This autumn the Musée cantonal des BeauxArts
of Lausanne is presenting the first retrospective of the work of Renée Green (*1959) from the 1980s to the present day. Paintings, photographs, multimedia installations, films, videos and sound pieces are displayed in a presentation reflecting the different periods of her output and the tendencies they are linked to (Conceptual art, PostMinimal art, etc.).
Devised in close collaboration with Renée Green, the exhibition will make it possible to appreciate the range and exceptional richness of the works produced by the artist over more than twenty years. It brings together major pieces, including Neutral/Natural (1990), Seen (1990), Commemorative Toile (1993), Partially Buried in Three Parts (199697), Some Chance Operations (199899), Wavelinks (200204), and Endless Dreams and Water Between (2009), in a nonchronological sequence punctuated by color and sound.
Educated in New York and at Harvard, Renée Green who has worked both in Europe and the United States generally devises her works in connection with a specific place, questioning its visible or repressed history, whether it is in Lisbon, Berlin, Amsterdam, Naples, New York or Los Angeles. The artist allies thoughts arising from postcolonial criticism to the artistic procedures inherited from Conceptual and PostMinimal art to ask about the place of the subject in history and tackle the question of identities and their possible fluctuations. In a constant back and forth between documentary and fiction, she articulates personal and collective memory, individual histories her own, those of other people and historical events, questioning the implications of movements, displacements and geographical positions over the course of time, and calling on us to answer questions about vision and perception those we form of the world, history, ourselves, and others.
A tour of the exhibition
This room presents a selection of Renée Greens first works which already contain numerous elements which the artist will develop at a later date. In them she tackles systems of perception and the arbitrariness of classifications. Thus in Color II (1990), color pigments are associated with days of the week (Sunday = red, etc.), referring to the arbitrary nature of associations linked to color, and by extension to race. Thus we read a text taken from the book Lola Leroy: Or Shadows Uplifted by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1892) which recounts the meeting of two doctors who admire one another until one reveals to the other that he has black blood. Likewise in Color IV (1990), colors are associated with letters of the alphabet, interspersed with texts recounting respectively the linking of colors to the humors, a medical report on a patient who divided the world into light and dark, and the story of a journalist who blackened his skin to experience what it was like to be black in the southern United States (John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me, 1961). Greens taxonomies thus allow viewers to ponder about the way color and race depend on categories of vision which, though inexact, form the basis of a whole series of value judgments.
In the same vein, Neutral/Natural (1990) tackles the question of received ideas about what is neutral and natural. Words that are often associated with the term natural (science, laws, selection, etc.) are listed alongside shades of gray, and turn out all to be associated with concepts that have to do with the racial discourse. Renée Green questions how images of the world that are anything but neutral and natural are constructed through particular systems of representation (here mainly the system of language).
Seen (1990) is one of a series of works Renée Green has carried out focusing on representations of the black female body in western art history (Permitted, 1989, Sa main charmante, 1989, Revue, 1990, etc.). Here she tackles more specifically the figure of Saartjie Baartman, known as the Hottentot Venus, a young African woman who was exhibited like a caged animal at European fairs at the beginning of the 19 th century. Rather than showing documentary images of Saartjie Baartman, Renée Green creates a special viewing arrangement to explore Europeans perception of the African womans body as exotic, bizarre or monstrous. Viewers are invited to climb on to a platform which conjures up both a stage and the rostrums where slave auctions were conducted, while their shadow is projected on to a screen. On the plates, texts describing Saartjie Baartmans appearances on stage at Piccadilly Circus in London, as well as those of the famous singer and dancer Josephine Baker who caused a sensation in the Paris of the 1920s, can be read, while one of her songs, Voulezvous de la canne
, rings out.
As they are standing on the rostrum, viewers are involved in the arrangement: from being onlookers they are transformed into exhibits, and the separation between self and the other, as well as that between the subject and object of knowledge, is destabilized. The physical discomfort that may be felt at the point of the momentary permutation between the positions of subject and object immediately changes our way of understanding Saartjie Baartmans place in the intermingling of archival images of colonialism and modernity.
This room brings together works from different periods, but all focus on the question of travel and the circulation of ideas and forms, whether they be visual or musical. Idyll Pursuit (1991) is an installation Renée Green made at Caracas. Amid texts from fiction glorifying explorers, documents and images by American landscapists, particularly those of the Hudson River School, who traveled in South America in search of unspoilt, Edenlike nature, Renée Green inserts a photograph of herself taken in Venezuela. She thus establishes a parallel between contemporary artists who travel to exotic places to work, and 19 th century artists whose journeys were made in the context of imperialist practices.
