South London Gallery

Dara Birnbaum’s current exhibition at the South London Gallery centres on her most recent work, Arabesque. However, the work is not shown alongside Birnbaum’s other current projects, but juxtaposed against her earliest video and installation pieces.

Filling the entirety of South London Gallery’s expansive main gallery space, Arabesque is a multi-channel video work based upon the interplay between Robert Schumann’s Arabesque Opus 11, written for his wife Clara, and her Romanze 1, Opus 11, written for Robert. Appropriated Youtube videos of amateur, female pianists are shown across four horizontally spaced, projected screens. The Internet holds an abundance of amateur videos of Robert Schumann’s piece, but Birnbaum could only find one performance of Clara’s composition. Consequently, Birnbaum allows the videos of Arabesque… to shape the projections, rising and falling across the four screens like a graphic equalizer, whilst Clara’s composition, in turn, sits solitarily on the far left screen.

There is a clear emphasis upon the female role here. Clara’s piece is short, and the quantity of video footage is innately contained, making her part in the installation seem small and suppressed compared to her husband’s more visually expansive segment. Contrarily, a viewer not versed in the legacy of either of the Schumann’s will have a hard time picking one piece out from the other; the pieces are kept separate, but their placement in a timeline causes them to appear as one larger musical work. They appear amorphous; like movements in a symphony, they are definitively separate, but still should be kept together. In the exhibition literature Birnbaum suggests that they can be called “Equally excellent compositions”, and it is true that, to the casual onlooker, neither piece stands out as superior to the other. The combination of a solely female cast, and the lack of material given to Clara’s piece, makes an immediate point about the historical disadvantage of the female in society. Birnbaum’s habitual use of appropriated footage lends to this, the Internet’s profusion of one piece over the other, tells part of the story.

There is another choice of quotation here however. The fourth projected screen, the furthest to the right, is slightly separated from the other three, and frequently presents a counterpoint to the piano performances in the form of still images and quotes. These are borrowed from The Song of Love, a film about the Schumann’s life together. This additional quotation serves to draw the viewer further into the specific example of a male, female relationship offered by the Schumanns. Clara cared for her husband during depression and eventual madness, and after his death, devoted much of her playing career to his music. The use of stills captured from the film, rather than moving footage, acts as a means to question the use of media in the installation. The poor quality, amateur Youtube videos are shown for a considerable proportion of their overall duration, and their sound is played despite inevitable distortion and imperfections. Conversely, the film’s moving image is broken into representative stills, and its accompanying sound is reduced to subtitles. The hierarchy of quality in the mediums used is challenged by this gesture; the potential significance of the poor image quality of the Youtube clips is highlighted. The significance of the distinction between different mediums, and especially the comparison of still and moving image, are themes that recur throughout the exhibition.

Arabesque is an engaging new work, and deserves to be seen. Nonetheless, the installation risks getting lost within its subject matter. It never truly transcends the overpoweringly romantic piano music, and overdramatic film stills. These elements very much control the viewer’s experience of the work, and ultimately lessen the potential bite of the installation. It lacks an element of grit or polemicism to rouse the audience to think and force a stronger investigation of the themes. Nonetheless, the topics it takes on are significant and challenging, and are deservingly presented for the audience’s contemplation.

A variety of Birnbaum’s early video works, all from 1975-6, are shown in the upstairs gallery. They form a counterpoint to Arabesque, but their location in a small grouping of attached rooms allows them also to become a mini-exhibition all of their own. Attack Piece contains two projections, which face each other from the walls of a small space. One projection shows a blurred, constantly moving, erratic film image, whilst its opposite contains a series of stills. In the video projection there are glimpses of a woman with a camera, Dara Birnbaum, and in the still photographs the faces of several different men eventually begin to materialise.

The video is performative on two levels. Firstly, the spectator gets caught in the space between the two projections, which in this case, also come to represent the two cameras. The viewer is unable to escape the experience of the piece, and in this sense the screens represent and demonstrate the performance that created these images. Secondarily, the images are completely caught up in the performance. The confrontational motions of the camera invade Birnbaum’s space, whilst the camera lens simultaneously captures and documents this intrusion. The subsequent still images of the event that she has captured add a fragmented first person view of the encounter. There is a confrontation here between man and woman, but also between film and still image. Both cameras are recurrently present on the screen, their function being recorded by one another, and representing the increasingly pervasive influence of the camera in 1970s America. There is one point in Attack Piece in which the continuity of the edit is broken. A still of a male with a film camera is shown on both screens, breaking the flow of the performance, and as such, breaking the illusion of real time action that runs through the rest of the piece. Again the morality of the camera is questioned, however the discontinuous edit also challenges the reality of the camera’s captured images.

The effect of mirroring screens is used again in the installation entitled, Six Movements: Video Works From 1975. Three monitor screens backed against one wall, face off with another three against its opposite. Birnbaum is present on all of the screens in grainy monochrome film footage, and for the most part, stares straight back at the glass, and the gallery space beyond it. In Addendum: Autism the fixed camera shows her in an empty room. Fraught and repetitive, she shifts position and rocks back and forth, moving constantly and tirelessly, whilst keeping her eyes constantly fixed on the camera. Adjacent screens show Chaired Anxieties: Slewed, and Chaired Anxieties: Abandoned. These use a chair as a prop, and Birnbaum performs similar motions on, around, and under the chair, manipulating her body, the chair, and the space around it. Despite the distinctly physical actions, these videos speak very clearly of mental states, the overriding themes being torment, tension, and distress. The three opposing monitors show videos of similar formats, but they appear to reflect more upon body and less on the mind. The short pieces make use of mirrors, projection, doorways, and corridor-perspective, to frame the body and its motions in space. The actions are more gentle and controlled here, and so whilst ultimately the overarching psychological topic isn’t far from the surface, there is a more clear focus on the body. The confrontation between these more placid performances, and the intense, visceral videos across from them, seems to reflect the structure of the earlier Attack Piece, and again traps the spectator between intersecting and potentially violent gazes. In Attack Piece, the gaze is the camera, and the performers are, to a greater extent, incidental. In this installation it is entirely the performer who generates the intrusive atmosphere.

The entirety of the exhibition seems to deal in some way with elements of extremity. Pixellated Youtube clips find themselves prior to grainy, filmed performances; the works from 1975 sit alongside those from the current day with no intermediary context. Still images directly face off with violent movement and performance. Indeed, the slightly soporific affect of Arabesque gives way very quickly to the pulse-quickening, unstable videos just up the stairs. For those who haven’t seen Birnbaum’s work before, Arabesque loses out slightly; it would benefit from the context of her other work with appropriated video. This is not however, a reason to not attend, what is gained from the juxtaposition is far greater than what is lost. The opportunity to look past the appropriated video (the usual reference point ascribed to Birnbaum’s work) allows the themes of camera, media, culture, and feminism at the heart of her practice to be more clearly perceived in the recent work. Consequently Arabesque is read in a different, and in many ways, beneficial light. The opportunity to view Birnbaum’s earlier work is also a privilege in and of itself. The interrogation of media in Attack Piece, and the subsequent choice to hand the camera to the subjects of the film in Liberty: A Dozen or So Views, are direct precursors to the ideas explored in Birnbaum’s later work, but in this raw, unresolved format, they offer the viewer something additional, distinct, and completely compelling.