New York

Kate Millett

Noho Gallery

Kate Millett’s “The Trial of Sylvia Likens” wasn’t the kind of exhibition you expect to see in Soho, Noho, P.S. 1 or in any other New York art context. You didn’t just slip into it. It was clear, inelegant and meaty, and conveyed heavy personal feelings. It twisted your head around, and that appealed to me. Of course, for anyone used to confrontations with Minimal art it would be easy to hate the show for the way it played to the many, for the footprints on the floor telling you where to go, the taped narration, the scrawl on the walls, even the coverage in the Voice. Art, thank god, has gotten away from this. But the reaction I describe is perhaps a way of seeing things in the dark, symptomatic of art that has become pretty tight in its own definition. In other contexts I know, in certain cities in Germany or perhaps in France, one kind of art doesn’t preclude the other. And here, is Millett’s exhibition the answer?

The exhibition revolves around an event—the torture death in Indianapolis in 1965 of a 16-year-old girl named Sylvia Likens—and Millett’s response to it. As the tape playing in the exhibition relates, Millett first read about it in Time magazine shortly after it occurred and was filled with outrage and fear; she understood it as a death that had happened because of existing notions of women’s (girls’) sexuality, that it meant “trouble” and had to be suppressed. She saw the death as an atrocity against all women, something that could happen to her or to anyone she knew, something that other women knew could happen to them. And in the last 13 years, Millett has investigated, written, made art and exhibited about this death. It has been her way of coming to terms with it, of exorcising it.

I liked the fact that the exhibition dealt with subject matter art does not ordinarily deal with. It has an urgency about it; it was clearly the expression of things that had to be expressed. In places, it scrawled on the walls, hung out xeroxes, did what it had to do to get the facts across, it made direct statements. (Even some of the sculpted tableaux, The Five Defendants in Court Awaiting Sentence, to take one, though clearly interpretive and emotional, made the point subtly; in this case, the mixed media sculptures looked on as you fumbled through the documents spread out before them. As if you had been called to deliver the verdict.)

But the exhibition veered between stating and overstating its point: parts repeated themselves—the same facts, the same images over and over again, from tape to manuscript, slides to sculpted tableaux to xeroxes of faces. The point was made, and then over-made, the viewer informed, then oversaturated. The tape of Millett reading from her manuscript told Sylvia’s story, which was really Millett’s reading of the story; it was the carrier of heaviest emotion, and seemed artificial, the story manipulated, manipulative, in places, like propaganda. In terms of its effect, it transformed the gallery into a church. A church or a kino, where we lived the torture, died the death, and then left, having done it for the week, feeling good, feeling brave, but having done nothing.

This, I think, is dangerous. Maybe the whole exhibition was dangerous, but in the wrong sense of the word, because it was an end in itself, the communion with others, the purge. It hadn’t the stuff to stimulate a reaction outside of itself. If it had wanted to incite action, it didn’t, it even encouraged a slip back into passivity. And all that because the exhibition—more specifically, Millett —did too much of the work for us I think that the information alone, presented 13 years after the fact, at one remove from the press coverage, the courts, the sensationalism of 1965, could have accomplished more.

Barbara Flynn