Virtuoso Volunteers, Dedicated Docents

Walk through the doors of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and chances are the first thing you will see is the smiling face of a volunteer. Here to serve as welcoming representatives and knowledgeable sources of information, NMWA’s dedicated volunteer corps is essential to the daily operations of the institution.

Volunteers have a variety of reasons for devoting their time and skills to supporting NMWA, though one shared motivation is a commitment to the museum’s mission of redefining traditional histories of art. As Josephine Cabatu, current visitor experience volunteer and docent-in-training, says, “NMWA’s mission to bring recognition to the achievements of women artists said it all for me. I wanted to be a part of this mission.” Others cite the opportunity to draw on their experiences as a motivating factor in their decision to volunteer. Erin Garland, another visitor experience volunteer and docent-in-training, says that in addition to loving the museum’s mission, she is excited to use her background in teaching. Volunteering as a docent, she says, “combines my love of art and teaching.”

Volunteers have the opportunity to learn in-depth information about NMWA's collection and exhibitions

Volunteers have the opportunity to learn in-depth information about NMWA’s collection and exhibitions

Volunteers have the opportunity to become well acquainted with NMWA’s collection, and many gravitate toward specific works over time. Erin is partial to Lady in an Evening Dress by Lilla Cabot Perry, as it served as her inspiration for a project as a costume design major in college, while docent Marilyn Cohen favors Portrait of a Noblewoman by Lavinia Fontana because of its rich details, which she enjoys sharing with visitors during tours. Josephine, who is currently taking part in the eight-month docent training program, says that “because of the NMWA docent training I am undergoing, works now strike me in such different ways and for different reasons that I don’t know how to consider a ‘favorite’ at the moment.”

NMWA’s volunteer corps builds camaraderie while supporting the museum’s mission

NMWA’s volunteer corps builds friendships and camaraderie while supporting the museum’s mission

What’s the best part of being a NMWA volunteer? That depends on whom you ask. Ed Williams, who has been a docent for 18 years, says that for him, “the best part of being a docent is meeting people from all over the world and introducing them to our marvelous collection.” Erin also finds that her interactions with visitors are what make her time at NMWA so meaningful: “Our visitors are wonderful! I’ve had so many interesting conversations about artists, works in the collection, and their experiences. I haven’t experienced this level of conversation at other museums where I’ve volunteered. I think it speaks to the connection and value our visitors place on the museum.” For Marilyn, the highlight of her ten years as a docent is the camaraderie and friendships forged between the volunteers. Sarah Cosgrove Gaumond began as a visitor experience volunteer in January 2014 and says of her experience at NMWA, “I love every part of it.”

Learn more about volunteering at NMWA!

—Olivia Mendelson is the education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Janaina Tschäpe, Goddess of Water and Melancholy

Janaina Tschäpe (b. 1973, Munich) is a Brazilian-German artist who creates paintings, drawings, photographs, and video art. Inspired by landscapes of the Amazonian rainforest in Brazil, as well as tales from the Romantic era of 19th-century Germany, she orchestrates images of cumbersomely costumed women placed in dramatic settings for videos and photographs.

Janaina Tschäpe, Lacrimacorpus (Zeitschneide); Production still from Lacrimacorpus,2004; Single-channel color video with sound; film transferred to DVD; Courtesy of the artist and Tierney Gardarin Gallery, New York

Janaina Tschäpe, Lacrimacorpus (Zeitschneide); Production still from Lacrimacorpus, 2004; Single-channel color video with sound; film transferred to DVD; Courtesy of the artist and Tierney Gardarin Gallery, New York

The artist’s first name, Janaina, refers to the Afro-Brazilian queen of the ocean, goddess of the sea, evolved from Yemanja of Yoruba religion. The artist identifies with her namesake by including a form of water in many of her projects, like Aquatica (2014), The Ocean Within (2013), Blood Sea (2004), and The Moat and the Moon (2003). Currently on view in Total Art: Contemporary Video, Tschäpe’s Lacrimacorpus dissolvens (2004) alludes to the story of a sad, self-loathing mythical creature that also behaves according to its name, dissolving in a pool of its own tears.

