“Two or Three Things I Know About Her”

In “Two or Three Things I Know About Her,” five female New Yorkers can’t ignore the fact that they hardly recognize their city. Everything that made it the capital of the twentieth century—its subways and sidewalks, its newspapers and nightly news shows, its psychoanalysis habit, its shared urban space and the freedom of (many different forms of) speech and expression that played out there—is romanced and mourned here at once. Harvard’s Carpenter Center gallery is housed in the lobby of the only Le Corbusier building in North America, and its cement and glass recurred throughout curator Helen Molesworth’s elegant installation, as the artists pounded the pavement (one even broke her nose on an office building’s glass door). In these works, modern and postmodern forms of speech and engagement contend with newer, less-well-understood daily reality, reflecting loss and lostness, a sense that activities that used to have their place are now tinged with paranoia and pathos.

Sharon Hayes’s In the Near Future, 2005, is made up of repeating projected images of the artist alone in a crowd, holding signs—I AM A MAN or WHO APPROVED THE WAR IN VIETNAM? and so on—outside Rockefeller Center, HSBC Bank, or Duane Reade, as if dropped off by a time machine. In the photographs that document this performance, Hayes is frozen, cut and pasted into an enervated contemporary New York. As in her other work, her tool is the tension between who she is and what she is saying. Ulrike Müller’s One of Us: Freakish Moments, 2004, a spoken-word piece heard through headphones, paints a relentless slapstick word-picture in second person: “You fart on [sic] the bus stop. You are looking at the man next to you when it happens and before you even realize what’s going on you say excuse me. You want to walk away but you stay, and feeling like an idiot you board the bus with all the others. . . . You are being shoved around in a crowded subway car. Finally you spot an empty seat. You make your way there and sit down relieved. When you are about to sink back and close your eyes you feel something wet soaking into the back of your pants. . . .” At a certain point: “This is not your city anymore.” The mortified body out of place brings to mind Jacques Tati’s Playtime, which, like the film that serves as the show’s namesake, was made in Paris in 1967.

In New Report Artist Unknown, 2006, K8 Hardy and Wynne Greenwood’s beatnik newscasters have been tipped off that “a woman has thrown away some paintings” and spend a bizarrely extended period searching for them. Hardy, a beat reporter of frightening pallor and glazed commitment, clambers into Chelsea Dumpsters while holding a giant bubble gum–pink sphere to her mouth as a microphone, delivering the kind of eviscerated, redundant speech we recognize from live broadcasts delivered irrespective of the fact that there’s nothing to talk about, melded with an equally familiar, deeply inarticulate, very American grrrl-talk, in which Beavis and Judith Butler receive the same emphasis (“What if the paintings sucked?” “I’m going to rephrase your question . . . and turn that into, ‘Who decides the value of these paintings?’”). Finally, in her psychoanalytic session–length string of video vignettes shot in her apartment, Moyra Davey (currently the subject of a beautiful survey at the Fogg, also curated by Molesworth) quietly pages through a Hollis Frampton work on nostalgia and photography and reads us a Vivian Gornick piece on the postwar writings of Anna Akhmatova, Nataliya Ginzburg, and Elizabeth Bowen, which, Gornick has noted, “does not emote.”

Larissa Harris