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Wednesday, 15 February 2012

dara Birnbaum @ South London gallery

Old haunts, on the 36 bus from vauxhall, passing the route to my old squat, the churchyard where I used to sit and chat in the sun with an ex girlfriend - Camberwell Green & Southwark Town Hall.  We were looking for the South London Gallery & an exhibition by seminal (or should that oval?) American video artist Dara Birnbaum, on the grounds that my ladyfriend Martine V might gain something from seeing some early work from someone else involved in performance art.  It was kinda a Valentine's date too.

At first didn't really know if we were in the right place as theVictorian facade gave way to a characterless corridor - further weirdness as we had to follow a sign pointing downstairs to the second floor.

Birnbaum's Attack piece was in a small room on opposing walls; it showed a black & white playfulness, puppy retriever games, with male photographers with immediately obvious 70s mustaches & collars apparently trying to film dara's Butt - it seemed innocent, fun.

We discussed filming each other - M said we should try to shoot each others' asses; I suggested we wear assless chaps, or maybe just each others' faces as we walk around, alternately backwards.

At the end of the corridor we found a silver curtain from behind which came cafe sounds; when we pressed our eyes to it we could vaguely make out people down below sitting & talking through tiny holes in the fabric- it was vaguely voyeuristic

 Put on headphones for Everything's Gonna be Alright and listened to her monotonous voice reading out relationship drams cut with 70s disco dancers; swapped before the end for....

12 Views of Liberty - shots of Statten island ferry with Interviewees giving their age, sex, location - dreary!

the last room upstairs had 6 monitors showing rather stereotypical b&w performance art pieces with her wrestling folding chairs, rocking on her knees like a nutter and standing in front of a projector with rolling eyes.

Finally, downstairs, a large room, black, 4 projections, 3 of YouTube clips of women playing Arabesque by Robert Schumann, the last showing still from the Song of Love featuring Kat Hepburn (allegedly a rampageous lesbian); Then Clara Schumann's composition for him with quotes from her diaries about how she would die if not allowed to express herself artistically.

A little girl got up and danced in front of the projections, but was grabbed by her mother and told off, the mother tried to take her outside but she lay on the floor and refused to leave - I wanted to get up and dance in front of the screens too, in solidarity, but was too inhibited.  I was angry, I wanted to find the mother & say " Do you think Dara B would have grown up to make this show if her mum did that to her?"  - M said I should be more diplomatic.

On the way out We discussed male vs Female Art: M said how male art was considered "universal aesthetics", white male events "history"; whilst white female art was 'women's art' and black events 'black history'.  I argued that this wasn't even commonly recognised amongst women, only the intellectual middle classes, working classes being too busy getting on with stuff to really notice or care. M felt, I think, that I was belittling female art, but I tpointed out that in the art world there is much more equality now than there was, although I concede that 99% of classical  ''masters' were men, and there's not much attempt in art history to redress this imbalance.

I was quite inspired by the first and quite moved by the last piece - the disparity between the fame of Schumann's Arabesque and Clara's untitled piece (oops, see, I called him Schumann and her Clara!) despite her piece sounding to my ears more emotionally deep, was a pity.  It would be very interesting to find out more about hidden female composers, artists and so on - it's kind of like a lost world waiting to be rediscovered.

Here's Martine's take on the visit

Here's the Official Stuff


  1. Um, I didn't feel like you were belittling female art. If you were doing so I must have missed it completely ;) I did however argue that it's not just the intellectual middle class women who were interested in this or aware of this. Coming from a traditionally working class family, working in factory, cleaning and transport industries myself I guess I might have taken the implication a bit personally. I guess it's fair to say I am intellectual now, but I didn't start out that way and I was interested in these issues long before that changed.

  2. Ah really I wasn't sure why you seemed upset when I said that most women didn't really recognise or care about female art - yeah, belittling was the wrong word. And I'm sure there are loads of people out there (men & women) who do think "huh, why is it all these famous artists, composers & writers are male?" but I still think it a minority, with the majority of those people being middle class intellectuals (as you yourself now are). That doesn't mean it's not a valid question, just that it's not something that a whole lot of working people probably think about - though I'm a white, middle class intellectual myself so I can't really say I have any proof of that.

  3. Fair enough, but I kind of rile at the assumtion that there is something about being working class that makes it harder to spot inequality. I worked 12 hours a day in factory and cleaning work and I still had time to question things. Other women in these occupation also questioned things, even if they might not have time to go out and do soemthing about it. Further when I finally did get into university I found that many of the women who studied gender studies had more of a theoretical interest in the subject than an actual understanding. I think in the end it comes down to interest and personal insight a whole lot more than where you work.