The short video features a female figure dressed in period costume from Goethe’s Faust.² Covered head to toe in swaths of beige fabric flowing over a large hoop skirt, the woman’s face and hands are also completely hidden by a hooded bonnet and extra-long sleeves. But the most unusual element of the ensemble is an unwieldy inflatable-teardrop collar encircling her neck.

Set to a careening piano melody, the woman spins in circles inside the weathered, abandoned room of a palace in Weimar, Germany, a hub of the German Enlightenment as well as the site of Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald. The sound of a turning crank opens the video, with a Rückenfigur¹ gazing out the window toward the gardens. Soft piano music begins to play, and the woman turns slowly in circles with a melancholic lilt. As the tune reaches a forceful tempo and crescendo, the woman also picks up speed and intensity.

Installation view with works by Tschäpe

Installation view with works by Tschäpe; Photo by Laura Hoffman

Uneven centripetal forces (and dizziness) eventually send her off balance until she melts slowly to the ground onto her back, arms spread wide as if crucified, exhausted, dissolved. Not the willful, skilled performance expected from the typical music-box ballerina, the woman’s repetitive, hypnotic “dance” seems compelled by a force unseen. The video plays on a loop, the woman stuck forever in this dizzying pattern of helplessness. Does she feel implicated in the horrific events that have occurred there, permanently tied to the trauma and shame? Does the loss of agency and burdensome sorrow represent an experience of 19th-century womanhood?

Accompanied by production stills from the shoot, the inclusion of Lacrimacorpus dissolvens in Total Art represents an instance in which the artist is in control of more than one medium. Tschäpe makes decisions not simply as the artist, but also as director, costume designer, choreographer, sound editor, and videographer. While the woman in the video may not have authority over her situation, Tschäpe carefully crafts an image of a character lost in a physically altering state of grief.

To learn more about the artist and Lacrimacorpus dissolvens, visit the museum for a short conversation with Curatorial Assistant Stephanie Midon on Wednesday, July 30 at noon, or attend Tschäpe’s talk at NMWA on September 19.

—Kelly Johnson is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She is pursuing her MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Curatorial Practice.

Notes:

1. Figure shown with back to the viewer, alluding to landscape imagery made popular during the period of German Romanticism by painter Caspar David Friedrich in the 19th century.

Artist Spotlight: The Magical Erasure of Michal Rovner

Upon entering the exhibition Total Art: Contemporary Video, your attention may be drawn to the large blue artwork on the opposite wall. From a distance, it is challenging to determine the print’s context and subject. As you approach it more closely, however, you realize the work’s content is just as ambiguous in close proximity. The majority of the image is a nondescript, turquoise-tinted background. The upper portion contains four off-white, thick, irregular, horizontal lines that are staggered on top of one another, barely alluding to a sense of depth.

Installation view with work by Michal Rovner

Installation view with work by Michal Rovner

The work in question is One-Person Game Against Nature, No. 35 (1993) by Michal Rovner (b. 1957, Tel Aviv, Israel)—a chromogenic print reproduction of a frozen video image. The work is installed just above an elongated, sleek, white table with glass petri dishes erratically arranged along its length. This is another work by Rovner, Data Zone, Cultures Table #3 (2003), which incorporates moving video segments via hidden monitors under the table. As you peer into the petri dishes, you are greeted by miniscule objects that appear to be alive. They evoke bacteria or insects but as you look closely at all the dishes, something astonishing happens—the objects that are swarming or repeating their movements become recognizable as atomized human forms. Rovner recorded the movement of a group of people from above and transformed them through a heavy editing process that obscures any previously detectable natural arrangement.

Michal Rovner, Data Zone, Cultures Table #3 (detail), 2003; Steel table, 6 petri dishes, 4 monitors, glass plates, lighting, and digital files, 33 x 118 1/2 x 31 1/2 in.; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Image © Michal Rovner, Courtesy Artists’ Rights Society (ARS), NY; Photo Ellen Labenski, Courtesy Pace Gallery

Michal Rovner, Data Zone, Cultures Table #3 (detail), 2003; Steel table, 6 petri dishes, 4 monitors, glass plates, lighting, and digital files, 33 x 118 1/2 x 31 1/2 in.; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Image © Michal Rovner, Courtesy Artists’ Rights Society (ARS), NY; Photo Ellen Labenski, Courtesy Pace Gallery

Rovner’s digitized trompe l’oeil doesn’t stop there. A closer examination of One-Person Game reveals the same concept—given a second look, the lines and abstracted forms are human silhouettes. For this work, Rovner video-recorded four young men floating in the Dead Sea and then enlarged and amplified a still shot from the recording to create the grainy, ambiguous, and enigmatic image that scarcely suggests human forms.

