carrie mae weems.

August 13, 2010 § 1 Comment

carrie mae weems is, by far,
one of my favorite artists.
her work, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,
was one of the most affecting encounters with art i’ve ever had.
i wrote about that experience in the foreword of a paper once.
i’ve copied it below.

Between Abramović and Weems
I recently attended Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. All of my initial interpretations of the work(s) were positive, I thought Abramović had effectively questioned and embodied many nuances of female struggle. I felt that the pieces challenged an ideology that says, “I will incarnate you in flesh, and you will reveal my flesh for me. Woman’s body is already colonized by the hegemony of male desire; it is not your body” (Dallery, 1989, p.55). However toward the end of my experience I came across another piece, a selection from From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995) by Carrie Mae Weems. Weems re-photographed, reddened, and enlarged images of Black men and women of the 20th and 19th centuries, framing them beneath text authored by the artist.
Compelled by Weems’ photographs I reinterpreted Abramović’s work and felt sadness and shame. Not only were the majority of her works white in appearance, but so too were the audience members, performers, descriptions, walls, and my encounter of each. For example, toward the beginning of The Artist is Present one may walk by and engage with a table of objects, all of which were once offered to participants to use on the artist in Rhythm 0 (1976). One description of the piece reads:
To test the limits of the relationship between performer and audience, Abramović developed one of her most challenging (and best-known) performances. She assigned a passive role to herself, with the public being the force that would act on her.
Abramović had placed upon a table 72 objects that people were allowed to use (a sign informed them) in any way that they chose. Some of these were objects that could give pleasure, while others could be wielded to inflict pain, or to harm her. Among them were scissors, a knife, a whip, and, most notoriously, a gun loaded with a single bullet. For six hours the artist sat immobile, allowing the audience members to entirely direct the action.
(Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana)

I had initially surveyed these objects critically, feeling that they each smartly spoke to sexual, punished, admired, violent, loved, worshipped, hated, and other conceptions of Woman. Upon revisiting this specific piece it struck me how I had missed the significance of the presence of a whip entirely. What is obvious to me now is that a whip connotes a racial experience and deeply painful narrative of slavery and oppression, especially for those wounded, killed, by whips, but perhaps also for those who wielded them. But I had not objected to the whip’s inclusion, I had witnessed it and read its presence as a representation of dominance, power, and sex — many things, but not race, not slavery, not the enduring domination of Black Americans.
I did not feel humbled; I felt conquered, for until then I had not realized the safety and blindness afforded by my whiteness in my experience. I wanted immediately to make the shame I felt then my subject, rather than feel subject to it; I felt another white urge: to dominate. I had been complicit in a patriarchal racist process that I otherwise work diligently to actively reject in my everyday life, and hadn’t even realized what I had ‘done’. The moment was, for me, as bell hooks has described her daily journey home as a child, a “reminder of white power and control” (1990, p.41). I doubt that I ever would have re-thought my interpretation had I not come across Weems’ photographs, or unless perhaps Abramović herself were Black. Even now as I recount the experience now I feel ashamed, that I lack authority to present my second understanding because it somehow rings less true.

weems’ website is interesting but can feel circular,
so i suggest checking out:
Colored People
Not Manet’s Type
From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried
i’ll be posting some of the pieces from ‘The Kitchen Table Series’ soon.


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