Neuer Berliner Kunstverein hosts a solo presentation of Dara Birnbaum's work

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Neuer Berliner Kunstverein hosts a solo presentation of Dara Birnbaum's work
Dara Birnbaum, Damnation of Faust: Charming Landscape, 1987, 6:33 min, NTSC, color, sound (video still) © the artist / Electronic Arts Intermix / Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.).

BERLIN.- Dara Birnbaum is a pioneer of video art who has profoundly influenced the genre’s visual vocabulary since the 1970s. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the n.b.k. Video-Forum, founded in 1971, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein hosts the first solo presentation of Birnbaum’s work in Germany in over 20 years. The exhibition focuses on works by the artist that have been in the n.b.k. Video Forum collection since the 1980s. With her work Birnbaum vigorously and convincingly championed the establishment of video as an art medium, thereby expanding the boundaries of the art world. Her practice proved to be groundbreaking for subsequent generations of artists, both conceptually and aesthetically. With this presentation of her work, n.b.k. continues its support of critical positions using video as a means of artistic expression.

Birnbaum’s preoccupation with television, the mass medium of her time, manifests itself in her early works Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978–1979) and Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry (1979), which have become canonical works of video art. For Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978–1979), Birnbaum used clips from the cult series Wonder Woman (1975–1979). In the series, the titular heroine transforms into the super-powered Wonder Woman through her signature twirl. The edit that accompanies her costume change is concealed by a special effect: a flash of light combined with the sound of thunder, symbolizing an explosion. Birnbaum extracts these scenes and condenses them into a montage that focuses solely on the moments of spectacular transformation. The artist reduces the narrative to a sequence of constant climaxes and depicts the figure, who is often read as a feminist icon in pop culture, as a woman spinning in circles. In doing so, Birnbaum draws attention to commercial stereotypical role models propagated by the mass media, as well as the creation of special effects through pyrotechnics, lighting, and sound. In the second part of the video, the acoustic dimension of Birnbaum’s work comes to the fore. Suddenly the image changes from the edited film scenes to a monochrome blue background over which, not unlike a karaoke video, the transcribed lyrics of a disco song can be read as selected portions of this song are played. The song is comprised of edits from the A and B side of the LP record by The Wonderland Disco Band. The two versions of the song – Wonder Woman Disco (European Version) and Wonder Woman Disco (American Version), both from 1978 – with their lyrics including “Ah-h I just wanna shake thy wonder maker for you” and “Make it feel real good for you” reveal a crystal-clear reading of Wonder Woman not as a feminist icon, but as an object produced for consumption by a male gaze.

In the video Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry (1979), the artist brings together the then-popular quiz show Hollywood Squares (1966–1981) with two disco hits from 1979, conflating them into a repetitive sequence of stereotyped and exalted greeting gestures mainly by the show’s female participants. The video can be read as a critique of the logic of nightly television entertainment, which elevated the constant pursuit of shortlived celebrity and even at times cash prizes to a lived version of the American Dream. The combination of disco music and the flashing stage design also opens up a view of the aesthetic quality of the vernacular of such popular game shows. Birnbaum also has shown her works outside the art world, for example in discotheques. The radiant television backdrops, reminiscent of the illuminated panels of dance hall floors common in the 1970s, make the choice of venue only logical.

Presented for the first time in Germany, the third work in the exhibition, Lesson Plans (To Keep the Revolution Alive) (1977, printed in 2021), consists of 15 combined image and text panels, which heralded Birnbaum’s preoccupation with television even before her work with existing footage. For her first institutional solo exhibition at Artists Space in New York in 1977, Birnbaum combined photographs of television shows, which she took with a 35mm photo camera and then provided a transcription of the exact text spoken in each respective scene. She chose a serial approach: the series consists of five sets, each with five photographs and five accompanying text panels; each set consists of stills taken from TV shows, each program being broadcast during prime-time and taken over five different weekdays in total. The dialogue scenes, which are usually perceived by viewers in a fluid sequence, are broken down into their constituent parts: Birnbaum separates shot from reverse-shot, thus highlighting the constructed nature of such television images. By incorporating the spoken dialogue of these popular prime-time crime-drama series, she draws attention to the staging of clichéd bad guys and good guys. Lesson Plans (To Keep the Revolution Alive) is not only a juxtaposition of image and text but a demonstration of stereotypical characters and conventionally used camera angles during the construction of these TV-programs.

In addition to the works that can be experienced in the exhibition space, n.b.k. presents Birnbaum’s video trilogy Damnation of Faust (1983–1987) on its website for the duration of the exhibition. Differing fundamentally from Birnbaum’s work with television footage, this trilogy is based on video material the artist shot in her neighborhood in New York. With it she composes visually and acoustically complex montages involving a variety of visual effects, such as fades, inserts, zooms, and focus shifts, which formally invoke 19th-century Japanese prints, from the Ukiyo-e genre of art, that Birnbaum saw at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 1982. Inspired by the formal diversity of this genre of printmaking, and challenging what she perceived as the monotonous representational conventions of modern video technology, Birnbaum began to create newly formulated visual techniques. The trilogy – which is loosely based on Héctor Berlioz’s eponymous composition La damnation de Faust (1846), a musical operatic adaptation of the play by Goethe – focuses on the female protagonist Marguerite (Gretchen) and not only touches on themes of youth and aging, but also New York City’s urban transformation.

The title of the exhibition, Talking Back to the Media, is an expression Dara Birnbaum has often used to describe how she responds to the use of mass media in her work. In a text of the same name, first published in 1985, she points out parallels between her early work and the Damnation of Faust trilogy she was working on at the time. Birnbaum points out that, in the 1980s, there was a necessity for “new forms of representation, image, and meaning through our own use of the tools and by-products of the [television] industry,” whereas in the 1970s, appropriating imagery from the mass media of television seemed to her to be the best approach.

Dara Birnbaum (*1946 in New York, lives and continues to work there) graduated in architecture from Carnegie Mellon University and then later graduated in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1976, she received a certificate in Video/Electronic Editing at the Video Study Center of Global Village, New School for Social Research in New York. Birnbaum is a professor in the Masters of Fine Arts Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and has taught at numerous institutions, including: the Städelschule in Frankfurt/Main; Princeton University, New Jersey; and California Institute of the Arts in Valencia/California. She is a 2021 Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in New York. Birnbaum participated several times at Documenta in Kassel (1992, 1987, 1982) and at the Venice Biennale (2015, 2003, 2001, 1995, 1984). Since 2017, the Birnbaum Award has been given in her honor by Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Art to an outstanding graduate student, whose work is at the intersection of art, media, and technology. Birnbaum’s extensive solo exhibitions include: the Cleveland Museum of Art (2018); Serralves Foundation, Porto (2010); S.M.A.K. Gent (2009); Center for Contemporary Art Kitakyushu (2009); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2008); The Jewish Museum, New York (2003); Künstlerhaus Bethanien (1997); and the Kunsthalle Wien (1995).

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