Feminism and the Mirror of a Generation

Unlike their seventies predecessors, the videos in “Reflections on the Electric Mirror: New Feminist Video” at the Brooklyn Museum do not bear the urgency of exploring a new medium or an overtly political point of view.

poster for

"Reflections on the Electric Mirror: New Feminist Video" Exhibition

at Brooklyn Museum
in the DUMBO, other Brooklyn area
This event has ended - (2009-05-01 - 2010-01-10)

In Reviews by Gayathri Iyer 2009-05-15 print

It seems an apt first sight at a feminist art exhibition to view a woman in the act of labor. Kate Gilmore, like her video art contemporaries, is immediately toying with traditions of feminine behavior and feminist struggle in Blood From A Stone. Dressed like an office secretary in prim cardigan and skirt, Gilmore lifts ten heavy plaster cubes and places them on shelves just above her height, resulting in steady viscous paint drips down the walls. We watch her huff through this task on a television monitor placed in close proximity to the tidy product of the artist’s labor.

Gilmore’s work is very much in the style of quiet feminist endurance that figures prominently in “Reflections on the Electric Mirror: New Feminist Video” at the Brooklyn Museum. Lauren Ross, interim curator at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art, affirms that the “works show a movement toward less polemical representations of feminism,” with understated feminist themes shown through repetitive and personal performances.

Kate Gilmore, ''Blood from a Stone,'' 2009. Mixed-media sculpture with video, color, sound. 8 min. 9 seconds. Courtesy of the artist and Smith-Stewart, NY.

“There has been a renewed interest in performance, and a historic inclination in feminism to video art. I chose all pieces that feature the artist on camera, and make reference to female identity or subjectivity,” says Ross of the seven video installations, all from the last decade.

Subjectivity and mass media are directly referenced in New Report, a TV news parody by Wynne Greenwood and K8 Hardy that uses the tagline “Pregnant with information.” The artists-cum-reporters deliver overtly blank stories in a sensationalist tone. Beyond the entertaining mocking of standards in the video era with dull graphics and crude production values, the artists point at a low-fi modern feminism through reports of bra burning protests and representations of women on reality television.

New Report is also an example of the comedic element that contributes to the exhibition. Ross considers the show’s entertaining quality an asset and achievement. “There was definitely a time when artists believed that if something wasn’t tough to watch, it wouldn’t be taken seriously,” she says. “I think these women are using comedy in a way that is giving them strength in their message and identity.”

Shannon Plumb, ''Stills from Commercials,'' 2002. Courtesy of the artist and Sara Meltzer Gallery.

The satire is strongest in Shannon Plumb’s wordless performances of black and white commercials. With a frenetic physicality that nods at both silent film and fifties television slapstick, Plumb’s string of fourteen shorts scored with playful jazz piano and folk tunes is one of those rare museum pieces that could be paired with popcorn. Her precise humor in selling generic items and ideas like “shampoo,” “lose weight drink,” “speed reader school,” “one day sale,” and “chill pill,” challenges imposed ideas of consumerism as feminine activity.

A more discomforting laugh comes from Whacker, by Stanya Kahn and Harry Dodge. Kahn, wearing a dress and heels, appears on screen chopping away at rows of an expansive field of weeds in the Los Angeles heat. Her expression is one of surrender, and the prolonged futility and repetition in the flat overexposed image becomes an engaging feminist comment. “As feminist works, but as works of contemporary art in general, these artists do seem to look at futility, and the embrace of failure,” notes Ross. “The idea that maybe things aren’t working out, but we are going to keep going anyway.”

Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, Still from ''Whacker,'' 2005. Video, color, sound. 7 min. 7 seconds. Courtesy of the artists and Elizabeth Dee, New York.

Jen DeNike also works with repetition in Happy Endings. Obscured by harsh sunlight beside a calm wooded lake, DeNike holds up a series of cue cards that read “There are no happy endings,” striking a common note in the show of both lingering hopelessness and unexpected twists on the pleasure of viewing the female as object.

Unlike their seventies predecessors, the videos in “Reflections on the Electric Mirror” do not bear the urgency of exploring a new medium or an overtly political point of view. Instead, we see subtler works of a continuing feminist sensibility that are according to Ross, “completely autonomous while conversant with their predecessors,” in defining a contemporary feminist style.

Gayathri Iyer

Gayathri Iyer. Gayathri is a Midwesterner and a South Asian pop culture fan with a south Brooklyn zip. Currently an Educator at the Museum of the Moving Image, Gayathri has also hung hats at Women Make Movies, the Jacob Burns Film Center, the Sundance Film Festival, and The Onion. A sometime filmmaker and wordsmith, Gayathri primarily enjoys snacks. » See other writings

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