Making Histories Essay

02/07/2015 - 04/04/2015

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Making Histories

Making Histories explores our culture’s growing interest in the past and a deepening concern shared by many contemporary artists for the ways history is represented. Employing the tools and techniques of historians, these seven international artists assume the varied and often overlapping roles of researcher, archivist, interviewer, chronicler, storyteller, performer, and provocateur.

The idea of representing history in art is not new. History painting was the most ambitious and prestigious form of visual art in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the genre expanded in the early 19th century to include the depiction of recent events, such as wars and revolutions in addition to significant episodes from antiquity.   With the rise of modernism in the later decades of the 19th century, history painting went into eclipse, as progressive artists turned to the depiction of modern life or escaped into the realms of fantasy and, in the 20th century, abstraction. A concern with history returned to art in the 1970s with the advent of postmodernism, which overturned the short-lived modernist triumph of abstraction and reintroduced representation and narrative as central artistic strategies.

Reflecting a new approach, the artists in Making Histories investigate their subjects using traces of the past, drawing on historical sources that include photographs, print media, film footage, artifacts, texts and documents, as well as the experiences and first-hand accounts of events from witnesses and participants. Out of these diverse explorations come probing and memorable objects and images that include hand-stitched quilts, text paintings, and time-based works that appropriate and collage printed images, translate iconic photographs into ink paintings presented in sequence, employ documentary techniques, use found footage, and capture imaginative performances and painstakingly detailed reenactments.

Featuring works whose subject matter spans the past hundred years, the exhibition addresses compelling historical events of national or even international impact, examining alternate or untold histories, and bearing witness to some of the most consequential political, ideological, and cultural shifts that occurred during the 20th century. With a personalizing effect, each work serves in its own way to introduce a human scale to these larger phenomena, reminding us that these occasions, like events occurring today, are all shaped by human action and experience.

In considering the prevalent and intriguing role of historical research in recent contemporary art, we discover the provocative, whimsical, critical, and imaginative ways in which a new generation of artists thinks about history and its representation. Anchored by Chen Shaoxiong’s sweeping visual survey of nearly one hundred years of Chinese history, the exhibition recalls the tumultuous past century, from Mary Reid Kelley’s theatrical take on the untold story of women sex workers during the First World War in Europe, to Lene Berg’s beguiling narrative of a controversial episode in Cold War cultural politics, Hank Willis Thomas’s playful riffing on the language of protest from the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Anri Sala’s highly personal investigation of the legacy of Albanian communism, and Jeremy Deller’s compelling re-enactment of a crucial confrontation symbolic of the battle between organized labor and the Conservative British government in the 1980s. As a meditative complement to the portrayal of such earthly conflicts, Anna Von Mertens, in her stitched evocations of some of the most violent episodes in American history, offers night sky portraits, revealing the arcs traced by the stars over specific spans of time exactly as they appeared from below. Von Mertens allows us the space to imagine these events and, shifting our perspective, to contemplate the passage of vast time on another scale entirely.

History consists of representations of the past, which are not found but made. The making of history can be seen as a creative interpretation of the past rather than its objective record. In his dialogue, “The Critic as Artist,” Oscar Wilde’s character Gilbert proclaims: “the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” If the artworks in Making Histories prompt us to make connections between the conflicts and urgent issues of the past and similarly pressing concerns of the present, do the artists provoke us to reflect on how history is made and consider how actions and decisions in the present might affect future histories?

Raechell Smith and David Cateforis

Anna Von Mertens

American, born 1973
Lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire

In her series As the Stars Go By, Anna Von Mertens turns to the distant and aloof stars above to evoke violent historical events on earth below. For each of the works, the artist used a computer program to determine the paths traced by the stars from the vantage point of a specific historical episode during a particular span of time. She then meticulously hand-stitched the pattern into a hand-dyed swath of cotton, translating her mechanically precise source into tactile and handmade materiality. Through its refusal of conventional historical representation and focus on the heavens, As the Stars Go Bysuggests the limits of human vision and knowledge in relation to epic historical events, which are rendered small and insignificant in comparison to the vastness of cosmological time and space.

As the Stars Go By comprises works referencing nine events, beginning with the 1492 sighting of land by Columbus’s fleet and ending with the bombing of Baghdad in 2003. Exhibited here are works addressing the Battle of the Bulge, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Each is represented from the vantage point of a person present at the event who looks away from the violence and instead to the stars, suggesting the inadequacy of traditional means of visualization for representing both the individual’s experience and the event’s historical significance.

In two of the works, the artist cites turning points during World War II, in which the loss of individual human life is overshadowed by the larger historical importance of the events. In contrast is the assassination of Dr. King, whose singular death reverberates through time.

