New York, London and Arles
In every impactful artistic work, it is the form and content that makes it. In Arles, Luma is hosting a large-scale, spectacular exhibition of the work of American artist Carrie Mae Weems. I haven’t seen the one dedicated to her in London at the Barbican, but I know that it mainly features photos, which is what the American artist is recognized for.
Stills that point the finger at the current problems faced by society, such as political life, racism, sexism, behaviours within families. She has been the subject, among others, of an exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York in 2014 dedicated to her videos and her photos, and another one in December 2021 at the Armory Show in New York with gigantic installations. This is the first time in France that such a large space has been dedicated to her that follows the general lines of that of 2021.
The Arles exhibition puts form front and centre. We find ourselves in a faintly old-fashioned theatre, within a stage set that looks as though it’s been deserted by the actors. By way of comparison, at first glance these sets are reminiscent of the sparse yet dramatic layouts of the American theatre director Bob Wilson.
Wilson and Kentridge
“Bob Wilson is a friend and a guide,” she says. As for the old-fashioned feel, with omnipresent megaphones, symbols of individual discourse, there is more of an inclination towards William Kentridge. “Kentridge and I are very interested in the same thing. But my work is less rustic.”
As Hans Ulrich Obrist points out in the exhibition catalogue: “what is wonderful is that the exhibition at the Armory with the exhibition at Luma has almost been like the invention of a new form of retrospective.”
In fact, in a way that is very original for Carrie Mae Weems, the design and the architecture are used as means of conducting interrogations. “The exhibition is called The shape of things. To a large extent much of the works have to do with a way I look at architectural forms, structural forms that in some way form the political-social-cultural moment of our time. I’m interested in the way that people can inhabit space. How they engage the space and how the space invites them, how they allow you to be. I’m very interested in design. We take this space as a starting point for interrogating all the other spaces.”
For Carrie Mae Weems, therefore, form brings about content.
And the content of her whole exhibition concerns the threat facing democracy today. She answered my questions in the Provençal garden of Maja Hoffmann’s foundation (See here an interview of Maja Hoffmann).
“The seven pieces of the exhibition are spinning around this idea of our historical moment and how it’s important to interrogate the moment and democracy itself. Democracy is under threat in the United States, and in Europe as well. The rise of the far right, determined to stop any form of integration, any form of inclusiveness, is deeply problematic and in one way or another much of the work is touching on an aspect of that idea and question.
It marked a significant moment when George Floyd was murdered, and in relationship to Black Lives Matter, institutions around the world planned to respond to the moment we are in.
It’s also about how we can use the metaphor of the circus to talk about the rise, for instance, of a character like Donald Trump, who indeed became president of the United States – a completely unimaginable thing 15 years ago. And the fact of him running again is quite disturbing. It’s a major moment that epitomizes something. All decency has been thrown out of the window. He epitomizes the worst of who we are. People see more clearly what the threats to democracy really are in United States.
I’m not trying to tell people what to think about anything. My work is trying to raise a set of questions that might be important for us to engage with. My job is not to provide answers.
Freedom is the ability to take risks, and doing an exhibition like this gives me the freedom to take risks at all costs. I’m challenging one of the most fundamental assumptions of the right at this moment, and there is a total fanaticism at this moment around Donald Trump. We saw it on January 6 with the uprising when thousands of people marched into Washington and actually attempted to take over the House. We have the possibility to sit, stand or speak. (Sit down or speak. That’s the name of the piece.)
Many of the pieces are themed around the notion of performance.
The key study of the History of violence (the name of another piece) starts with the Black Panthers, the Civil Rights Movement, and then 50 years later we are still dealing with police brutality and systematic oppression, against black men in particular.
(In All Blue- A contemplative site that features a closed door at the end of the stairs that the visitor must look at from a distance). The door is our spiritual journey. One way or another, we are all dying. If I can simply hold on to the breath of my humanity and offer it to others as a space of habitation and consideration, then I can die with ease.”
“The breath of my humanity” could well have served as another title for the exhibition.
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