Five Women

Chiara Clemente, Our City Dreams, 2008, still from a black-and-white and color film, 85 minutes. Kiki Smith.

I WATCHED CHIARA CLEMENTE’S Our City Dreams (2008) in fits and starts, as the DVD screener battled my computer. During this graceless do-si-do of breaking down and starting up again, the ensuing allover abstract images captured on screen––pixelated views of artists Swoon, Ghada Amer, Kiki Smith, Marina Abramovic, and Nancy Spero, amid contemplative shots of New York City––seemed to dovetail, in moments nearing cliché, with Clemente’s dreamy and meandering first feature documentary.

An intimate series of portraits, the film trades in contemplative voice-overs and languid views of the artists at work in their studios and homes, installing exhibitions, and traveling. Clemente’s scattered black-and-white, Super-8, 16-mm, and HD footage seemed antithetical at first, more patchwork quilt than urban collage. Yet the dense arrangement works, complementing the differences of the artists and their relationships to their art, families, and, in some cases, gender.

Spero, the beacon of the film, speaks candidly about feminism, invoking her involvement as a founder of AIR gallery in 1972 while providing a political model that is strangely absent otherwise. “I was dying for people to ask what I was working on, and not too many people did . . . but now they do,” she notes. Whether she's shown celebrating her eightieth birthday or attending an exhibition opening of works by her late husband, Leon Golub, one desires throughout her segment for the camera to linger, to absorb; her musings are among the most resonant and profound moments in the film.

Although it lightly scratches the surface of the historical binds between feminism and art, Our City Dreams more thoroughly, if unconsciously, examines fatherhood (perhaps fitting, as it comes in the wake of Clemente’s last short about her artist father, Francesco). Kiki Smith reminisces about her early career, her father, Tony, and her apprehensions about becoming an artist. “My mother died, I had my retrospective, and my bird disappeared after fifteen years,” she recounts in her home, following a montage of pictures from her youth. Smith also discusses the several odd but compelling jobs she worked until the death of her father, in 1980, and its impact on her practice.

Other striking moments include Amer’s father speaking about her work, Swoon bodysurfing in the crowd during her 2005 opening at Deitch Projects, and footage of Abramovic’s weeklong performance, Seven Easy Pieces, that same year at the Guggenheim. Seemingly less about New York City than it is about forging identities as women, artists, mothers, daughters, and wives, Clemente’s film compellingly depicts the underlying, rather undreamy mores that propelled these individual careers in the bright lights of the big city––veracity, dedication, and commitment, to name a few.

Our City Dreams runs February 4–17 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.