Von Mertens recalls the events of December 16, 1944 in a work that traces the path of the stars from the perspective of American troops looking in the direction of the first attack from 5:30 am until sunrise. Although this imagery simulates what a star-gazing soldier could have witnessed during that interval, the Hiroshimaand Martin Luther King, Jr. piecesrecord spans of time in the sunlit hours at those locations, revealing what the original witnesses could not possibly see due to the stars’ invisibility. Both the historical implications and personal experience of the original events are as difficult to imagine as the presence of the stars during daylight.

—Sadie Shillieto

Chen Shaoxiong

Chinese, born 1962
Lives in Beijing

Chen Shaoxiong’s Ink History compresses almost a century of China’s history – 1911 to 2009 – into three minutes. To make the video, Chen downloaded photographic images of significant historical events and personages from the Internet, rendered them by hand as ink paintings, and arranged the paintings into a largely chronological sequence, accompanied by the soundtrack of a ticking clock and overlapping recordings of propagandistic Chinese music. Presented without dates or captions, the decontextualized images simply follow one another. It is up to the viewer to identify, interpret, and connect them on the basis of personal knowledge and established historical narratives. And not all viewers will be able to do all of these things: many of the images will be instantly recognizable to a Chinese audience or to those familiar with modern Chinese history, but will be obscure to those lacking that knowledge.

Chen’s use of propagandistic music in Ink History reminds us that totalitarian governments such as China’s often use photographs as tools to manipulate and control public opinion. Such governments also suppress images for political reasons; some of the images in Ink History, including those showing episodes from the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 4, 1989, are difficult to access in China due to official censorship. Chen’s inclusion of them may be read as a critique of the Chinese government’s attempt to edit history to serve its own political purposes.

Chen’s video further suggests the importance of individual subjectivity in the construction and understanding of history. Chen demonstrates his own subjectivity through his personal selection of this specific set of photographs; his repainting of them in his individual style that blurs details and renders the images more ambiguous; and his placement of some of them out of chronological sequence. These manipulations remind us that histories are not discovered but made, and invite us to actively produce our own.

—Meining Wang and David Cateforis

Mary Reid Kelley with Patrick Kelley

American, born 1979
Lives in Saratoga Springs

Mary Reid Kelley fuses and layers diverse artistic media, cultural references, and literary tropes in her black-and-white film You Make Me Iliad. Set during World War I, the film presents a short episode in the life of a German soldier writing an epic poem and his interaction with a Belgian prostitute. As a writer, the soldier grapples with some of the same problems as Reid Kelley in that he wishes to balance his work’s inventiveness with some measure of reality.

Reid Kelley plays the two main characters, the soldier/writer and his potential muse, the prostitute, whom the former seeks out because his story lacks a female character – an expression of the artist’s feminist concern with traditional history’s neglect of women. The film reflects the scarcity of biographical information about the women forced into prostitution in German-occupied Belgium while also imagining a narrative for one individual. The soldier’s introduction to the prostitute is preceded by the administration of an antiseptic and then the presentation of her bill of health; such medical records are the only documents attesting to the historical existence of these women.

Beginning with these traces of history, the artist weaves together various media to create a highly stylized narrative drawing on the conventions of the epic poem, which blends literature and history. Specifically, she mimics Homer’s Iliad as translated by Alexander Pope into rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter. Although rooted in this staid literary framework, the pun-filled speech of Reid Kelley’s characters takes unexpected twists and turns that mix humor with the horror of war. Her striking visual style blurs the line between two and three dimensions by painting the actors’ faces to resemble the graphic quality of German Expressionist woodblock prints and by painting many of the backgrounds and props. The soldier speculates in the opening scene that war has caused a metaphorical loss of three dimensions but he finds the two dimensions of the printed page preferable because it is ruled by logic and reason. Reid Kelley reunites the two- and three-dimensional in order to question and explore the construction of history.

—Sadie Shillieto

Lene Berg

Norwegian, born 1965
Lives in Berlin and New York

Stalin by Picasso, or Woman with Moustache gives consideration to a minor but highly controversial work from the later career of Pablo Picasso, who had joined the Communist Party in 1944: a small charcoal portrait drawing of Joseph Stalin that the artist was asked to produce for a commemorative issue of the French Communist weekly Les Lettres Françaises following the 1953 death of the Soviet leader. Upon its publication, the drawing was poorly received by many Communists. Said to resemble a woman with a moustache more than Stalin, it was seen as a caricature rather than a tribute (unsurprising considering the Communist party’s disapproval of abstraction in art), and the famously fiery Spaniard was quite taken aback at the reaction of his own party.

