Whitney Biennial 2008
Essays by Henriette Huldisch, Shamim M. Momin and Rebecca Solnit
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Yale University Press, 2008
by Shamim M. Momin
The Original Remake: The Future is a Do-Over
"There is a particular kind of reflective nostalgia that is not retrospective but prospective. In my understanding, nostalgia is not merely anti modern, but coeval with the modern project itself. Like modernity, nostalgia has a utopian element, but it is no longer directed toward the future. Sometimes it is not directed toward the past either, but rather sideways. The nostalgic feels stifled within the conventional confines of time and space."
Cultural theorist Svetlana Boym, whose revision of nostalgia fundamentally resists the dream of progress, distinguishes between two types of nostalgia, restorative and reflective. The former is the more common understanding of the word: an attempt to recapture perceived absolutes (an idea of nationhood, for example, steeped in notions of truth and tradition). The latter type acknowledges the impermanence of place and thus celebrates absences, fragments, and ruins. Akin to the revision of the idea of site specific discussed above, in reflective nostalgia "place" is a concept, as are its characteristic forms. Typically more intimate than restorative nostalgia, reflective nostalgia is also less suited to collective mythologies. Boym has spoken about this as the "off-modern" (versus pre- or post-), which she says "doesn't follow the logic of progress but rather involves exploration of the side alleys and lateral potentialities of the project of critical modernity."2 This definition, which recalls how the continually evolving formats utilized by Tajima/New Humans deny fixity (the endless remake), is useful in understanding the increasing frequency in art of what might be called a "do-over" mode: a type "of work, or a method of working, that seeks to release historical time from a fixed state of events and capture alternate (or failed) time lines."3
The frequent renegotiation of modernist or utopian paradigms in contemporary art, for example, is not the result of any idealized notion of 1960s counterculture (many of whose myths were debunked long ago but nonetheless persist in the greater American culture); rather, as noted earlier, it is a reflection of the sense of displacement, spatiotemporal anxiety, fearsome political structures, and (failed) attempt toward progressive uniformity that evolved out of conditions at mid-century, and which in many ways persist in today's world.
That the do-over mode creates an unfixed arena of past possibilities (often harboring, ironically, many of the anxieties suffusing the present) is perhaps most clearly addressed in the work of filmmaker Amie Siegel. Berlin Remake (2006), for example, incorporates scenes from the films of Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA), the state-run East German studio, alongside Siegel's reconstructions of those scenes set in the same locations. Not perfect reenactments (itself a contradiction in terms), the scenes are matched shot-to-shot rather than according to content. The same pan sometimes includes actors replicating the DEFA script, but not always-an absence that underscores how the camera is itself an actor. Siegel has likened her approach to using a musical score (here, the original film) that she then performs, applying a spatiotemporal language to these collapsed (or constructed and eviscerated) sites of histories.
Like other artists in the 2008 Biennial, Siegel has come to regard certain architectural forms as symbolic of failed ideological programs. In Death Star (2006), she selected five spaces in Germany built just before, during, or immediately after the Third Reich, undermining the familiar aesthetic of the modernist style by focusing on buildings that represent some of its bleaker aspects: for example, a Volkswagen factory, Hitler's workers' resort on the Baltic Sea, a defunct radio station. These buildings represent what Siegel calls "labor modernism," a reference to their underlying power constructs. Further enhancing the lifeless, hermetic feeling of the piece, the programmatic architectural systems are tracked by a slowly moving camera, which slides through their hallways accompanied by music from the film Star Wars (1977) that played during scenes of the space station Death Star's interior. Here again it is the motion through that is significant: the endless roaming within me overlooked and seemingly abandoned corridors, which project their failed ambitions back on the viewer.
Siegel's most recent work, DDR/DDR (2008), a feature-length film focusing on East Germany, weaves together the do-over mode with some of the other temporal strategies employed in various works in the exhibition, such as those that focus on transition and translation. For Siegel, as for Beshty, the German Democratic Republic provides a powerful metaphor of a no longer extant territory that nonetheless remains a contested site of memory and history. Among other encounters, the film combines actual and remade video surveillance from the Stasi archives, participatory scenes from East German reenactments of Native American cultural practices (which even today remain oddly popular), and psychoanalytic interviews exploring the notion of the "wall malady," a nostalgia for the former East Berlin aesthetics and society. Like the rest of Siegel's oeuvre, the film, she says, "considers its own behavior"4 as a tool for reflecting on the invasiveness and cultural confusion of its content.
1. Svetlana Boym, quoted in "Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset." in Brigitte Franzen, Kasper Konig, and Carina Plath. eds., Sculpture Projects Munster 07, exh. Cat. (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig. 2007), 83.
3. This term stems from one commonly used by children: typically when playing a game or such, if an error was made bur it was either not a full try or a kind of stupid mistake (dropping the ball or tripping, for example) one would call plaintively, for a "do-over." Thus the action is subtly distinct from a reenactment, passing through the motion again always knowing the error of the first. yet making the second better. The do-over was always an exception to the rules as well. thus additionally apt in this application.
4. Amie Siegel, correspondence with the author. June 22, 2007.
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