Andrea Bell – 17 January, 2012
Barrett is clearly a fan of Kraus but her curatorial style assumes familiarity with and literacy of Kraus' work. Having read some of her books before seeing the show definitely made a difference. The short catalogue texts focused unsurprisingly on Kraus' biography, rather than offering a critical contextualization of the range of works in the show - a shame given that in her own writings Kraus is an astute cultural critic.
Performative Philosophy: The films and writings of Chris Kraus and Semiotext(e)
Curated by Liv Barrett
13 October - 17 December 2011
It’s a cliché that discussions of Chris Kraus’ work often begin with a discussion of her biography. So who is Chris Kraus? A self-confessed “failed film-maker” and “Corporate wife of the avant-guard“; a writer of critically acclaimed ‘novels’ that blur fiction, autobiography, art/cultural criticism, gossip and theory; a one time Dominion Post journo and contributor to Artforum; a former assistant to Louise Bourgeois; an ex exotic dancer; an editor (with her ex-husband) of Semiotext(e), the publishers that initially brought French theory to US audiences; and a Professor of Film at the European Graduate School. Kraus recently completed a speaking/reading tour of Melbourne, Brisbane, Auckland and Wellington.
Aside from the aforementioned speaking tour, readers might be familiar with her work based on a retrospective of her films shown at ARTSPACE in 2008. Performative Philosophy was the second time Liv Barrett and Kraus have worked together, with Gravity and Grace screened previously as part of Barrett’s group show, Foto-Ography back in 2008. However this was a much more ambitious show, and followed a similar presentation of Kraus’ work shown earlier in 2011 at Real Fine Arts in Brooklyn, New York. Performative Philosophy combined an archival presentation of Chris Kraus and Semiotext(e) publications and ephemera, a retrospective of her (“failed”) films, and several significant films by artists drawn from the Semiotext(e) roster. This was a dense show. Containing literally hours of film material to watch, the show really demanded a full day, or even better, repeat visits. As we were on a tight schedule and this was the last day for the show, this review may not do full justice to all of the works.
The films were displayed in two rooms. The first, adjacent to the gallery foyer and reception showed a work by Bernadette Corporation, a film by/about Guy Debord, and Kraus’ cinematic magnum opus the feature length Gravity and Grace (partially filmed in NZ and featuring Ani O’Neill). Gravity and Grace, like Kraus’ novels is clearly, at least semi- autobiographical. Aside from a storyline involving a millennium doomsday cult in Auckland, the film tells of Gravity’s experience of disillusionment, sex work and a quest to become an artist in New York. The end of the film is especially telling, with Gravity being interviewed by a theory-speaking curator (played by Kraus herself) who states: “You had a chance to make an explicit feminist critique in your work, but you don’t address the politics of representation … frankly, your work just isn’t shitty enough.” For those who have read her novels, Gravity clearly represents a younger Kraus. In this last scene, Kraus is ironically taking her revenge, renouncing the artworld that didn’t accept her.
New York based collective Bernadette Corporation has, through a number of collectively and anonymously authored projects (including a collectively written novel, a magazine, fashion label and gallery) explored themes of fashion, identity, celebrity and political agency. Much of this is combined in Get Rid of Yourself, which mixes footage taken of Black bloc protestors from the 2001 G8 summit at Genoa with amongst other things, scenes of Chloë Sevigny reciting lines that are apparently taken directly from the protestors. This follows nicely from the Situationist content of the Debord film, akin to a 21st century Godard. Like May ‘68, the anti-globalisation protests have been rather ambiguous in what they have achieved. Similarly, Bernadette Corporation is acutely aware of anarchist inspired radical-chic. Get Rid of Yourself poetically reflects this contemporary ambivalence regarding political agency.
The main screening room presented several shorter films by Kraus, and also films by David Wojnarowicz, Gary Indiana, and documentation of a Penny Arcade performance, La Miseria (1991) - a feminist exploration of working class, Italian-American identity. Kraus’ films were largely episodic in nature, and feature numerous literary references (Henry James, Simone Weil, Antonin Artaud), interviews and collaborations. Of these, How to Shoot a Crime (1987), with its investigation into gentrification, sex and death (interviews with a dominatrix and NYPD crime scene videographer) was probably the strongest. Like Kraus, Gary Indiana is also perhaps more known for his writing than the film work. His film Pariah (about Ulrike Meinhof) continues the exhibition thematic of outsider politics but its Tumblr aesthetics were an uncomfortable juxtaposition in a room full of film and video transfers.
David Wojnarowicz’s controversial work Fire In My Belly, A Work in Progress 1986-1987 was the highlight of the room. (It’s hard to imagine that in 2010 audiences would be so incensed by images of ants crawling over a crucifix, given that the film also graphically depicts cockfighting, bullfighting and masturbation). With its symbolism and violence, Fire in My Belly, like much of Wojnarowicz’s work is about AIDS, specifically power’s silence in the early stages of the epidemic. Seen 20 years later, in a totally different context, this meaning isn’t immediately apparent. For those not familiar with his work, a little background information may have been useful.
Compared to the films, the archival displays were a little disappointing. A lot of vitrine space was given to Semiotext(e) publications, which are widely available through Amazon, etc. Many were for sale at the gallery shop. Displaying closed books under glass hardly makes for an informative display. Undoubtedly this display was included to illustrate Kraus’s editorial contribution to Semiotext(e). However, it would have been more interesting to see some of the very early Semiotext(e) editions, like Polysexuality given that Semiotext(e) is credited with bringing French theory to the US - although admittedly these books perhaps predate her involvement. An original one page typed essay by Kraus was presented in one of the glass cabinets and also blown up to poster size and hung on the wall opposite, which seemed a little unnecessary. Some contemporary reviews of the books and films presented would have also been interesting to see, again in an effort to provide some context. A vitrine doesn’t have to be a vacuum.
Similar remarks could be made about the presentation of the films, with little effort made to situate these works in terms of their socio-political and artistic context. Barrett is clearly a fan of Kraus but her curatorial style assumes familiarity with and literacy of Kraus’ work. Having read some of her books before seeing the show definitely made a difference. The short catalogue texts focused unsurprisingly on Kraus’ biography, rather than offering a critical contextualization of the range of works in the show - a shame given that in her own writings Kraus is an astute cultural critic. Despite this minor point, the films did give you a feel for a particular way of living and making art at the margins.
If it were meant as an overview or introduction to Chris Kraus and her artistic, literary and political practice, Performative Philosophy definitely left a few spaces unfilled. Nonetheless the exhibition presented a rare opportunity to view significant works from New York artists past and present, as well as a significant body of work by Kraus, and provided a sense of what was taking place in the NY underground in the ‘80s and ‘90s.