In the installation Wavelinks (20022004), Renée Green is interested in a different type of circulation between places and people, between the local and the global: that made possible by music. Composed of seven octagonal units that are all viewing and listening spaces, simultaneously isolated from one another and linked by a color system, Wavelinks explores the many relationships people establish with sound. The seven videos take the electronic music of the 1990s as their theme, and its various interpretations by individuals who produce, write about, or listen to that music (Diedrich Diederichsen, Christian Marclay, Mika Vaino, etc.). The octagonal units that constitute Wavelinks are inspired both by primitive architectural structures like the hut and fun buildings like garden pavilions, while at the same time being related to the pavilions of the conceptual artist Dan Graham, also intended to create a different viewing context, and to concentrate visitors attention on an environment, an image, a voice, a sound.
When she was invited to make a work at Nantes in 1992, Renée Green explored the traces left by that citys colonial past, in particular its central role in the triangular trade (exchange of goods manufactured in Europe for men and women from Africa, subsequently sold as slaves in return for primary materials, mainly in the West Indies). Thus she produced printed fabrics by way of an allusion to the printed calico industry which flourished in Nantes in the 18 th century, materials used both to pay for the purchase of slaves in Africa, and to decorate the interiors of the well to do in France. Renée Green integrates into them scenes taken from engravings or stories of the period, like that of the Senegalese nun who was the heroine of Ourika (1824), a popular novel by Claire de Duras, or that hateful image of a European licking an Africans face to make an assessment of his health and so determine his commercial value. But by also inserting the picture of a Frenchman hanged during the Haitian revolution amidst the wreaths of flowers, Renée Green also commemorates the first successful slave rebellion in the modern world which led to Haitis independence in 1804, so jolting the seemingly innocent comfort of the bourgeois furnishings.
Opposite Commemorative Toile, this room presents Certain Miscellanies (1995), a second installation that refers to a period interior here that of the Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens (Great Britain), named after its founder, Marianne North, an artist with a passion for botany who traveled in many countries between 1871 and 1885, bringing back paintings of plants made in their natural environment. In it Renée Green assembles photographs documenting various places she has visited on her own travels both in Europe and the United States, as a reference to Marianne Norths activity as a collectortraveler.
The installation and video Partially Buried (1996) take the year 1970 as their starting point from several complementary aspects: where the paths of personal history, the history of art and History with a capital H intersect at a particular place, the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. That is where Renée Greens mother used to teach music, also where Robert Smithson, who became famous for his Land Art works, created the sculpture Partially Buried Woodshed of which only a photograph remains, and also where on May 4, 1970 the National Guard opened fire on students who were demonstrating against the American invasion of Cambodia, killing four of them and provoking an unprecedented strike throughout the countrys universities. By concentrating her work on a given moment in history and a given place, Renée Green reflects on the way in which personal associations with history, places and genealogy are entangled into a subjective fabric that complicates any separation between history and fiction. Carrying on from the video Partially Buried, the artist made Partially Buried Continued (1997) on a journey to Kwangju, in Korea. The video opens with a slide presentations consisting of pictures the artists father took when he was serving as a GI in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953. To this event drawn from her personal life, Renée Green adds her own research into the occurrences that have made a mark on the country and the city of Kwangju in a more recent period.
In the final installation, Partially Buried in Three Parts , Renée Green then brings two war histories together visually and allegorically, those of the Korean and the Vietnam War, histories in which her father and mother were respectively involved. Her installation is thus the result of a process that allies field research, the appropriation of political and historical events, and a subjective story.
Like Partially Buried, the installation Some Chance Operations is composed of several complementary and successive stages. Filmed in Naples, Vienna and New York, the video Some Chance Operations (1999) explores the question of cinema as an unstable form of archive, a receptacle of memory that can disappear at any moment. History and its manufacture are considered, in particular through the example of the filmmaker Elvira Notari, who owned a film production company in Naples between 1906 and 1930. Although she made more than sixty very popular feature films, widely distributed in Italy and in New York at the request of Italian immigrants, only three of her films are still in existence today. Some Chance Operations questions the process of memory and its relationship to place, to the experience undergone directly or with a delay. How do we remember? could be the central question of the video. Linking the project to the city of Naples, Renée Greens rumination is accompanied by the testimony of individuals who ponder about the way in which memory relies on words, sounds, sensations and images.
