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Hannah Wilite

Ronald Feldman Fine Art
New York, New York
September 21 - October 19
As she requested just before her death in makes the work problematical; it is also ing its surrealist punch when one tries to
1993—"Remember me/Remember me?/Re- the motor that generates its interest. Lucy lift the object. Wilke picked up on the immember me"—Hannah Wilke's body of Lippard's quote inFrom the Center (among plication of illness in the title and replaced
work was re-membered in "Performalist those selected in So Help Me Hannah) is Duchamp's tooth-cracking cubes with
Self-Portraits and Video/Film Perfor- just right: "A woman using her own face medicine bottles and syringes. The piece
mances, 1976-1985" at the gallery that has and body has a right to do what she will was likely chosen to stand in dialogue with
represented her since 1972. One of the with them, but it is a subtle abyss that the poster-sized cover of Wilke's autobiogstrengths of this show was the effect of separates men's use of women for sexual raphy / Object: Memoirs of a Sugargiver
ensemble, the bringing together of dispar- titillation from women's use of women to (1977-78) hung behind it. The series of
ate parts of a practice—props, texts, pho- expose that insult." The strength and the transpositions here gave an inkling of
tographs, videos.
enigma of Wilke's early work is that it con- Wilke's strategy: she may come off like
Upon entering the gallery, one was sistently and insistently straddles that sugar, but beware the sugar cubes that
bombarded head-on by Wilke's voice-over precarious and "subtle abyss."
break your teeth. The words "I Object" read
rising above the grating music of 1970s
The overarching narrative theme of "I am an object and I object to this status."
melodrama coming from 10 monitors in- Wilke's career is thefragilityofthe human They stand as a perfect, succinct summary
stalled in a large rectangle. This arrange- psyche and its vessel. But the wise curato- of Wilke's early practice.
ment of five performances taped in vari- rial choice to include only two respectful
Wilke believed in the potency of the
ous locations between 1979 and 1985 was reminders of Wilke's death in this exhibi- image. She spoke of hoping to save her
particular to this exhibition and afforded tion enables viewers to take a fresh look djdng mother by capturing her spirit in
insight into process by offering multiple at work that has been so strongly inflected photographs. Pictures did not save her
viewpoints. The camera approaches Wilke by Wilke's last major project, Intra-Venus, mother's life, nor her own. The power of
from various angles; she poses actively, a documentation of the ravages of illness photography to function as a vehicle
unclothed, constantly moving, insistently eating away her vital form. One piece, a through time was palpable in the gallery
speaking. Some ofthe monitors showed the photo diptych of Wilke and her mother, space, though, as these pioneer perforview through the camera stalking her body. Selma Butter, foreshadows Intra-Venus. mance pieces were re-experienced. There
Others offered a detached perspective that Both women are shown from the waist up, was an innocent moment in the 1960s
included both Wilke and the cameraman nude. Wilke's heavily made-up eyes are when standing naked before the world
at work in the frame, and functioned to wide open, seducing the camera; she wears seemed the most forthright expression of
deconstruct the capturing, anonymous ray guns as wounds all over her body. honesty, a political gesture aimed at sogaze. The screen in the upper left comer Butter's eyes are closed and she turns her cietal repression. Work in the early
flashed the names of the writers whose head awayfromthe camera. She wears the 1970s by artists like Wilke, Edelson,
texts Wilke had appropriated and given literal scars of a mastectomy but exudes and Schneemann, among others,
voice; the instructions for viewing So Help the emotional strength of a single-breasted served as a jolting reminder that too
Me Hannah were hung, typewritten, un- Amazon, so often called upon in ancient much has been vvritten on and proder a hundred pieces of plexiglass on a wall Greek art to stand for the threat of female jected onto the female body for it ever
excess. This mother-daughter pairing calls to evacuate the discourse of nudity
Closest to the entrance were six con- up a medieval vanitas image: a youthful and appear naked. Wilke's images
frontational poster-sized photographs of beauty looks into a mirror to see herself, found themselves in fine feminist
the bared Wilke with high heels and ray reflected back in a state of physical decay. company this season in New York
guns. One-liners like "annihilate illumiIt was the self-image Wilke would in- with Yayoi Kusama at Robert
nate" (Oldenburg) or "beyond the permis- deed have to face as she followed her Miller, Nancy Spero riding the
sion given" inscribed on the posters ring mother into the battle with cancer and lost. crest of a great wave with no less
out like gunshots and call up issues cru- It was a fate she courageously presented than three simultaneous gallery
cial to this body of work: those of agency, to the world as a heart-rending response shows, and with a Carolee
manipulation, and (dis)empowerment. On to criticisms that her body beautiful nulli- Schneemann retrospective at
the floor in front of the posters were two fied her feminist intentions. The only piece The New Museum. The crucial
large, plexiglass cases holding the 229 ray in the show related to her illness was Why question is, why now and not
guns Wilke assembled, the conception re- Not Sneeze? (1992), a witty sculpture that always?
claimed from her (unacknowledged) col- functions as a ready-made aided by
laboration with Oldenburg. The surpris- Duchamp's original object of the same Claire Daigle,
ingly touching objects were found, or name, a small cage filled with pieces of Brooklyn, New York
shaped of mangled tinfoil, a toothless marble cut to look like sugar cubes, vneldcomb, a broken Mickey Mouse water pistol; they sat as abased bits of urban detritus that trigger images of vulnerability and
violence. Wrapping around the walls above
these cases was a longfilmicfrieze of photographs, the Snatch Shots with Ray Guns
(1978), in which Wilke poses in grungy industrial spaces armed only with high heels
and ray guns. Without text, they were disturbingly silent.
Without the mediation of text, Wilke's
work is disarmingly ambiguous, a kind of
"social irritant" as she called it. It can be
difficult for someone who has not followed
her career tofigureout Wilke's intentions.
One young female art student viTote angrily in the comment book how terrible a
role model Wilke is. She thought the work
exhibitiordstic and self-exploitative. Is this,
in fact, a seductive dance ofthe seven veils
or a critical unveiling, a stripping away of
propriety and pretension? One is given
pause to wonder as Wilke transforms herself from bachelor to bride stripped-bare
behind Duchamp's Large Glass in Through Hannah Wilke, So Help Me Hannah, 1979-85,
the Large Glass (1976). This ambiguity multiple video performance (photo: Zindman I
Fremont, courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Art).



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