Birgit Jürgenssen

Rebecca Close

Rebecca Close

re.act.feminism #2

In: Frieze, Nr. 154, April 2013, S. 155.

In a video documenting Maja Bajevic’s performance Women at Work – Under Construction (Trilogy) (1999) – for which the artist invited five women refugees from Sreb­renica to embroider onto the mate­rial stret­ched across scaffolding outside the National Gallery in Sarajevo – two passers-by can be heard discussing the work. Responding to a suggestion that the needlework will be ‘ripped off’ once the performance is completed, an elderly woman exclaims: ‘You mean they will destroy them? Why not display them as another work of art?’ Another voice replies: ‘Because then it is just embroidery […] and this is embroidery on scaffolding.’ It’s the value and agency of the traces left behind by performance which ‘re.act.femi­nism #2’ – a travel­ling archive of documentation of femi­nist performance works from the 1960s to the present – seeks to address.

In the Fundació Antoni Tàpies – the nomadic archive’s sixth host on its journey through Poland, Croatia, Denmark and Estonia before it reaches its final desti­nation in Berlin – a wooden shipping container, fitted with shelves lined with DVDs and drawers filled with folders of photographs, stood ajar. There are many stra­tegies for approa­ching this colossal content (Bajevic’s work is one of 180 documents); experimental way-finding is the archive’s most successful pedago­gical proposition.

Arbitrary selections produce unexpected conclusions: María Ruido’s La Voz Humana (The Human Voice, 1997), Antonia Baehr’s Lachen (Laughter, 2008) and Coco Fusco’s Operation Atropos (2006) together propose an analysis of the mate­riality of the voice as a consti­tuent of gendered iden­tity. Switching between works by the well-known propon­ents of femi­nist performance (Marina Abramovic´, Helena Almeida, Joan Jonas, Suzanne Lacy, Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper and Martha Rosler) and those by artists whose practices have not neces­sarily been associated exclusively with this description (Oreet Ashery, Tania Bruguera, Lygia Clark, Esther Ferrer, Rose Finn-Kelcey and Kate Gilmore) allowed visi­tors to fragment the domi­nant narrative of where and when femi­nist performance art happened.

The geo-political map format, however, made it appear as though the selected works are part of a coherent art-historical movement with a North American and Western Euro­pean centre, spil­ling out a little to the South and East. It’s signifi­cant that the ‘re.act.femi­nism’ project started with a 2009 exhibition in Berlin enti­tled ‘Performance Art of the 1960s and 1970s Today’, which included the work of 26 North American and Euro­pean artists. It was one of a number of exhibitions and publications in the last decade that sugge­sted a period of reflection on what is under­stood in North American scholar­ship as the second-wave era of femi­nist practices. In 2007 alone, the exhibition ‘WACK! Art and the Femi­nist Revolution’ was held at MOCA in Los Angeles; the Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for Femi­nist Art at the Brooklyn Museum’s inaugural show was ‘Global Femi­nisms’; while Lacy and Leslie Labowitz’s travel­ling ‘Performing Archive’ documents women’s art produced between 1970–85. Of all the questions ‘re.act.femi­nism #2’ provokes but cannot answer – such as why does only one document refer to a performance by a male artist? If this is a ‘living’ archive why is there no record of the local research produced at each stop? – only one seems particularly urgent. If femi­nist performance is an international art-historical movement, how do we know what it looks like in distinct locations in which the popular and scholarly ‘return’ in the 2000s to ‘reflect’ on the ‘second wave’, has no currency?

In an essay enti­tled ‘How Do We Know What Latin American Conceptualism Looks Like?’ (2010), art historian Miguel A. Lopez examines Luis Camnitzer’s exhibition ‘Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s’ (1999) at the Queens Museum of Art, positio­ning the Western art-historical category of ‘Conceptual art’ within a broader narrative of the trans-conti­nental deve­lopment of ‘Conceptualism’. Lopez warns that a side-effect of the well-intentioned commitment to ‘visibility’ (the project of ‘adding’ un-recognized happe­n­ings from ‘periphery’ sites of production) is the univer­salizing of a pre-configured category of identification. Lopez calls for a different way to create art history as surely by now ‘it is no longer a matter of tirelessly continuing to accommodate events in the endless container we believe history to be, but of questio­ning the ways in which they reappear’.

Although ‘re.act.femi­nism #2’ triumphs in the project of recupe­r­ation, its hybrid character – standing awkwardly between archive and exhibition – fails the project’s femi­nist intentions on two accounts. Its temporary status (due to copyright) means the archive is unable to secure the preservation of mate­rials and therefore to be accoun­table for its own politics of inclusion and exclusion. Furthermore, the project lacks a curatorial stra­tegy for supporting the assumed but un-declared iden­tity of an international art-historical movement. Where history is expe­ri­enced as both a metaphorical and literal (shipping) container, the potential ‘reactions’ are limited to the conservative mechanics of tireless addition. (ph1578)