One of the artists investigations prior to the filming of the video took the form of an installation of texts and photographs on colored walls. Entitled Some Chance Operations: Between and Including (1998), the installation consists of film stills taken from three encyclopedias of cinema (The Oxford Companion to Film, 1976, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film , 1983 and The Womens Companion to International Film , 1990), related to one another by a system of alphabetically arranged crossreferences. The installation thus questions the way in which the selection of items of information, the inclusion or exclusion of a lexicon or an archive, contribute to determining which films, which stories, which memories, will or will not be preserved from oblivion.
Secret presents the photographic, sound and video records of research carried out by Renée Green in an apartment in Le Corbusiers Unité dhabitation at Firminy in 1993, which is comparable to a sort of ethnographic field study. In fact, when invited to intervene on the site in the context of a collective exhibition, Renée Green decided to put up her tent for a week in an unoccupied apartment in Le Corbusiers huge building, the ruin of a project for utopian living, and to make notes on her impressions and her meetings with the inhabitants, while at the same time documenting her environment. Conceived as a meditation on different stories and different trajectories (those of the architecture itself, its inhabitants, and Le
Corbusier), this work raises the question of knowing what it means to do a work on a specific site (thoughts that will be found again in Partially Buried in Three Parts in particular), and what the effects of such a work are on a foreign environment and on oneself. But at the same time Renée Green does not recount her experience in an autobiographical way; on the contrary, the experience of disorientation induced by this particular place is recounted in the third person, as if it were a fictional account.
In the same room, visitors can immerse themselves in the artists huge film and sound output, thanks to a compilation of 33 videos created between 1993 and 2005 (among them Returns: Tracing Lusitania, 2000 and Climates and Paradoxes , 2005) and a sound compilation. These elements are part of a larger project, United Space of Conditioned Becoming (2007), which the artist made in Berlin and New York to celebrate the thirteen years of the existence of her independent production company, Free Agent Media (FAM). Defined by the artist as my dream label and production company, FAM archives and publishes not only the works and writings of the artist, but also distributes those of other people, and organizes temporary events.
Much of the work I've done has in some way to do with charting relationships between what is imagined to be home and what is imagined to be away. In the installation Endless Dreams and Water Between (2009) which closes the exhibition, Renée Green explores the way in which desires and dreams have crystallized around islands in literature, history and the imagination over the years. Visitors first of all move around in the two rooms to the sound of waves and ships hooters, amidst colored banners bearing inscriptions which together compose a poem, There Is No Land Yet , written by Laura Riding when she was living with Robert Graves on the island of Majorca in the early 1930s. Maps and texts are scattered along the route, presenting the islands of Manhattan, Majorca and San Francisco Bay, as well as the real and imaginary protagonists of the video Endless Dreams and Water Between filmed in these various places.
The main story of the video Endless Dreams and Water Between consists of an exchange of letters between four fictional characters (all female) who think aloud about meeting up at an imaginary place called the September Institute. These women have names (Lyn, Mar, Raya and Aria), and are also distinguished by their foreign and regional accents: Lebanese, South African, Canadian and North American. All write in addition to their other activities: Lyn is a designer living in Manhattan who is interested in communication systems, Mar is a herbalist and botanist based in Majorca, Raya does marine biology in San Francisco, and Aria edits and writes books, dividing her time between Manhattan, California and Majorca. Winter in Majorca by George Sand (1855) is the text all four voices comment on a text written when Sand spent a winter on the island with her children and Frédéric Chopin, which Robert Graves would translate into English. The literary stories are therefore interwoven with the stories created by the artist, who draws on very personal archives to create webs of meaning, correspondences between places and between her fictional characters who at times have a strange resemblance to her. The film travels between Manhattan (an island where the artist lives) and ruminations about Majorca as an island at the crossroads between the European and Islamic worlds in a succession of images shown at a slow, poetic pace. Special attention is devoted to the details of these places located between land and water, to the ebb and flow of those elements; they are both real places and places where our imaginary worlds can be projected. The voices that cut across one another speak of dreams and possibilities to be created. Through them the fundamental question is raised of the relationship we have with other peoples words, other peoples worlds, the history of places and the inhabitants and travelers who have created stories about them, the many different migrations that have shaped them and of which language bears the traces. As one of the voices in the Come Closer video says: « Theres all of this and there are our daily lives. And theres history and its press upon the present. Because of the histories we are where we are and linked as we are. Still, we try to move. Despite everything. Not to get stuck in cycles or patterns that seem exhausted. These are daily efforts. Questions of where and how to live in these times, in this present. This is what each of us continues to face. How do we do it? How do we continue? How will we create the next endeavour? How will we create our lives ? »