Five Artists, One Film: "Our City Dreams"

OK, let's return to art, shall we?
I just saw a lovely documentary by Chiara Clemente at Film Forum: Our City Dreams. Clemente (daughter of Francesco) profiles five women artists ages of various ages and cultures, each connected creatively to her native or adopted city, New York. Swoon (30) and Nancy Spero (80) are the youngest and oldest, bracketing Ghada Amer, Kiki Smith and Marina Abramovicz (40s, 50s and 60s, respectively).

As a painter, I missed seeing artists who work with my medium, but given that films about artists are so few--and films about women artists fewer still--why nitpick? Watching Swoon rout plywood to create a large plate for her guerrilla prints, or Ghada Amer embroider her erotic women onto canvas, or Kiki Smith forming figures in clay offers a peek into each artist's studio and working process, and her commentary a pek into her life. If you've never seen Marina Abramovicz perform in person, even on film you realize how fearless she is. And Nancy Spero, still working as a frail 80-year-old, shows you that--ageism be damned!--art is timeless and so is its makers.
The Film Forum run of Our City Dreams is only through the 17th, but the film's website lists a schedule of upcoming film festivals and theatrical engagements. (What it doesn't provide are pictures of the artists, so for this report I have pulled them from various sources and credited the images.)

The film opens with the Brooklyn-based street artist making life-size prints on the floor of her kitchen. Swoon carves plywood with a router, inks the "plate," and then working barefoot, uses her feet to press a sheet of kraft paper into the plate. The images, of regular folks doing regular activities, are then trimmed and wheatpasted onto the walls of buildings around the city. There's more: her opening at Jeffrey Deitch a few years ago (a far cry from her tiny kitchen), a floating sculpture made with the help of friends.

"I was pressed way too hard up against the narrowness of the space," she says of painting. To her credit and our edification, she has created a wide-open terrain for herself.

Swoon on the street. Image from

Ghada Amer
Image from

How does a Muslim woman from Cairo express herself? On the face of it, with 'women’s work'--embroidery. Looking more closely you see that her many overlapping layers of linear images explore the erotic life of women. The filmmaker and her subject toggle between Cairo and New York, showing Amer with her family there and in her studio here. "We are proud of her," says her father, a former diplomat--even if she makes "bad woman," as her mother calls them. The wilfully loose threads would seem to be a metaphor for women’s lives, unclipped and unfettered, as they should be lived in any culture.

Installation from Breathe Into Me, Amer's solo exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, 2006

Marina Abramovic

Image from

Using her body as her medium, Abramovic has pushed herself to extremes. She has starved herself and carved herself, subjected herself to fire and ice. While she has explored the limits of what a body can endure, she has at the same time simply ritualized the activities of everyday life, like cleaning. Abramovic, who was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, has had an international career. She now resides in New York.

There's a scene where we see Abramovic preparing for a performance, her hair in rollers and her makeup being applied. Given the extremes at which she operates, it's a bit of a shock to think of what she's doing as show business, and yet that is, in essence, what performance of any kind is. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Marina Abramovic in performance. Image from New York Magazine

Kiki Smith
Image from the Walker Art Center
"There are no images of middle-age women," says Smith during the course of her segment. Now squarely in her mid-50s, she calls 50 "a marker." She's been taking stock of where she's been and thinking about how she wants to live her life. "Now I want to make middle-age women." Given that her life's work is poetic, ethereal and allegorical, I suspect that the spirit will continue even if the flesh as rendered in clay or on paper appears slightly less firm.
One of the things we see in Smith's segment is how much physical labor is required to make, pack, ship and install all that ethereal work. Of course she's at the stage of her career where there's help, and lots of it, but it's still a little miracle.

"Kiki Smith: A Gathering 1980-2005" at the Whitney Museum," with Yellow Moon (1998) and Bandage Girl (2002)

Nancy Spero
After living in Paris with her husband, the artist Leon Golub, the two returned to New York in the Sixties with their children. Now 80 and in failing health, she reminisces about her life and career--a career that began before the women's movement, when she was working in the shadow of her more famous husband, when, she says, "I was dying for someone to ask me what I was working on," to the present, when she is rightfully recognized for the work she has made. Along the way she helped found A.I.R., the longest-running women's co-op gallery, raised a family, and established herself as an artist and art warrior, whose paintings, murals and works on paper are joyously sexual and fearlessly confrontational, spiritual and political in equal measure.

Spero's mosaic murals on the #1's 66th Street subway stop. (Ths stop for the Metropolitan Opera, if you're wondering about the images.) This image and the one of the artist from Art21

.Click here for trailer


LXV said...

" 'There are no images of middle-age women,' says [Kiki] Smith"

Well, here's one. She just doesn't know where to look. There are plenty of women artists out there now that the baby boom has come of age and fully half of it is female. It's still a man's [art]world in the galleries and museums, but I predict women will be seen more as the modes of distribution change with the huge economic shift that is to come.

Stephanie Sachs said...

Thanks Joanne for a taste of the Big Apple.
Had a chance to meet Swoon last year when she was working at the Hui Press here on Maui. What a wonderful young artist with a great talent and generous spirit. She worked with community children and helped them create their own works. One of the classes were children at risk and it was inspiring to see their creations.