Visceral Filmmaking: The Video Art of Nina Yuen and Almagul Menlibayeva

They take us somewhere far beyond the gallery walls, into environments deeply personal and thoroughly rewarding.

poster for Nina Yuen

Nina Yuen "White Blindness"

at Jane Lombard Gallery
in the Chelsea 14th - 19th area
This event has ended - (2010-04-15 - 2010-05-27)

poster for Almagul Menlibayeva

Almagul Menlibayeva "Daughters of Turan"

at Priska C. Juschka Fine Art
in the Chelsea 27th area
This event has ended - (2010-04-08 - 2010-05-15)

In Features Main Article 3 by Brian Fee 2010-04-25 print


Video art is a tricky subject in the realm of the gallery show. In an environment of over-stimulation, especially in a neighborhood dense with galleries as West Chelsea, the artist must present something compelling to warrant our 15-odd minutes of time, seated in a darkened room (if seating is provided at all) with varying acoustics, as we think ‘there is this fantastic show across the street/next door/down the hall I’ve not seen yet and it’s closing tomorrow, and since it’s paintings/assemblage/etc it might grab me faster than this video piece’. There are knockout video-based artists, of course: Barbara Kruger, Doug Aitken, Steve McQueen and Cao Fei immediately spring to mind. Then there are artists you might remember from an art fair, or read about them in an international art journal. Perhaps the name doesn’t immediately equate, but you duck your head into the darkened room anyway, just to see what’s up — and you are rewarded with an incredible video art experience. Two such current shows, Nina Yuen’s “White Blindness” at Lombard-Freid Projects and Almagul Menlibayeva’s “Daughters of Turan” at Priska C. Juschka Fine Art, entwine brilliant, very personal narratives and representation with fascinating filmmaking. Avoiding overt spectacle, the two artists latch you in hook, line and sinker in minutes.

Nina Yuen’s four short films, ranging in duration from just over four minutes to eight minutes, are vintage, sun-streaked jewels, cloaked in hand-me-down fabric and resonating with the gravity of the artist’s childhood and personal relationships. Despite the recurring soft-focus or Super 8-style grain and Yuen’s honeyed voiceover — enacted, mind you, in her recitation of part of Virginia Woolf’s suicide note or on the history of post-traumatic stress disorder — her works are not weightless, cloying pictures. Yuen, Hawaiian-born and based in Amsterdam, acts in most of her films, including the four in this exhibition, pulling multiple roles when necessary. The film sharing the exhibition’s title, White Blindness (2009), the newest work in the show, contains that soliloquy on PTSD. Yuen painted her studio/living space white and lived that way for a year before filming it, spray-painting white anything she accumulated in that period. The film flickers with backlighting and overexposure to mimic the blinding phenomenon, as Yuen intones Luc Sante’s chilling poem on mortality “The Unknown Soldier”: ‘take my name from me and make it a verb. Think of me when you run out of money. Remember me when you fall on the sidewalk. Mention me when they ask you what happened.” In Clean (2006), the briefest film on view, Yuen proposes a series of idiosyncratic personal hygiene methods in almost stream-of-conscious thought: instead of using soap, she steps into a plastic bag filled with suds, or instead of using a towel, she uses paper fans to dry her body. Her ‘instead ofs’ become performance art, as Yuen kneels nude in her white, doily-overrun room or sprawls in a printed dress in the grass, enacting the rituals with exacting grace and sobriety.


If these two films present Yuen’s attempts at informational deluge through multiple voiceovers and gestural actions, her two other films Don and Alison (both 2006) delve far deeper into her personal life and upbringing. In Don, the artist performs multiple onscreen roles, of herself, her mother Alison, and her mother’s ex-husband Don, lip-synching Alison’s prerecorded memories of the breakup. Through several dreamlike vignettes, the camera maintains a birds-eye view as Yuen stares up at her mother’s words suspended overhead, narrating in tandem. Two particularly resonating moments begin at the precise point of breakup, with Alison echoing only ‘goodbye’ on the phone, as two personages of her daughter lie back to back on the mattress. The following is just after the breakup, as Yuen narrates her mother’s walk from her house into the waters of Venice Beach and back home again. Here, Yuen wades into sun-glistening water and floats on her back, her dress ballooning around her as reflections bounce off the agitated water’s surface like liquid chrome. In Alison, the artist begins by reciting a missing persons report (filed by her mother) on Yuen’s missing childhood friend. Then, her reading of Raymond Carver’s “Waiting” segues into Virginia Woolf’s suicide, in a rift where the film morphs into an developing bad dream. We become more and more cognizant of it — Yuen’s recitation of Woolf’s suicide note while drawing a pattern around a self-portrait paper-doll, then reversing the shot — but we cannot rouse ourselves until the end. Eschewing the river, Yuen reenacts the death by submerging in an overflowing antique bathtub, the waters churning around her body in slow-motion as a haunting, sucking splash permeates the soundtrack.