A more pessimistic blogger might suggest that in reducing figures to this microscopic and unrecognizable level, Rovner diminishes notions of individual human identity. However, Rovner leaves traces of humanity in both of these works. In removing key associative details, she asks viewers to look again and look more deeply. Michal Rovner operates in the realm of human experience and her concepts function as a wondrous marriage between magic, mad science, and art. Rovner’s removal of detail allows viewers to open their minds. As scholar Sylvia Wolf explains, in “. . . seeing less, we imagine more.”¹

Rovner sees her video and photographic works as operating outside accepted reality. Commenting on her own inspirations for her projects, she notes:

I am looking for a point of departure from concreteness. But I don’t want to totally lose the presence of something, or even the meaning of what it was, or used to be, or could have been . . . And maybe it has potential—energy, information, visual information – to make a very strong statement about a specific reality, which an exact recording of that reality wouldn’t have. ²

Visit NMWA on Wednesday, July 23 at noon for a weekly staff-led gallery talk and hear from Curatorial Assistant Stephanie Midon as she discusses Rovner’s Data Zone, Cultures Table #3. Because doesn’t everyone deserve a little magic on their lunch break? We think so.

—J. Rachel Gustafson is a curatorial fellow at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Notes:
1. Sylvia Wolf, “The Space Between,” in Michal Rovner: The Space Between, Sylvia Wolf, ed., (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2001), 68.
2. Michal Rovner as quoted in “Michal Rovner and Leon Golub in Conversation, 20 March and 1 April 2001,” in Michal Rovner: The Space Between, Sylvia Wolf.

Judy’s Diamond Jubilee

Today is a very special day for the legendary Judy Chicago—her 75th birthday!

Over her 75 years, Judy Chicago has made a prominent name for herself as an artist, author, educator, and source of inspiration for men and women all over the globe. After producing installation pieces such as Womanhouse (1972) and The Dinner Party (1975), Chicago achieved international stardom as a pioneer of the feminist art movement in the 1970s.

Judy Chicago at NMWA with museum Founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Photo Laura Hoffman

Judy Chicago at NMWA with museum Founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Photo: Laura Hoffman

In order to commemorate this dynamic period of Chicago’s career and the coinciding feminist movement, NMWA held an exhibition of her work earlier this year, Judy Chicago: Circa ’75. In March, Chicago visited the museum for an opportunity to speak to NMWA’s members and guests about the exhibition as well as her newest book, Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education.

During the conversation, Chicago applauded NMWA, saying, “as long as MoMA is a museum of men, we need a museum for women in the arts.” She described her regular past visits to the museum, noting how “every time I walk into [NMWA] I see my predecessors and what they had to go through to get here.”

At the end of the discussion, NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling presented Chicago with personalized cards to celebrate her birthday and pay homage to her incredible artistic achievements. Chicago was touched by the heartfelt gesture by the members, noting that she wanted to read their notes right then and there.

Cards from NMWA members to Chicago: “Thank you for sharing wisdom and beauty with your powerful art!”

Cards from NMWA members to Chicago: “Thank you for sharing wisdom and beauty with your powerful art!”

In Institutional Time, Chicago discusses her legacy, stating “I became determined to use my time on earth to create art—as much of it as possible . . . and to make a place for myself in art history.” Now, on her 75th birthday, Chicago has irrefutably, permanently left her mark on modern discourses of art history. Happy birthday to this visionary artist!

