Elisabeth Subrin

Review: Elisabeth Subrin | Sue Scott Gallery

Nick Stillman

May, 2010

Today, some fifty years removed from Andy Warhol's deployment of fashion and shoe advertisements and thirty years since the flowering of the Pictures generation, the sheer quantity of images circulating in the world has normalized appropriation, and the dispersion of its intent has largely depoliticized it. Remaking (or outright stealing) doesn't register as the challenge to the status quo it used to.

These shifts notwithstanding, Elisabeth Subrin has done her part to uphold appropriation's politicized, feminist legacy. Since the late 1980s, her films and videos have used appropriative strategies to deconstruct authoritarian voices. In several such pieces that were included in her recent small-scale retrospective at Sue Scott Gallery, along with a selection of stills from the videos on view, Subrin, characteristically, took on autocratic history telling by remaking histories through the exposure or reconstruction of minor events. It was surprising to find that in her newest video, that voice is her own. Lost Tribes and Promised Lands, 2001-10, is a split-screen projection: half footage that Subrin shot during a midday walk around her Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood about a month after 9/11, half Subrin's attempt to re-create the same walk eight years later, when the ubiquitous flags and crummy delis seen in the left-hand screen had largely given way to boutiques and cafés. Gentrification is an old New York story, and the replacement of the iconography of knee-jerk patriotism by that of a neighborhood's architectual and cultural makeover isn't itself exceptional. But providing narrative content per se is rarely Subrin's intent. What always makes her work tick is how it interrogates authorship. Re-creation seen here is a ruse, blockaded as it is by political shifts, real estate development, or just the banal march history.

Also included in the show was Sweet Ruin, 2008, made from the "ruins" (Michelangelo Antonioni's language, appearing as quoted text in Subrin's film) of Antonioni's unrealized 1966 script Technically Sweet. Subrin's video is another split-screen affair, with the "male" and "female" plotlines (obsessed with guns and frustrated malaise—guess which is which!) both played by Gaby Hoffmann, who resolutely remains female—even squatting to pee—in her portrayal of the character that was to be Jack Nicholson's. Subrin shot on damaged 16-mm film stock to give the film a "discarded" feel, also as a way of aligning it with the script's trashed history. The constucts of her practice—the appropriation of preexisting material, gender-fueled analyses of character—are here, but Sweet Ruin lacks the critical punch her previous work has demonstrated. Her '90s work, specifically the 1997 video Shulie (one third of a trilogy, along with The Fancy, 2000, and Swallow, 1995, all presented here) stands as Subrin's best articulation of the critical impulse inherent in remaking.

Shulie is the result of Subrin's finding a 1697 character-study student film in which art-school student Shulamith Firestone explores her relationship to her own, history-changing generation of American youth. If the name sounds familiar, the same Firestone three years later wrote the key feminist manifesto The Dialectic of Sex. As in all of her remakes, Subrin mimics the look of the original's film stock and characters. But clues such as a Starbuck's cup, a Michael Jordan jersey, and Subrin herself on camera violate the "purity" of the remake. Critics have often remarked that the film suggest little has changed since the original was made. Shulie suffers through a patronizing crit; she seeks to identify with the dispossessed, but has little to talk about with the "Negroes" she works with except the menial job itself. To me, however, Shulie persists as a significant work not because it points to historical continuity (she is both too naive and too politically committed to be confused with a contemporary youth) but because it show how retelling minor histories—moments, really—is itself a form of rubbing against the smooth grain of dominant narratives, which are precisely what her best films confuse.