Mai-Thu Perret

Je est un autre” (I Is Somebody Else), Arthur Rimbaud once declared. But what if Rimbaud’s “I” were a group of women—a band of disgruntled urbanites who have abandoned their Palm Pilots to live an unscheduled life in the desert? Mai-Thu Perret explores this possibility with “The Crystal Frontier,” an ongoing project about a fictional all-female commune in New Mexico whose inhabitants raise chickens, cows, horses, and rabbits. Since 1999, Perret has been writing the story of this utopian community and creating curious objects that might be its artifacts, prototypes, props, or tools.

The tale’s latest installation installment, “Apocalypse Ballet,” takes its cue from J. J. Grandville’s 1844 wood engraving Apocalypse du ballet. In his vision of the performance, feet become legs, a dancer, and then a spinning spool of thread, all cheered on by an audience of wine-glasses, lobster claws, and clapping hands. Grandville’s image, printed in color on the invitation card for the show, acts as a leitmotiv, one that makes Perret’s commune look like an attempt to reconsider—to recritique—the rise of industrialization in nineteenth-century Europe and the dizzying aftereffects of mass consumption. The most conspicuous work—four life-size women dancers cast in papier-mâché and outfitted with juggling rings and hula hoops in neon, also titled Apocalypse Ballet, 2005—is far less engaging than Grandville’s morphing ballerina. Yet Perret’s dancers, wearing wigs and illuminated by their neon rings, suggest the spectacle of commodity fetishism, whereby goods become our uncanny doubles. Like the engraving—drawn by one person, only to be printed in quantity—her sculptures bespeak both craft and its alienation through mechanization. The female figures are fabricated by hand but exist as a series. Each figure has hands but no fingers; their only distinguishing features are patch-like colored spheres painted on their faces; their frozen gestures could be part of an improvised solo dance or a regimented chorus line.

The tension between anonymity and identity comes through most clearly in the two framed texts that make up Letter Home (A.R.), 2006. Perret reworked the letters that Aleksandr Rodchenko wrote home to his wife, Varvara Stepanova, in 1925 from Paris, where he set up the Soviet pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels. Perret’s heavily edited version removes signs of time, place, gender, and authorship to produce a text that could be a manifesto for her own commune: THE WOMAN AS OBJECT FABRICATED BY THE CAPITALIST WEST WILL BE ITS DOWNFALL. With her art-historical references—original texts, period styles, and so on—Perret seems to be rewriting and refabricating the history of the decorative arts as a women’s political movement. One can understand her revisionist drive since male figures like Rodchenko overshadowed their female comrades such as Stepanova, even in the design of household objects. The pan-European movements to reform everyday life with art aestheticized and politicized domestic spaces but ended up marginalizing the women who inhabited them. Far from simply revising art history, Perret reactivates the past for the present. “The Crystal Frontier” is a potential scenario that sits between history and realization like dormant seeds. What if women had designed their own kitchens, from tea sets to appliances? How would women, as objects “fabricated by the capitalist West,” define their bodily metamorphosis under commodity fetishism? What would be their News from Nowhere? Perret provides a host of clues; the answers will, one hopes, come from women who wander through her shows and recognize themselves in somebody else’s “I.”

Jennifer Allen