—Olivia Zvara is the member relations intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Meret Oppenheim’s “Schoolgirl’s Notebook”

On view in Meret Oppenheim: Tender Friendships, the artist’s early work Schoolgirl’s Notebook (Cahier d’une Écoliere) provides insight into her spirit and ambition as a young artist, as well as her inclination toward Surrealism.

memory of Rosemary Furtak, from her collection; Photograph by Lee Stalsworth; Image courtesy of Lisa Wenger and Martin A. Bühler, Meret

Schoolgirl’s Notebook (Le Cahier d’une Écolière), 1973; Etching on paper,
embossed and printed in rust, gray, green, and black; Original blue paper-covered
stiff wrappers, 11 x 8 ½ (closed); Edition 41/100; NMWA; Gift of Thomas Hill in
memory of Rosemary Furtak; Photograph by Lee Stalsworth; Image courtesy of Lisa Wenger and Martin A. Bühler, Meret Oppenheim Estate

In 1930, when she was 16 years old, Meret Oppenheim created a collage in her mathematics exercise book for her father’s birthday. She did not like school, and her first Surrealist work was the absurd equation x = hare (or rather an image of an orangey-red hare or rabbit) was intended to convince her father that she was ill-suited for conventional education and should be allowed to become an artist and go to Paris. Her strategy worked, and in 1932 Oppenheim went to Paris, with her friend Irène Zurkinden, to study art.

In 1957, André Breton, leader of the Surrealist movement, published Oppenheim’s Schoolgirl’s Notebook in the magazine Le Surrealisme même. After Breton died, his wife Elisa returned the notebook to Oppenheim. It was published in 1973 in a limited edition of 100 copies.

The exhibition also includes a selection of Oppenheim’s correspondence, including a handwritten letter to Elisa Breton in which Oppenheim mentioned the notebook.

Meret Oppenheim: Tender Friendships is on view at NMWA through September 14. Exhibition curator Krystyna Wasserman will lead a tour of the show at noon on Wednesday, July 16.

Artist Spotlight: The Collaboration of Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter

In 2005, spouses Ingrid Mwangi (b. 1975, Nairobi, Kenya) and Robert Hutter (b. 1964, Ludwigshafen, Germany) began working as a collaborative artistic force. Today, they exhibit their joint works under the combined name of Mwangi Hutter and aim to show their “shared vision . . . [to] overcome gender and ethnic boundaries.”¹

Mwangi Hutter, Neger Don't Call Me (installation view), 2000; DVD, speakers, four wood chairs, and Dolby surround sound; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C., Image courtesy of the artists

Mwangi Hutter, Neger Don’t Call Me (installation view), 2000; DVD, speakers, four
wood chairs, and Dolby surround sound; National Museum of Women in the Arts,
Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C., Image courtesy of
the artists

Mwangi Hutter’s Neger Don’t Call Me (2000) is one of the 10 video pieces in NMWA’s Total Art: Contemporary Video exhibition. To introduce the work and mark the opening of the show, Ingrid Mwangi visited the museum on June 6, 2014. She spoke with visitors about the production of Neger Don’t Call Me, and offered a preview of three of Mwangi Hutter’s most recent video collaborations.

Ingrid Mwangi at NMWA on June 6, discussing Mwnagi Hutter's video installation and (background) photographic series Shades of Skin

Ingrid Mwangi at NMWA on June 6, discussing Mwnagi Hutter’s video installation and (background) photographic series Shades of Skin

Ingrid Mwangi is the daughter of a German mother and a Kenyan father. Growing up between Germany and Kenya, Mwangi felt the constraints of finding her identity. During her lecture at NMWA, she explained that her dreadlocked hair in Neger Don’t Call Me acts signifies one aspect of her identity. The camera shows her face as it is covered and uncovered with sculptural masks made of her own dreadlocks, while the dialogue (in Mwangi’s own voice) recalls memories from her childhood related to the use of the German word neger, or negro, as it translates in English. “Many people can’t say the word because they are so wounded by it,” Mwangi shared, “. . . but for me, the more I used it, the history behind the word dissolved.”

In addition to the projected video, Neger Don’t Call Me includes four wooden chairs with speakers attached under their seats. The fragmented sentences offer insight into Mwangi’s experiences with stereotypes and discrimination after leaving Kenya for Germany. Her voice reverberates between the speakers mounted on the gallery walls and the chairs as they jump from source to source, suggesting a collective experience.

