Carrie Mae Weems

ACA Gallery of SCAD

The video in Carrie Mae Weems’s installation Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment, 2008—a project commissioned by the National Black Arts Festival and the Savannah College of Art and Design (where Weems was in residence last year)—begins topically. In voice-over, while the screen is black, the artist unleashes a litany of statements about social unrest and protest, after which extreme close-ups of Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively, fill the screen. The politicians reappear at the end, at which point the artist speaks about living at a moment in American history when both a black man and a white woman seem to have a real chance of becoming president (though as of this writing, of course, only the former has an opportunity next month).

The action occurring between the segments showing the senators’ faces is pedagogical, and takes place in a schematic classroom demarcated by a wall with a schoolhouse clock and two windows down which water pours, seemingly perpetually. The viewer hears the voice of a teacher—at times portrayed in the classroom by a shadowy figure, played by Weems; at others by a young black woman in a kimono facing a cherry tree amid falling snow, also located within the room—instructing a class of young people of various ages and ethnicities in the history of twentieth-century political violence, primarily in the United States. As suggested by the title of A Class Ponders the Future, 2008—one of the twenty-one black-and-white photographs taken during the shooting of, and exhibited in conjunction with, the video—the idea is to use the past as a basis for imagining the future. The closed classroom setting, static clock, and the implication of unending rain outside suggest that both teacher and students are confined until they come to some kind of terms with history.

With a view to representing historical flash points, the teacher has the students pose in a series of tableaux vivants that reenact specific media images, or at least mimic the type of pictures that come to symbolize fraught moments. A Japanese woman cradles another to illustrate the aftermath of the bombing of Japan in World War II; a young white man portraying James Earl Ray sits, pondering a gun; three African-American women, one dressed like Coretta Scott King, mourn the fallen. The idea that history must be grasped somatically, not just intellectually, that people must feel in their bodies what has happened, not just see it with their eyes, fascinates, but unfortunately the video does not deliver fully on this premise. Since the characters are students, it is not surprising that their enactments tend to be amateurish, but their incredibility detracts from the video’s force by periodically jarring the viewer out of a meditative mood.

In the past, Weems has staged allegorical photographs focusing on issues of race and gender as well as rephotographed—and recontextualized with superimposed text—historical or ethnographic images of black people. In the new installation, she combines both strategies by representing, and adding her own dialogue and narrative to, iconic historical moments, but without the clarity of purpose evident in earlier work. The students are not reenacting lived history but simulating media images, and it is not entirely clear what is gained by doing so. In the video, the images may represent the teacher’s feverish stream of consciousness as she tries to trace the development of the present and provide a means for her students to imagine the future. In leaving lighting equipment and camera tracks visible, the photographs acknowledge, however, that these images are just media constructs. But the purpose of staging plangent historical images only to reveal them as staged remains elusive.

Philip Auslander