Dara Birnbaum was little more than a name for me until very recently. I knew she was kind of a typical American feminist artist, that she started her career during the seventies and that she uses mass media type imagery in order to critically assess the mechanisms of mass communication and the structures of various “modern mythologies” which pervade our contemporary era. That was pretty much all the knowledge I had about the artist until viewing “The Dark Matter of Media Light”, a Birnbaum retrospective show at Fundação Serralves, the main space for contemporary visual art in the city of Porto. Therefore, at least for me, the first and foremost merit of the exhibition displayed by the Portuguese venue is that it truly offers a compelling and coherent image of the oeuvre produced by a savvy, genuinely challenging and acutely intelligent artist.
“The Dark Matter of Media Light” implied a remarkable curatorial and logistic effort, being the result of the collaboration between the Fundação Serralves and the reputed Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst in Gent, as well as of the joint professional endeavour of the curators Philippe Van Cauteren and João Fernandes. What resulted was a survey of fairly three decades of artistic production, not very ingeniously, but coherently enough displayed. All retrospective – type exhibitions do present the risk of looking a bit didactic and the show at Fundação Serralves is not avoiding entirely that risk; however, the main goal of the show, that of meaningfully presenting a quite impressive artist, is fully attained.
Undoubtedly, television is one of the main media of communication which shaped the realm of the imaginary during the last several decades. Probably that is an essential motivation for Dara Birnbaum to approach television as one of the main sources, in both conceptual and visual terms, of her artistic production. Her best known work in this respect is undoubtedly the video piece titled Technology / Transformation: Wonder Woman. The work uses some (key) images from the once famous TV series about a feminine character who has supernatural powers, while still having a very normal, commonplace professional life. The resemblance to wider acknowledged character of Superman is quite obvious, and one achieved goal of the montage Dara Birnbaum has build up is underlining precisely the inadequacy of Wonder Woman in terms of specific female identity, showing a male mental frame being imposed on a supposedly neat female role model. On another level, the work poignantly reveals the profoundly artificial character of all media images, television being a flagrant case.
The same artistic intentions lay at the base of another spectacular work in the show, namely Tapestry for Donna: elegy. A whole room is taken over by Birnbaum’s installation, composed, first of all, of video images of a Belgian radio star projected both on a wall and on a horizontally placed screen. In the last case, the video sequence, formed by images of typical gestures of the personage, are superimposed on a shimmering grid -like image that closely resembles a weaving machine. A soundtrack collaged out of fragments of radio jingles and musical hits fills the room, while on two opposite walls three large sixteenth century tapestries are accompanying the video piece. A whole array of visual and conceptual items alluding to feminism and media criticism are easily identified: the traditionally gender charged profession of weavers, the challenges women working in the field of media have to face, both in terms of gender clichés and of consumerist clichés and so on. Still, what can be considered to be a main flaw in Dara Birnbaum’s artistic endeavours can also be identified here: an excess of rhetoric, a tendency of offering more hints than necessary in order to lead us to the meaning, to the rather simple metaphors she often uses. Thus, the old tapestries on the walls are totally unnecessary props, rather spectacular than meaningful, bringing a useless plus of visual information without really contributing to the conceptual poignancy that is supposed to be the artist’s main focus in such works.
Related to the former affirmations, one can also add, on the other hand, simplicity and directness are not necessarily signs of meaningfulness and some of the works in the show at Fundação Serralves are also proving this, their value thus being downplayed. A significant example in this respect is the installation Flags: Occupied Territories. Hanging from the ceiling of a rather long hallway in the museum there are sixteen two-sided flags: the United States’ stars and stripes are on the one side of each of them, while the reverse is different for each one, namely displaying the national emblems of every country in the world where U. S. troops were stationed at the beginning of the 21st century. Now, I’m definitely not a fan of American foreign policies of the last decade and of the hegemonic attitude of the U.S., as so many people in the art world aren’t, too; yet, I can hardly believe that any such naïve, pointlessly funny and facile displays of critical stance could ever be politically effective or artistically poignant.