Narrated by Lene Berg, the video provides viewers with a history lesson, featuring humanizing details about both key players, Picasso and Stalin, and highlighting the former’s personal reaction to the controversy surrounding his drawing. Berg structures her retelling of the story as a sequence of numbered scenes composed of a series of photo collages, many of which she manipulates herself, before the camera’s lens. Her deliberately light-hearted tone contrasts sharply with the seriousness of the situation as it was perceived at the time, in the fraught early years of the Cold War. And Berg’s use of bright colors, collage, and hand manipulation impart an almost ironic undercurrent to the story, heightening the absurdity (from our present perspective) of such a great commotion being caused by a modest and well-intended tribute. The formatting and emplotment of Berg’s well-researched video ultimately allow it to function as art, history lesson, and interpretive essay simultaneously. In other words, it operates not only as art, but also as its own historical context, as the video explains itself within itself.

—Allison Norris

Anri Sala

Albanian, born 1974
Lives in Berlin

Anri Sala produced Intervista (Interview), while studying film and video in Paris at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. Shot in Tirana, Albania, the work begins with Sala’s discovery of a 16-mm film. The old reel contains footage from the 1977 meeting of the Albanian Youth Congress where Sala’s mother, Valdet, gives a short interview to the press following a public appearance by communist dictator Enver Hoxha. However, the film lacks a soundtrack; Valdet’s words are now lost.

When Sala first shows his mother the film, she reacts with laughter and surprise. Sala cuts between the footage and his mother’s face as he asks, “Do you remember?” Valdet does not remember and Sala embarks upon an investigation to recover the words of his mother’s interview through interviews of his own.

Sala begins by meeting with the original interviewer and soundman. He then visits a school for the deaf, showing the film to a student who reads Valdet’s lips while Sala transcribes the text. The final portion of the work captures Valdet’s reaction to her now recovered words and her reflection on the political and social situation in the late 1970s. When Sala shows her the film, now subtitled, she reacts with disbelief stating, “I just can’t believe it!” and “Those aren’t my words!” Sala then asks her a series of questions about the past and her feelings toward her former self. The piece concludes with Valdet discussing her fears for the future of her family and country, both inextricably linked.

Intervista demonstrates a collision between past and present and the ways in which memory and desire inform our daily lives. Sala’s poignant footage provides a glimpse of Tirana in the late 1990s while his interviews tell the story of an earlier era, the effects of which were still present in Albania at the time.

—Laura Minton

Hank Willis Thomas

American, born 1976
Lives in New York

African American photoconceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas explores themes of identity, history, and popular culture, focusing on the cultural construction of race. Thomas often uses racially charged archival and documentary images, which he reworks or recontextualizes to engage the past and the present simultaneously.

Thomas’s series in Making Histories draws on an iconic 1968 photograph by African American photojournalist Ernest C. Withers of striking black sanitation workers in Memphis holding signs reading “I AM A MAN.” The lettering style of Thomas’s signs hearkens back to the 1960s while the various plays on the original phrase evoke both earlier conceptions of African American social status and changes in black vernacular speech in the decades following the height of the Civil Rights movement. For Thomas, the overall set of twenty signs (eight of which are on display here) constitutes a lyrical progression exploring African American identity as expressed through language.

Thomas brings history forward to show how ideas rooted in the past affect our present and have the power to shape our future. But Thomas’s transformation of images and language from the past also invites viewers to consider alternative notions of identity and values and to engage in dialogues provoking new ways of thinking – and the recognition of different truths.

—Andi Back

Jeremy Deller

British, born 1966
Lives in London

Staged by the English artist Jeremy Deller and documented in a film by Mike Figgis, The Battle of Orgreave was a 2001 re-enactment of a 1984 conflict between British police and striking South Yorkshire coal miners protesting the effects of pit closures by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Gathered in an attempt to block the delivery of coal by non-union drivers to a British Steel coking plant, the picketers were ultimately dispersed by riot police in a bloody clash that made national headlines. With the eventual collapse of the nationwide miner’s strike, the battle came to symbolize unionized labor’s failure to resist the conservative politics of the Thatcher government.

Driven by a desire to find out “exactly what happened on that day,” Deller conducted exhaustive research and arranged to re-enact the battle near the actual site of the conflict. The cast, led by historical re-enactment expert Howard Giles, comprised not only experienced re-enactors but also some of the miners and policemen who participated in the original incident. By these means Deller’s re-enactment became an extension of the original event and allowed for its reinterpretation in ways that countered the negative portrayal of the striking miners in the 1980s by the conservative media and by Prime Minister Thatcher, who called them “the enemy within.”

Re-enacting the conflict and bringing it into the present allowed for old accounts to be revised and for a new one to emerge. Clearly sympathetic to the miners, Deller’s version, as documented by Figgis, emphasizes the violent actions of the police and positions the viewer as a witness to injustice. Ultimately functioning as what Deller called “living history,” the Battle of Orgreave reminds us that the past always remains open for re-examination, driven by the interests of the present.

—Matthew Hobart