Dara Birnbaum’s Almost Retrospective Is Almost Good Enough

Dara Birnbaum, Arabesque
Marian Goodman Gallery
June 28 – August 26, 2011

Support for Team Birnbaum’s unflappable; everyone else, it seems, loves Arabesque. Dara Birnbaum deserves good press, but good press isn’t the same thing as good criticism.

The reviews I’ve read – those in Artforum, Time Out New York, and The New York Times – unduly praise her recent work, setting the bar low for anything else made by Birnbaum. Reviewers like Arabesque (2011), a four channel projection, because it’s like her earlier work, continuing her consistent exploration of how media produces representations of gender. I don’t buy into this logic at all. First, just because someone’s been doing the same thing, i.e. exploring a set of concerns for decades, doesn’t make for a fulfilling art practice or an interesting exhibition. Eating garbanzo beans for dinner every night just isn’t something you should do. Secondly, art that shows a theory or a theme means that art’s a good tool for representing things; this doesn’t mean the work’s doing anything substantial. Even the best theory in the world can find its way into the blandest of student work.

Dara Birnbaum’s  works from the 1970s and 1980s should, rightfully,  become standard viewing material for anyone involved with the loosely defined and overlapping fields of new media, video, technology, and art. However, I can’t say the same about Arabesque, her recent work in this exhibition. It fails to engage technology’s malleability like her aggressive, bizarre, and playful videos from the mid-1970s.

In these earlier, black and white videos, Birnbaum performed a range of jarring characters, from a beleaguered autistic staring down the camera, to an invasive reporter on a Staten Island ferry. Birnbaum’s explorations of media tropes wasn’t usurped within the time span between then and now; her more famous works like Kiss the GirlsMake Them Cry (1979) and Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-79) slowed down the pace of TV programs and isolated characters’ actions to reveal just how “performed” a performer or medium can be.

Arabesque isn’t notable because it’s “her first foray into YouTube” or because  it shows her “ongoing feminist exploration of video”; it’s just not notable. Birnbaum uses YouTube as a source to find images about her chosen subject, here “females playing one of two Schumann piano pieces.” What she’s doing with YouTube is no different from the methods of any archivist mining through a library of images. Birnbaum’s earlier works targeted video and TV, but her recent works don’t manipulate or alter YouTube to disclose its artificial skeleton. There’s no technology/transformation moment.

It’s irresponsible for critics, or anyone in the arts, to defer judgement based on an artist’s past work. We’re all adults here; let’s not placate each other. It’ll only improve our understanding of what all of us are making.

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