The best works Dara Birnbaum produces in explicit relation to the political field are using the idea and the practices of documentation. The whole mindset of what a documentary film can be is challenged by her Canon: Taking to the Streets. Part I: Princeton University – Take Back the Night. The documentary is released in 1990 and acknowledges the manifestations that took place in the Princeton campus a few years earlier, when significant groups of students took action via meetings, discussions, rallies etc. against the misogynistic and / or sexist attitudes female students were facing, from social and professional exclusion to sexual harassment. Fragments of conversations, scenes from the night rallies (many of them filmed in dim light), and textual insertions are mixed, the result being a very dynamic piece of video. The message is plain and clear, the visual unfolding produces no moments of boredom and the black and white rendering is authentically conferring the piece both sobriety and elegance. Thus, the work is a truly provocative, cutting edge example of what can be truly coined as artistic documentary.
Documentation of political events is the topic also tackled by Birnbaum’s installation Hostage. Several TV monitors are suspended from the ceiling in a straight, obliquely oriented alignment. A torso shaped, partly transparent shooting target is installed in front of each of the screens, on which images are looping. The images themselves are documenting the way the American mass media reflected the tragic events of the terrorist episode that took place in Germany, in 1977, which resulted among others in the kidnapping and killing of Hans – Martin Schleyer, President of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations. The images on the screens freeze every time a viewer intersects the laser beam which runs along the installation. As it was the case with Tapestry for Donna: Elegy, there is a feeling of an unnecessary mounting of visual props. Still, the work remains clever and constitutes an appealingly interactive meditation on the structures of media discourse, as well as on cultural differences with regard to the perception of political facts. It is true that, to me at least, Dara Birnbaum’s work is made more interesting and culturally relevant when set in relation with Gerhardt Richter’s well known black and white painting circumscribing the same tragic and turbulent political events (the so called Baader – Meinhoff series).
More than anything, “The Dark Matter of Media Light” is a show that proves that if one wants to know Birnbaum at her best, one has to pay attention to her art works which combine the use of video and / or photographic images with the realm of the performative. Erwartung is directly and truly courageously referring to the opera piece by the same title, composed by the revolutionary musician Arnold Schoenberg to a libretto by Marie Pappenheim. A single protagonist is anxiously looking for her lover in the night, only to find his dead body, to start desperately accusing him of cheating and of lack of emotional commitment and to finally lament her present faith. Birnbaum produces a simple yet refined and seductive installation, projecting slowly changing images of a feminine silhouette and captions extracted from the above mentioned libretto onto a surface with slightly mirroring properties. Some stage design sketches by Schoenberg are printed in large size on the surface and the room is only lighted by the projector’s beam. The artist manages to create a charming, almost hypnotic environment for staging a delightfully lyric meditation on the social and ontological status of the woman.
A somewhat similar approach to feminine identity, feelings and dramas can be identified in the black and white video piece Chair anxiety: slewed. A woman performer, most of the time being filmed only from the waist down, is engaged in a dense and tensed choreographic interaction with a chair. The directness of the video approach combines with the sheer expressivity of the unusual dance performance to produce a convincing, emotionally charged work of art.
Finally, by far the masterpiece in the exhibition is the so called Attack Piece, produced in 1975, which is a work I strongly believe that can be included among the most important art pieces produced in the American seventies. On two opposite walls are projected the images –photographic and video, respectively– resulted of a performative action, which involved the artist and four friends (among them, Dan Graham). The performance consisted in a playful confrontation between Birnbaum who is “defending” a territory by taking photos, 35 mm slides, namely, in front of her friends who advance from various directions towards her and filming the scene with their Super 8 cameras. The realm of the performative, the medium specificity of photography and video, the critical analyses of both via staged confrontational actions are the topics acutely intelligent alluded to in the work, while the visual result is really compelling. More than any other piece in “The Dark Matter of Media Light”, Attack Piece persuades the perceptive viewer that Dara Birnbaum can be a genuinely forceful and intellectually fascinating artist.

Note: for visual information about Dara Birnbaum’s works and the exhibition, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQQ-ss2rzuU&feature=related, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJk9MXyCJLQ&feature=related,