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Week of 5 November 1999

Vol. III, No. 13


Telling her stories, Telling Histories

Installation artists assemble new narratives from fragments of the past

By Eric McHenry

A young woman in work clothes, seated and smiling, cradles two ducklings on her lap. A shiny metal brooch, fastened to the woman's collar and partially obscured by her chin, hovers like a half-moon over the tiny birds. On the brooch is a swastika.

The irony is almost too much -- extremes of benignity and malignance side by side. If it were a painting, rather than a photograph from 1940, it would seem gratuitous.

Ritual and Revolution

Ritual and Revolution (detail), by Carrie Mae Weems, installation, 1998

Artist Ellen Rothenberg found the picture and dozens like it in a book of Nazi propaganda called Young Women at Work. And in Beautiful Youth, her contribution to the Telling Histories exhibition at the BU Art Gallery, she has found a way to present the photographs that makes the most of their provocative power. She tempers their irony, ironically, by magnifying it, and in the process raises bold questions about historical roles and representations of women.

"I was very taken with these photographs," says Rothenberg, whose work is featured alongside that of Carrie Mae Weems in the two-woman installation show. "I was taken by the ironic juxtaposition of traditional women's tasks with this swastika brooch, and also by the really seductive quality of the images themselves, which were beautifully lit and beautifully composed."

Rothenberg reproduced the images, then reproduced her reproductions, muting and blurring them further with each generation. The result is a group of grainy prints with intense light-dark contrast. These Rothenberg enlarged and cropped in a way that both centers the swastikas and conceals parts of the women's faces. Finally, she mounted the prints in rusted, corroded steel frames.

"The chief elements in the photos," says Mary McInnes (GRS'87,'94), curator of Telling Histories and former assistant director of the BU Art Gallery, "are the ever-present smile, the white skin, the Nazi service brooch, and the task."

Rothenberg has denuded the Nazis' "essentializing of women," McInnes says, by emphasizing these elements to the exclusion of others. Moreover, by aging and distressing the images, she has remarked upon how removed they are from the real world, which is time-bound, blemished, and imperfect.

"The graininess, fragmentation, and magnification of these images expose the fascist construction of the ideal woman," McInnes writes in the show's catalog. "Rothenberg's cropping renders that construction anonymous . . . The artist's manipulation highlights the pretense of the pose and the impossibility of this feminine ideal . . . They convey the cardinal trace of the Nazi women, one that now reads as a fetish."

Just as the Nazi service brooch is central to Rothenberg's photographic images, the historical interrelationship among gender, labor, and violence is central to Beautiful Youth as a whole. The installation also features two long, steel-topped worktables, one covered with beeswax stains and fingerprints on glassine paper, the other strewn with cast wax representations of human limbs, hands, and fingers. Along one wall, five work aprons wait on wooden hangers.

"The installation is in one sense a workshop for the manufacture and manipulation of gender identity," says Rothenberg. "The hands are like parts; they rest on worktables. There are work aprons, and they are available."

Good company
Rothenberg has long admired the art of Carrie Mae Weems, whose installation Ritual and Revolution constitutes the other half of Telling Histories.

"I actually got to see this installation in a smaller form in a Chicago exhibition," Rothenberg says. "I think that her own interest in history and in gender construction should create a very provocative dialogue between the two works. I feel like I'm in very good company."

Beautiful Youth

Beautiful Youth (detail), by Ellen Rothenberg, installation, 1999

The dust cover of the Telling Histories catalog is an opaque vellum with reproductions of transparent images from the exhibition: Rothenberg's fingerprints and beeswax on glassine, and photographic depictions of human persecution that Weems has had digitally printed on large muslin banners.

Both artists use transparency to great effect in their installations, McInnes says. It helps them create a facsimile of the phenomenon of history. "You see the image," she says of Weems' banners, "but you also see through it to the other images. So there's a sense of layering, which is very important."

The work leaps across continents and epochs. Some of the banners carry images of first- and third-world landscapes. Others show ancient and modern structures of historical significance -- a Maya city, a trading depot where people captured for the Ghanian slave trade were held. A third group has scenes of violence, subjugation, and resistance -- women in a concentration camp, a blindfolded Cambodian prisoner, civil rights demonstrators being sprayed with a fire hose on the streets of Montgomery, Ala.

Like Beautiful Youth, Ritual and Revolution is more cumulative than linear. It has a definite beginning -- an ironic image of Weems as a Hellenic goddess -- but no restrictive progression. Visitors can leave and reenter the partial corridors created by the muslin banners.

"It's very fluid," says McInnes. "The only thing that's really set is her voice, which continues."

Weems recorded an audio text to accompany the banners, which plays on a tape-loop, contributing yet another layer to the installation. The stanzas she recites do not correspond to particular images, but amplify the themes of the whole work: "Out of the shadows / from the edge of the new world / I saw your slow persistent emergence & / saw you spinning jenny's cotton into gold."

McInnes says she brought Weems and Rothenberg together for Telling Histories not only because they are both feminist artists of international reputation, but because their work is characterized by interesting differences and instructive similarities.

"There's a shared aesthetic," she says. "At first glance they look quite different: Ellen's work has so many concrete, individual objects, and there's such a sheerness to Carrie's. But their concepts and their concerns have led them to some similar strategies. I find both quite compelling."