artist / participant
opening date: 03.04.2009
Dara Birnbaum (*1946 New York, USA) presents an emotionally loaded and highly critical insight into (American) society and more particularly into the way it is being portrayed by television. The prominent presence of 'the woman' as emotional being allows for a feminist interpretation of her work. Yet, unlike other contemporaries Birnbaum does not run diametrically counter to a male society affected by testosterone. Her work is a sustained search for a redefinition of what it can mean to be 'a woman' in a world evolving ever faster and overloaded with images. Dara Birnbaum considers it a challenge to formulate a strong and well-founded commentary on a political as well as a social level, by means of new audiovisual techniques. Although she grew up in a climate of political crisis, she has still maintained her unfathomable sense for romanticism.
For the retrospective parts of her personal archive will be opened up and films which were never shown before will be presented. At the same time a retrospective monograph will be compiled in which a choice selection of national and international authors will throw light on their view on Birnbaum's oeuvre from various perspectives. The exhibition begins in S.M.A.K. and will afterwards travel to Fundaçao Serralves (Porto, Portugal).
Birnbaum's work has been shown on numerous occasions, since the 1980s, both at the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst and S.M.A.K. In 1991, the museum first presented a large-scale installation work by Birnbaum, Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission (1990), on the occasion of the Time Festival. This work was so well received that it was immediately purchased into the permanent collection. This spatial installation concentrates on the events surrounding the broadcasting of the student and worker uprising in the summer of 1989, which culminated in "Tiananmen Square." Particularly revealing is Birnbaum's concentration on the means used to get the documentation of these events out to a mass viewing audience. For example, one of the installation's video channels concentrates on the moment that both CBS and CNN were forced to cease broadcast transmission, while another channel reveals the ways and means taken up by students in order to continue to get such images out, as with fax machines. The presentation of such imagery, on small LCD screens, forces the viewer to be in a direct, close-up confrontation with the displays, thus further accentuating the balance of power that political structures and media strategies adopt in everyday life. The diversity of the facts is culturally determined and played out strategically. It is up to the viewer to keep their dormant critical sense awake.
In 1992, the year after the purchase, Dara Birnbaum was commissioned by Documenta IX, Kassel, to produce a new work, Transmission Tower: Sentinel. Here Birnbaum concentrates on excerpts from the now famous "Thousand Points of Light" speech, made by George Bush when he accepted his party's nomination to run for President, in 1988. The downward curve, formed by sequential monitors, refers to the exact path taken by the most frequently dropped bomb by the U.S. in the Gulf War. Thus, the structure also underpins and reinforces the political tone of Allen Ginsberg's reading of his anti-war poem "Hum Bom!", on the occasion of the opening night of the 1988 National Student Convention, held at Rutgers University. The exhibition space, the Friedericianum in Kassel, the 18th-century symbol of political power, was the backdrop to the section of high voltage pylon of an actual transmission tower from which the eight monitors were suspended. This setting enhanced the tension between the three sets of images, which are presented in the motion of a constantly moving linear video wall: Ginsberg's recitation, excerpts of George Bush's acceptance speech; and contra-flowing images from students at the 1988 National Student Convention, which move in an upward motion against the others.
It was already with growing interest that S.M.A.K. kept track of Birnbaum's work from the early days of her artistic career. This collaboration reached its first climax in the late 80's and early 90's. At that time, an intense bond developed, which has been sustained until this very day. The artistic director, Philippe Van Cauteren, therefore considered it no more than a logical conclusion that the museum should be the driving force behind a proper retrospective exhibition, with a full catalogue of the oeuvre. After all, the last exhibition of any size dates from 1995 and since then her work has undergone a huge evolution, not least as a result of the technological progress of the last decade. After nearly 15 years of retrospective silence, it is essential to turn the spotlight on work of such quality once again and to pay Dara Birnbaum the respects she deserves.
Retrospective: the dark matter of media light