1-900 Mirror Mirror, (1993-5) was my first interactive public artwork. Taking the form of a mirrored phone booth, 1-900 Mirror Mirror is an installation in which I could communicate with the viewer by videophone. I initially conceived the work to discover what viewers might ask when confronted by their own image in an infinity chamber. This was prompted by the anxiety felt by my community due to the AIDS crisis in the early 90’s before there was any successful treatment. Our friends and partners were dying. My intention was to create a transformative experience where hope and healing might transpire within a never-ending vision of one’s self in the mirrored booth, covered with direct hand printed natural materials of roses, ivy, and hair.
Playing off the 1-900 pay talk phone lines mainly used for psychic and sex dialogues, I took on the role of the artist as seer. My presence as oracle within the small screen of the videophone often radiated as I asked, “Do you have a question for the future?” Everyone who sat down did. The questions I received ranged from health to love to money to politics to art. My response was immediate, by drawing a tarot card and speaking within the realm of a traditional tarot reading. The viewer would be able to see me in my tenement apartment in Little Italy as I would hold up a card, and I would see them in an infinity chamber looking so enchanting. During times when when there was not a live feed to the video phone, an audio track of me reading played in the booth.
At the time there was a perceived ambiguity as to what constituted the actual work: was it the installation of the printed mirror and furniture, the altered relation between the viewer and the artist, or the performance itself? I prefer to see it as all three intertwined. A book of the detailed log of all the questions asked coupled with documentary photographs taken by Maxine Henryson will be published in 2016.
Work that dealt with metaphysical or spiritual issues was very radical during this period as the focus was on theory and political gender issues. That said, I was inspired by diverse historical art references that informed the work. These include Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing, Witch Using Magic Mirror, André Breton’s surrealist group actions on telepathy, séances with phones, and Lucas Samaras’ Mirror Room. Mirrors have been used throughout history as a divination tool, and my intention was part alchemical, with the desire to transform the mirror into an alchemical installation where the unexpected could reign. Today we see younger artists exploring these ideas along with older artists who have come out of the spiritual metaphysical closet. I am pleased that my work opened the doors for many.
The first presentation of the work was at the project room at Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY and the work subsequently traveled to Voyeurs Delight at Franklin Furnace, NYC, Techno for an Answer at Real Art Ways, Hartford, Conn., Trans Ambient at The Kitchen, NYC and Art Metropole, Toronto, Canada.
Looking back, 1-900 Mirror Mirror was a precursor by a decade to skype chats/video streaming exchanges and public interactive art that we see embraced by many artists today. Recent interactive works since 1-900 Mirror Mirror that act as “meta” interventions in the public spaces include The Wish Machine, The Roses and Refuge, a wish garden series. Inviting the public to participate in one’s work is a challenging practice which continues to surprise, inspire, and reward.
We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet, 1990 consists of two, 8” x 11 1/2” images, rephotographed side by side and thus married together into one image. I selected an image of Anselm Kiefer from a series he made in 1969 called Occupations or Bezetzung in which the artist photographed himself at various sites in Europe doing the “Sieg Heil” salute. To be fair to Kiefer, he is diminutive in relation to the overall image in these photographs. His image is on the left hand side of this work. On the right, I am depicted out in the woods, standing before half of the famous 1945 Life Magazine spread of the liberation of Buchenwald photographed by Margaret Bourke –White. My face replaces that of one of the prisoners. Many viewers have assumed that the image is a collage but in fact, I photographed the famous Life Magazine image and blew it up to life size. I cut a hole out for my face in much the same way that they used to do at amusement parks, where you could poke your head through a hole behind a life sized image of the fat lady at the circus or the acrobat with long blonde curls and assume their identity for the life of a photograph. I dragged this enormous photograph out into the woods at Bear Mountain and stepped behind it and inserted my face in the hole where one half-starved male survivors’ face had been excised. The Bourke –White photograph is a photograph of all men.
The piece, We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet, 1990 was an important turning point for me. It brought together in one work a set of what seemed up to that point to be diverse interests and allowed me to see that they could be one. The work wove together my activity and practice as an artist and my undergraduate background in history. This work was to be a harbinger of work to come, work that moved away from a “meta” critique of art engaged in historical discourse and into a practice that became more direct and personal, while at the same time maintaining a critical discourse with history and with feminism.
In a funny way, Kiefer brought together similar threads in his work, but his work evoked suspicion in me, and retrospectively that suspicion seems more and more warranted. His bombast, both with respect to the scale of his work and the claims he made for it and his alignment with extraordinary privilege is hard to reconcile with his purported motivations. Heroizing alone is a suspicious activity. I don’t want to paint a simplistic portrait of Kiefer or reduce him to a cipher. His position in the art world is complicated and his work has been discussed critically by many serious scholars over the years but I don’t believe that form is entirely separable from content and it is form that ultimately belies Kiefer’s claims.
We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet was exhibited in 1992 at the Jewish Museum in New York in an exhibition called Bridges and Boundaries; African Americans and American Jews. The exhibition was an examination of the relationship between African Americans and American Jews and it was a moving and thoughtful exploration that I felt proud to be included in. There were various sections to the show and the room of contemporary visual art was named We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet, a special honor, since it included the work of artists for whom I have great respect, notably Adrian Piper and David Hammons. From there the work was included in dozens of exhibitions and reviewed many times. It began to feel like my trademark.
In response to the large group exhibition Burnt Whole which opened in the fall of 1994 at Washington Project for The Arts and again in the winter of 1995 at the ICA in Boston, Donald Kuspit, the deeply conservative art critic singled out We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet as an example of a “one liner” in a tirade against artists whom he viewed as lesser talents whose works he deemed proof of their jealously of great male artists such as Anselm Kiefer. I had struck a nerve and Kuspit’s irate response only reinforced the power with which my work succeeded as a feminist critique of Kiefer’s masculinist large scale and overbearing work, which, in its most recent iteration at Larry Gagosian gallery in New York, could reasonably be described as both aggressive and oppressive while being tired to the point of exhaustion at the same time.
We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet had two facets that would recur in my work, the inclusion of historical material in my artistic practice and oddly, the occurrence of the self-portrait. In fact, the piece was included in an exhibition at the Espace Lyonnais d’Art Contemporain in Lyon in 1993 called Autoportraits Contemporains; Here’s Looking at Me. I will say that my encounter with Kiefer helped me embrace material that was important to me, first, at a distance through a commentary on him and a critique of his claims and later, as a direct intervention into the material, distanced by time, as a first generation American whose parents survived the war in Eastern Europe.
The development of Helmbrechts walk, 1998-2003 (www.helmbrechtswalk.com), a project for which I retraced on foot the steps of 580 Jewish women who were forced to march 225 miles under brutal conditions at the close of World War II is part performance, part memorial and part monument. And I think of We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet as a crucial developmental step toward this later work. Helmbrechts walk is a moveable non-monumental memorial to the 95 women who perished on this march and a quiet celebration of those women who miraculously survived. It is a historical interrogation but also an artwork, and as such it is connected to a lineage of artists that include Hamish Fulton and Richard Long. And looking back, I can also see in it a bridge between my earliest and my most recent self-portraits.
It is not always easy to understand the legacy of single work but We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet traveled extensively and was in great demand. It was written about in books and is now the subject of several undergraduate papers and Masters theses. It is generally discussed when scholars analyze my more recent work and all of this speaks to its longevity as part of a conversation it first entered in 1990.