Reading over David's shoulder in "Experimental Women in Flux"

  • Posted on Aug 24, 2010 by

Anyone who has slaved over a book exhibition for months has probably had that experience when a friend, who is not a "book person," comes to see the show. You can tell from their reaction that the experience is something similar to seeing an art exhibition with the paintings displayed still nailed shut inside their wooden shipping crates. When you go to European museums, you realize how lucky we are in the United States that artworks are not usually displayed behind glass. But books—interactive books, which require someone to handle them in order to make them "work," in order to be able to see and read them—invariably are.

MoMA Library is currently exhibiting works by women from the newly acquired Silverman Fluxus Reference Library. The "Experimental Women in Flux" exhibition is in the museum's Education Center mezzanine, and will be up through November 8th.

Needless to say, the books are under glass. The last time I did an exhibition, I had planned to create a medieval chained library of paperback translations of the Surrealist texts on display. I am still kicking myself for not having done this, as even some of the more obscure publications have been brought out recently, thanks to two members of the eighties alternative band, Galaxie 500, and their imprint, Exact Change. I couldn't do a chained library for the current exhibition, because the reprints—outside of Primary Information's Great Bear Pamphlets—don't exist. To counter this problem, David Senior and I collaborated with MoMA's video guru, David Hart, on a 12-minute video in which you see David Senior reading and handling ten of the books. The small screen here makes it difficult to see and read the images (you’ll have to come to MoMA to get the full "cinemascope" effect of all 3 screens), but I'm hoping that this at least gives you an idea of what we were aiming for.  

I really liked this idea, because not only does the video show viewers more of the material than they can see in the vitrines, but it also dramatizes the process of preparing the exhibition (searching and reading through the material for images of, and works by, women), as well as depicting an experience David and I have shared at MoMA for years (looking over each other's shoulders, as one of us says to the other, "look at this cool book I found"—surely, one of the more pleasurable aspects of library work).

Some of the issues that informed the preparation of the exhibition are arguably more visible on screen. Leafing through the two important Happenings and Fluxus exhibition catalogs, the documentation of women's work is not so thorough. The pages of text highlight the usual male artists' names associated with Fluxus; and most of the images of women in works connected to Nouveau Réalisme, Pop Art and Happenings are in some way provocative and often nude. Anyone familiar with Alison Knowles's work can imagine the playful manner in which she performed the partial striptease in Nam June Paik's "Serenade to Alison." But for readers of Happening & Fluxus (1970), and arguably for the male audience member looking up at her in Peter Moore's documentary photograph, the sight of Ms. Knowles taking off her underwear on top of a table is just one in a series of images of women in various states of undress, dominated by Yves Klein's "living paintbrushes" and the naked female forms in performances scripted by Jean-Jacques Lebel and the Vienna Actionists. The assembling method of documentation in the catalogs—edited by Fluxus participants Wolf Vostell, Abrecht d., collector Hanns Sohm, and gallerist Jürgen Becker—further reveals the influence these publications had on later artists' books and the contemporary photobook. But how does one convey all this with one spread and one short label? (especially when we work in an institution with something referred to, unaffectionately, as "The Label Police"). I'm sure many viewers of the video don't get all of this either. But it's the best thing we could think of to provide that opportunity.

The video is running continuously on the center LED screen above the vitrines, and I hope that some of you get a chance to see the whole exhibition.

Sheelagh Bevan, Library Consultant, The Museum of Modern Art Library


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