seems to be fading. “After 9/11, I couldn’t really make sense of a lot of things,” she tells me, a mix of confusion and sadness in her voice. “I never anticipated the States would get involved in so many international wars.”
The chaos of the current world we inhabit, she confesses, is too much to sift through. Individuals are forced, almost against their will, to see themselves as part of a much larger, depersonalized social fabric. Like Clara Schumann, the individual threatens to disappear into a caricature.