In a 2003 exhibition catalogue, Mwangi discussed the sound, dialogue, and language in Neger Don’t Call Me:

Using the example of the German word ‘Neger’ . . . a word in which the history of racist ideology still echoes, I explain the feeling of wrongness I sensed when faced with the use of discriminating words or ignorant action. With this piece I wish to show the constant dialogue which occurs between self and society, in this case especially dealing with the continuing problem of being judged and categorized due to skin-colour.²

At noon on Wednesday, July 9, Assistant Educator Ashley W. Harris will discuss Mwangi Hutter’s Neger Don’t Call Me during a 30-minute viewing and “Conversation Piece.” Join us during your lunch break to learn more about this emotionally-charged video.

—J. Rachel Gustafson is a curatorial fellow at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Notes:

1. Ingrid Mwangi as quoted at NMWA, June 6, 2014.

2. Ingrid Mwangi, “Neger Don’t Call Me/Coloured/Down by the River/To Be in the World/Your Own Soul/Wild at Heart/Static Drift: Selected Works and Texts by Ingrid Mwangiin Ingrid Mwangi: Your Own Soul (Saarbrücken: Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, 2003), 9.

Artist Spotlight: Pipilotti Rist’s Red Room and Blue Bodily Letter

One of the nine gallery spaces in Total Art: Contemporary Video is vividly painted with an oblong white space centered on a red wall. This was not a random design decision, but rather a feature of the installation at the request of the artist, Pipilotti Rist (b. 1962, Rheintal, Switzerland), who created the video piece featured in the crimson gallery.

Pipilotti Rist, Blauer Liebesbrief (Blue Bodily Letter), 1992/98; Audio-video installation; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.

Pipilotti Rist, Blauer Liebesbrief (Blue Bodily Letter), 1992/98; Audio-video installation; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.

Rist’s Blauer Leibesbrief (Blue Bodily Letter) (1992/98) is part of a genre of video works that are as connected to the installation space as the projected imagery. NMWA’s installations of each of the ten works in the exhibition required specific parameters. The museum’s curatorial and design team worked with the Total Art artists and their galleries to ensure the installation of each video reflected the artist’s original thought process and the work’s integrity. Notably, Rist’s Blauer Leibesbrief—projected at an angle to overlap the oblong white space—was the only work to break from the traditional mode of straight projection and dark, movie theater-esque walls.

NMWA members looking at Rist's video installation and a series of her prints on Member Preview Day; Photo Laura Hoffman

NMWA members looking at Rist’s video installation and a series of her prints on Member Preview Day; Photo Laura Hoffman

The immersive qualities of video art are largely dependent on proper installation, and Rist’s video was no different. The looped imagery in Blauer Leibesbrief is shown through the progression of a handheld camera that sweeps over the artist’s nude body as she lays motionless in a wooded landscape with jewels adorning her body. The work is projected at a sharp right angle, forming a trapezoidal shape on the wall. This work was one of the artist’s first experiments in altering the projector’s orientation.

Pipilotti Rist’s practice aims to introduce viewers to unexpected new perspectives:

“Art’s task is to contribute to evolution, to encourage the mind, to guarantee a detached view of social changes, to conjure up positive energies, to create sensuousness, to reconcile reason and instinct, to research possibilities, to destroy clichés and prejudices. Most people don’t see it that way.”¹

However, there is more to Blauer Leibesbrief than its installation methods. The video’s content reinterprets the female nude motif and its traditional relationship to the viewer’s gaze in the art historical and cinematic canons. Rather than show Rist’s body from a distanced, full-length perspective, the artist obscures the viewer’s gaze, inhibiting an erotic reading by placing the camera as close to the body as it can get. In that sense, Blauer Leibesbrief follows Rist’s explanation of art’s function as it dismantles banality—both in method and content.

Visit NMWA on Wednesday, July 2, at noon for NMWA’s weekly staff-led gallery talks to learn more about Rist’s Blauer Leibesbrief (Blue Bodily Letter). Chief Curator Kathryn Wat will lead a 30-minute conversation and viewing of the work—come make the most of your lunch hour!

—J. Rachel Gustafson is a curatorial fellow at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Notes:

1.Pipilotti Rist as quoted in Hans Ulrich Obrist, “I rist, she rists, he rists, we rist, you rist, they rist, tourist: Hans Ulrich Obrist in Conversation with Pipilotti Rist,” in Pipilotti Rist (New York: Phaidon Press, Inc., 2001), 10.