Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Front & Center Staged

Went to see the much talked about Carrie Mae Weems show, "Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment," of photography and video at the SCAD-acquired ACA Gallery in the Woodruff Arts Center.

Word to the wise, picture taking is Not Allowed(!) in the ACA Gallery. I was scolded. Really, when are people going to get over it? Art is meant to be photographed and shared, ideas should not be held hostage in an institution's white box, guarded by a panic-inducing and dangerous barrier (commonly referred to as Peachtree St. under construction).

"A Classroom Ponders the Future" 2008 - Archival digital print

Nevertheless, the presentation of the show was sharp. Large black and white pigment prints on heavy rag paper. The paper texture worked will with the grainy mat images, which came across as aged film stills.

"The Assasination of Medger, Malcolm, and Martin" 2008 - Digital archival print

The photograph "A Classroom Ponders the Future" serves as a starting point for the images of the show, each being a reenactment of a moment in history (whether obvious, obscure, or fictionalized) from 1968 to the present. Weems says that each photograph is not necessarily meant to refer to one particular historical event but instead to have a broader, more universal connection, to represent the attitudes or movements during a period time.

There is a focus on the assassinations of prominent political figures, from Malcolm X to Benazir Bhutto, and also on the assassins themselves and the contemplation of the murder, the moments before one person alters history.

"The Fall of Bhutto" 2008 - Archival pigment print

A majority of the photographs are shot in an empty classroom, often using open windows to symbolize a sense of the future or hope. Using the same classroom to stage the reenactment of different events that happened decades apart draws a visual connection between them, emphasizing the heaviness of a snow-balling history of tragedy and resistance.

"Looking Forward/Looking Back" 2008 - Iris print

As Farrell states in the show catalogue, Weems decided to recreate these historical moments as a "means of processing, understanding, reflecting, and laying to rest these memories." (Speaking of catalogue - they're free at the show, very nicely put together, and worth a trip to the gallery to get one for your collection).

As with "Looking Forward/Looking Back" above, Weems is also interlacing her own commentary and emotions into this series by constructing additional images which serve as insights into her own relationship towards the past. I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again, but there is an interesting parallel between this show and McCallum/Tarry's "Another Country" at Kiang last March.

"The Endless Weeping of Women" 2008 - Archival pigment print

While Weems does create these photographs using models and sets, she is still basing the imagery off of historical photographs and/or accounts. In many of these images it is Weem's low-budget attempt at recreating these moments which reinvigorates an otherwise overly saturated, and therefore less impactful, image. McCallum and Tarry work directly with historical images from the Civil Rights Movement but they too imbue them with a new sense of emotion and nostalgia by translating them through a layering of printed silk and oil painting.

In both cases the artists are translating history, reducing or altering information for a conceptual impact, and leaving their own personal impressions all over the pseudo-historical documents.

"Mourning" 2008 - Archival pigment print

"Someone to Watch Over Me" 2008 Archival digital print

A few of the images bordered on being too sentimental

"The Execution of Innocence" 2008 - Archival pigment print

while others were incredibly powerful. "The Execution of Innocence" was striking without clearly relating to any particular historical moment though the male being execution did bring to mind the horrors occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I viewed the photographs before watching the accompanying 20+ minute digital video piece, which I left with mixed feelings. I found it both too long (the first five minutes is a black screen with Weems talking) and too preachy, giving me the impression I was watching a biased History Channel special rather than an art piece. Nevertheless, the video was successful enough in its dramatizations that by the end of it was firmly rooted to my seat.

More so, I found it fascinating to discover all of the photographs in the show were taken in tandem with filming. Whether the photograph or the video was the initial intention (or maybe it was both?) the two work well in tandem. Weems does not try to hide the evidence of the filming in the photographs. The framing of the photographs often includes stage lights and the circular track around the models that is used for the video camera. To have seen the photographs without the video, or vice versa, something would have been lost. Weems wants these photographs to appear grainy, old, historical, yet the video is clear documentation that she created these moments. The video is in color, giving an entirely new view of the same scene in the photographs, showing that these images do not document history, but Weem's own impressions of it.

Video Still - Obama

Where Weems began to lose me was when the video suddenly turned political, wrapping up her long summary of strife, persecution, fear, and hope by talking about Barrack Obama (whose face flashes alongside Ghandi and the Dalai Lama). When the video ended there should have been a "Paid for by Obama for President" logo. While Weems does question whether Obama is the man he claims to be or a puppet controlled by the old guard (insert image of fat white men), she quickly diverts into imaging what Hillary Clinton must have been thinking when she had to admit defeat, and I found the assumptions a bit disturbing. The political curve ball at the end was unexpected and disappointing, Weems allowing her own opinions to crowd out any poignant message that may have been buried within the video.

"The Capture of Angela" 2008 - Archival pigment print

But by no means take my word for it, go see the show (and get yourself a catalogue). It's up at ACA Gallery through August 21st 2008.

1 comment:

Julia said...

oooo...really nice review, jonathan.
well done.