New York

Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Addio del Passato, 2011, still from a color video, 16 minutes 52 seconds.

Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Addio del Passato, 2011, still from a color video, 16 minutes 52 seconds.

Yinka Shonibare, MBE

James Cohan

Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Addio del Passato, 2011, still from a color video, 16 minutes 52 seconds.

What stripes are to Daniel Buren or the “blp” is to Richard Artschwager, wax-printed cotton is to Yinka Shonibare, MBE—a medium, a trademark, a transformative tool. These inexpensive fabrics were initially manufactured by the Dutch in the nineteenth century for trade in the Far East, but found a readier market in Africa, to the point that today they index that continent. To Shonibare they also index the trade between Europe and its former colonies, and accordingly a complex and problematic nest of arrangements among nations and races. Throughout Shonibare’s work in many media, these fabrics act as cheerfully decorative symbols and signatures, signs of worldly doings applicable, it seems, to almost any worldly object, changing its meaning.

In Shonibare’s video Addio del Passato, 2011, the prints appear most prominently in an elaborate dress. A third of the way through this work, some viewers may think it’s been looped or rewound. For the second time, the woman wearing the dress, and standing in some opulent aristocrat’s mansion, begins the famous aria of the work’s title, from Verdi’s La Traviata (1853); for the second time, she starts a sad, stately progress through the rooms of the house, down its grand staircase and out into its grounds, before returning to a gallery where, collapsing on the carpet, she ends her song and essentially herself. And then, of course, she begins again, for that is the nature of a loop. But those who watch carefully will realize that she begins again, differently—that, as in Shonibare’s earlier video Un Ballo in Maschera, 2004, this isn’t a loop but a new episode, or the same one shot and edited another way. A view through a doorway, for example, may switch to a different doorway; a musical passage that one segment stages in the garden another sets in the conservatory. Other sequences may simply be repeats, others perhaps a different camera view of the same action. Each performance of the aria, then—the video has three altogether—is ingeniously different and ingeniously the same.

Speaking of Un Ballo in Maschera, Shonibare has related this kind of repetition to the medium’s reflexivity—to directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, who break film’s illusion of a god’s-eye view of the world through devices that insist on cinema’s artifice. That sense of artifice is multiplied in Addio del Passato by occasional interpolated images, mostly tableaux re-creating five paintings of a man dying, the most familiar of them perhaps Henry Wallis’s Death of Chatterton, 1856. Shonibare’s exhibition also included large framed C-prints of the tableaux, which he staged with variances from the original paintings: Certain white-skinned figures are replaced by black-skinned ones, and each work’s protagonist wears an eighteenth-century costume of printed cotton. That costume and the dress in Addio del Passato were also on view.

A recent Shonibare installation in London’s Trafalgar Square addressed the British admiral Horatio Nelson, hero of the Napoleonic Wars. Apparently Shonibare also imagined the dying man in each tableau as Nelson, but you didn’t have to know this to see that a nobleman, his dress connoting wealth, was on his deathbed, and with him an entire social order. The fabric of his stylish clothes, though—Shonibare’s trademark cheap cotton—undercut his nobility by pointing to the economic system that made his wealth possible. It also sabotaged the romantic construct of the hero, tied, not least in art-world thinking, to ideas of originality and uniqueness, for the prints are infinitely reproducible visual images, available cheaply around the world.

Shonibare also showed a group of erotic or perhaps antierotic objects, including a version of a steam-powered machine once intended to liberate women from “hysteria” by masturbating them to orgasm. (The dildo, naturally, Shonibare covered in printed cotton.) The fetishy Eros/Thanatos sense of frozen sexuality in these works related obviously to Shonibare’s images of death, but also, less obviously, to Addio del Passato. Opera is a highly codified vehicle of emotion, and Shonibare’s device of repetition made it more so, shifting the aria’s tragic content—the song is a dying farewell—into a sort of formula for the viewer to unravel. The most spontaneous thing in the video may have been the papers in the tableau of Chatterton, which Shonibare animated to skitter across the floor, like mice, unsubject to rule.

David Frankel