One immediate difference between Almagul Menlibayeva’s exhibition and Yuen’s is the inclusion of Menlibayeva’s photography in the gallery space. This series of luxuriously colored and staged prints — mounted either on aluminum or in lightboxes — presents a gorgeous and dreamy Central Asian landscape, with the Steppe unfurling in all directions and the yurts’ interiors emitting as much of the visible color spectrum as possible. It’s a strong first impression, especially if you’ve never encountered Menlibayeva’s mythology-steeped works before, but these prints are only part of the action: they are production stills from the artist’s two new films, Milk for Lambs and Butterflies of Aisha Bibi (both 2010), on view here. Menlibayeva works in Amsterdam and Berlin, but she grew up in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, and imbues her richly visual narratives with her heritage and the cultural traditions and chronicles of Central Asia. These two films further her emphasis on strong women, from the legend of Aisha-Bibi, a Sufi poet’s daughter in a Romeo and Juliet romance. to Umai, the all-nurturing mother goddess of the Turkic Siberians, symbolizing their interconnectivity with the Steppe and the female population’s multigenerational circle. Milk for Lambs, in a bit over 11 minutes, takes us there, to a festival for the remembrance of ancestors on the Steppe, while interweaving the story of Umai into the psychological fabric of the women. We see a little girl in a frothy white dress, far too long for her, holding a lamb. We hear the snuffling breath and clomping hoofbeats of a horse, and astride it is a young woman in black, holding locks of her hair out to either side like great horns, throwing darts at us with her piercing gaze. Another woman appears on the Steppe, accompanied by the crack of a gunshot; she’s shirtless but wearing a navy military uniform with a fox pelt draped over her head. There are old women seated on ecstatically patterned rugs in the yurts and at tables heaped with food for the festival. At the film’s conclusion, as night falls and the gathering disperses, the little girl with the lamb reappears, standing over the prone figure of an old man. These women — the older women of the village, the sternly outfitted ‘Protector of the Wasteland’, the young dancing girls — are all Umai, her ‘daughters’ suffused with and intrinsically linked to her spirit.


Milk for Lambs straddles the arid beauty of the Steppe and the decorated, festival-prepped yurts, but Butterflies of Aisha Bibi resides fully within persistent, intense visual stimulation. Set amid the eponymous terracotta-tiled mausoleum in Taraz and the massive turquoise-domed mausoleum to Turkic poet Khoja Akhmet Yassawi in Turkestan City, Menlibayeva recreates Aisha-Bibi’s ancient love story with contemporary relevancy. To be sure, there are male figures in Menlibayeva’s works: the shirtless omni-adolescent boys on the Steppe in Milk for Lambs, shadowboxing at the camera and carrying a lamb, searching for Umai; in the bemused men outside the mausoleums in Butterflies of Aisha Bibi, flapping her fabric wings or snapping photographs of the mesmerizing dancers. Perhaps the strongest male figure could be interpreted as the contemporary Karakhan Mukhammed, Aisha-Bibi’s suitor, peering out through the sunlight-pierced terracotta walls of the mausoleum interior, awaiting his love.

Yuen and Menlibayeva’s chosen mediums elaborate these respective representations so effectively: Yuen’s voice, role-playing and affecting editing (particularly in Alison), Menlibayeva’s precise timing of aural cues (the drums in Butterflies of Aisha Bibi, the baby’s cry and hoofbeats in Milk for Lambs) and blurring of contemporary Kazakhstan with historic ritual. The cautionary point here is simple: these exhibitions are precisely the compelling journeys described initially. They take us somewhere far beyond the gallery walls, into environments deeply personal and thoroughly rewarding. It is on us, then, to look past these darkened rooms and give this video art a closer look.

Of note: Almagul Menlibayeva is in conversation with Independent Curator Leeza Ahmady and Gallerist Priska C. Juschka on Thursday, April 29 at 7:00 p.m. at Juschka’s gallery. RSVP to gallery@priskajuschkafineart.com

Lombard-Freid Projects / 531 W 26th St, 2nd Floor / NYC 10001 / 212-967-8040
Priska C. Juschka Fine Art / 547 W 27th St, 2nd Floor / NYC 10001 / 212-244-4320

Brian Fee

Brian Fee. Brian Fee talks art by day, sees Brooklyn bands by night, and speaks Japanese during in-between hours. His alter ego is feeslist.blogspot.com, which includes a weekly rundown of only the dopest NY-based art/film/music events. » See other writings

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