AGORA
: Dragged from her chariot by a mob of fanatical vigilante Christian monks, the revered astronomer was stripped naked, skinned to her bones with sharp oyster shells, stoned and burned alive as possibly the first executed witch in history. A kind of purge that was apparently big business back then.


CRITICAL WOMEN HEADLINES

6/18/09

Our City Dreams Movie Review


Our City Dreams
2009
Director: Chiara Clemente
Cast: Swoon, Ghada Amer, Marina Abramovic, Kiki Smith, Nancy Spero
Review by Nancy Keefe Rhodes

“I needed to be in New York because it’s, like, the biggest, loudest, dirtiest, most intense city we had,” recalls the young Brooklyn-based printmaker and installation artist Swoon, “so that’s where I needed to be.”

Born in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1977, Swoon “landed” in New York two decades later for art school, and it’s been her home base ever since. In Chiara Clemente’s “City of Dreams,” we encounter Swoon as she’s transitioning from her “street pieces” – large-scale wood-block prints made as she crouches on the floor of her apartment, put up with wheat paste on the sides of gritty buildings next to graffiti – to preparing her first solo gallery exhibition at Deitch Projects in 2005. There is also footage of cross-country travels and, in the summer of 2006, collaboration on the construction a connected fleet of river boats in Minneapolis called the Miss Rockaway Armada. Appealingly down to earth, Swoon is just verging on serious success. She’s exhibited at PS1 and the Tate; MoMA has just bought six of her prints. And, while she’s wary of what might come with such attention and keen to keep some open space about herself, she also feels that “we’re actually in a moment when it’s actually encouraged to be a woman artist.”

Swoon is the first of five women artists that Clemente profiles in “Our City Dreams.” All are transplanted New Yorkers by choice, all captured at a recognizable juncture in quite accomplished – even rarified - careers, and all working representationally with the human form, crossing media when it suits them, and in various ways entirely willing to discard restraints imposed by traditional framing. We see just enough of the work of each to want to see more, and the subtle ways in which their work echoes each other’s ties their stories together as much as their choice of home base. This deceptively unassuming film enjoyed only a modest theatrical run earlier this year, but has an afterglow born in the web of associations among its subjects. Clemente clearly knows her terrain and has won an extraordinary degree of confidence from her subjects; my guess is this film will enjoy a steadily rising reputation as times goes on.

Clemente, whose father is the Italian painter Francesco Clemente, grew up in New York and left at 18, certain she’d never return. After eight years – divided largely between Rome and Los Angeles – Clemente returned in late 2005. She had already made short documentary films in Italy about a number of artists, among them Jim Dine and Frank Gehry. She decided, after a three-hour studio visit with the Cairo-born fabric-artist/painter Ghada Amer, that she could best return to her city by following other women artists who also chosen this spot as their anchor.

They range in age from Swoon, who is likely to remain elfin at 80, to Nancy Spero, who actually does celebrate her 80th birthday uproariously during the film, a witty, curious, sharp-as-a-whip, still-working artist despite quite advanced crippling arthritis in her hands. Each woman recounts how she decided to be in New York, though part of what emerges is the city’s cosmopolitanism and the ease with which its residents come and go. Perhaps it could be said of no other city that making a film about its artists provides the opportunity for trips as far-flung as Venice, Cairo, Serbia and Paris (well, via footage of early careers) and Thailand, not to mention heartland America (Minneapolis figures in more than one story).

Over roughly two years shooting, Clemente follows them, apparently crossing paths fairly often (besides Minneapolis, the Venice Biennale, the Deitch and Gagosian galleries appear with some regularity). After Swoon, there’s Ghada Amer (“born 1963, Cairo; landed in New York City, 1996”), who combines tapestry and paint with sewn drawings of women, often with their limbs entwined. Amer travels back to Cairo for a project born of rug-making and visits her parents, a diplomat father who encouraged her and a hesitant mother who likes to look at the work only “from a distance.” This furnishes one of several rich portraits about the complexity of parental support for artist off-spring.

Kiki Smith, daughter of painter Tony Smith (born 1963, Nuremburg, landed in New York City 1975 – by way of New Jersey and San Francisco), works in drawing, clay sculpture, print-making and painting. Besides filming Smith as she peddles around New York on her bike, gray hair streaming, Clemente follows her preparing for her retrospective, 1980-2005: A Gathering, at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, musing on work some of which she herself has not seen in a quarter century, considering whether she’d have been an artist at all if her father had lived longer.

Marina Abramovic (born 1946, Belgrade, landed in New York, 2003) is a pioneering performance artist. All these artists do work that is representational and involves the female body, though Abramovic most directly makes her own body the medium. Abramovic, who cut her stomach with razors in 1975 (Clemente includes footage of this piece, Thomas Lips), is now 60, and has scarcely let up. Likening performance to ballet in the physical rigor, training and sensitivity required, Abramovic also coaches younger performance artists, and speaks about this as a medium with particular clarity. She also travels to Thailand after the Tsunami for God Punishing, a piece involving dozens of Thais who join her in wielding whips in the ocean surf.

Nancy Spero (born 1926, Cleveland, landed in New York, 1964) met her husband, the painter Leon Golub, at the Chicago Art Institute. They went first to Paris in the 50s, but in the midst of the Vietnam War, she recounts, “We finally decided that we had to face the music, that we were American painters.” Like all the artists here, she encounters Clemente at a certain turning point that summarizes her journey thus far and makes clear why she remains important.

Compact at 85 minutes, “Our City Dreams” is absorbing and satisfying. Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini provides an understated, effective score that serves the film especially well, right down to use of an older ballad of affectionate whimsy about “old Amsterdam” over the closing credits matches the film’s large spirit.

*******
“Our City Dreams” releases on DVD next Tuesday, June 23rd. It’s already listed at Netflix or available at Firstrunfeatures.com. “Make it Snappy” is a regular column in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, reviewing both DVDs and films in theatrical release, new and enduring. Reach Nancy at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

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