“Agitated Histories,” the fourth and final exhibition in a series marking the Contemporary Museum’s 20-year anniversary, provided an international and intergenerational look at what it means to interact with history, while asking what, exactly, history is. Rodney McMillian, Geof Oppenheimer, Mark Tribe, Lorraine O’Grady, Michael Cataldi and Ulrike Müller tackled topics ranging from the personal to the global and political, in a variety of mediums. The artists all seemed to highlight the unavoidable reality that the assumed objectivity of the historical record, whether archival or documentary, is an illusion.
Mark Tribe, who is based in New York and Providence, presented a stirring video from his 2006-09 “Port Huron Project” (a series of reenactments of Vietnam-era protest speeches). Actor Sheilagh Brooks delivers Black Panther Party leader Angela Davis’s 1969 speech “The Liberation of Our People.” Watching the projection on a large screen in a curtained, pitch-dark room, the viewer sat completely immersed in the impassioned message, mirroring the enraptured gaze of the onlookers portrayed in the video. Brooks’s defiant performance blurs the line between present-day protest and historical reenactment, relaying decades-old sentiments that are still strikingly relevant. “This whole economy in this country is a war economy,” she asserts. For a moment, the question of which economy lingered.
Chicago-based Geof Oppenheimer’s The Washington Color Field School (2006–07) follows a similar pattern, recasting, in this instance, a Congressional hearing broadcast on C-SPAN. But, unlike “Port Huron,” in Oppenheimer’s video, language is used to make the viewer an outsider, rather than a participant. Three side-by-side displays of video footage are accompanied by garbled voices, and, as the two-minute loop plays on, the scene’s nonsensicality becomes increasingly apparent. Actors gesticulate purposefully, yet their mouths remain closed. Here, we witness not the actions of great government leaders, but the transformation of Congress’s hallowed chambers into a theater of the absurd.
Brooklyn-based Ulrike Müller’s Herstory Inventory also draws upon the work of others, but in a more intimate fashion. Begun in 2009, Müller’s ongoing collaborative project was inspired by a list describing historical feminist T-shirts that the artist discovered while conducting research at the Lesbian Herstory Archives. She refers to the list as equal parts found poetry and historical record. In an effort to create a conceptual exchange between contemporary queer culture and feminist history, Müller used the list to engage her fellow women artists in an artistic trade. The resulting works on paper, displayed both unframed on the wall and encased in a vitrine, draw upon specific text to address sexual, gender-based and cultural issues from varying perspectives. With titles like A graphic of the island of lesbos with icons depicting different sites and tourist activities and The fight for freedom never ends, the works blanket the emotional spectrum; they are, at times, humorous, evocative, bold and somber, functioning as both documents of the now and as commentaries on the past. Many of the drawings were made from nonarchival materials. Confronted with their ephemerality, we’re reminded that, although seemingly permanent, history too is fragile.
[The exhibition will be on view at SITE Santa Fe, September 2011–January 2012.]
Photo: View of Geof Oppenheimer’s The Washington Color Field School, 2006–07, 3-channel video installation, approx. 2 minutes; in “Agitated Histories” at the Contemporary Museum.