The Language of Television, Dara Birnbaum, South London Gallery

Text by Paul Hardman

The main room of the South London Gallery is entirely taken up by Birnbaum’s latest piece, Arabesque (2011). Before even entering the room, the gently ebbing and flowing piano of Robert Schumann’s composition Arabesque Opus 18 reaches out to draw one into the space. Long benches face four screens, the furthest into the room shows video footage of a female pianist playing the music, the rest of the screens alternate between showing others playing the same piece (apparently various amateurs found on YouTube), text pages from a book, and black and white stills from an old film depicting a young woman and an older man conversing in a living room. Subtitles occasionally appear, perhaps from the book, perhaps from the film. A visitor will sit, observe the screens, listen to the soothing piano, and contemplate the text and images while considering the meaning the artist has constructed through this combination of elements. All quite pleasant, but this experience could hardly be in greater contrast to viewing the early film work from Birnbaum’s career on display in the upstairs gallery.

Arabesque continues some of the main preoccupations of Birnbaum’s ouvre – a fascination with media, (previously television in particular, and in this new work the phenomena of YouTube), and a focus on the representation of women in media. Perhaps her most celebrated piece, subject of a One Work book published by Afterall, is Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-79) a pre-VCR re-edit of clips from the television series showing Wonder Woman spinning, transforming, deflecting bullets. It is exemplary of her work, which asks questions about the possibilities of female empowerment – Wonder Woman only becomes empowered by becoming a hyper sexualised exaggerated male fantasy, but Birnbaum unsettles this simple reading by seemingly reveling in the transformation.

Arabesque approaches the subject of genre equality by bringing Clara Schumann’s story to the foreground with the inclusion of both the stills from the film, Song of Love (1947) – based on the relationship between Robert Schumann and his wife Clara – and the text, which is from Clara’s diary. Clara cared for Schumann throughout his troubled periods (he suffered from depression and even madness) and raised their eight children. She too composed music of great quality, but as the female in the relationship it seems that Robert’s work would alway be given priority and prominence. The story is compelling, the issue pertinent, but there is a danger that the format of the installation is too pleasant, perhaps it soothes rather than challenges.

The curators have paired Birnbbaum’s newest work with some of her oldest – the exhibition includes several of her first films and installations. Six Movements (1975) consists of six films shown simultaneously in a small room, in two rows facing each other. Here there is no possibility of calm and pleasant contemplation. Each film deliberately frustrates through a variety of strategies, and a viewer cannot watch any film without the sight of at least one other in the peripheral vision, and the sound of all six at all times. The sounds that dominate and therefore draw the attention initially come from Addendum: Autism. A young Birnbaum rocks on her haunches, staring out of the screen, straight-faced, intense, panting, disturbing. The two other screens in the same row are shot in the same grainy black and white video footage and show Birnbaum manipulating a chair, scraping it along the floor, adjusting it, sprawling on it. These two films are Chaired Anxieties: Slewed and Chaired Anxieties: Abandoned. A play on the phrase ‘shared anxieties’, these films are tense to watch and do indeed have a feeling of anxiety which one will share with the artist. The other three films in this room also contain performances of one kind or another as Birnbaum creates tricks through repetition, mirrors and projections creating sequences that further explore the possibilities of performer / camera / viewer.

These films reveal a link to the generation of artists just preceding Birnbaum, the conceptual, performance and body artists of the mid to late sixties, and in another of her works on display here, Attack Piece (1975) it is possible to spot Dan Graham who is one of several artists in the installation’s film. This is one of the earliest examples of Birnbaum’s work with moving image, and again contains her central themes of gender and media. She is the only female in the film (the installation consists of two projections, a film and still photographs). She sits in a static position while circled by the male artists who take turns filming her in such a way that making an image becomes a form of aggression.

Birnbaum has consistently found ways to investigate the moving image and problemetise it over her long and undersung career. Her body of work more than bears revisiting as we move into a situation where the image, and particularly the simulation possible in the moving image, becomes ever more inescapable. It is encouraging that she has begun to turn her attention to the phenomena of the internet and the new psychological spaces it is creating. The pianists in Arabesque repeat Schumann’s composition, and attain some kind of affirmation by uploading their performances to the internet, but each achievement in perhaps lessened and nullified by the presence of the others. Is each performance of Schumann’s Arabesque a missed opportunity in which one of Clara Schumann’s compositions could have been played, redressing the balance between them? It is not obvious where Birnbaum is going with her new investigations, one can only hope she continues with as much curiosity and originality and continues to ‘talk back to the media’ for the rest of her already long career. Arabesque has a scale and depth that makes it imperative to visit, but it is the formative films that really give this exhibition its depth. The exhibiton also includes Everything’s gonna be… (1976) and Liberty: A Dozen or So Views (1976). Perhaps this exhibition could bring one of our other galleries to consider a much needed full retrospective of this influential and highly relevant artist.

Dara Birnbaum, 09/12/2011 – 12/02/2012, South London Gallery, Peckham Road, London.

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Dara Birnbaum
Arabesque, 2011
Four channel video installation, four stero audio, 6′ 30″
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York – Paris
Photo: John Berens