PARIS — What does it mean to turn one’s life into a work of art? While there is ample discourse on the subject in philosophical circles, those of us in the arts tend to focus on the objects created by artists, often finding ourselves excusing or reveling in the egregious behavior of the artists themselves — male artists, generally speaking. I am not talking about virtue as the antidote to bad boy behavior, but rather what it means to make an overall commitment to an artistic community, care about and conserve what other artists do, even when it is ephemeral and not easily marketed or archived, and all the while work on your own art. This generosity of spirit is not typical and it characterizes everything that Martha Wilson does.
Wilson has been active as a producer, exhibitor, and archivist since the mid-1970s. The exhibition Martha Wilson: Staging the Journals at Michèle Didier in Paris looks at several early bodies of work alongside a few more recent works, all of which explore identity, specifically that of women in patriarchal society.
Wilson’s earliest black-and-white video works, Complete Halifax Collection (1972-1974) or Premiere, Routine Performance, Art Sucks, Appearance as Value (1972) set the stage, figuratively and literally, for the work to come. These are performances crafted specifically for the camera. As an early proponent of feminism, the artist takes a close look at prescribed roles for women and ultimately finds herself adrift and without a place. “I rejected them all,” she stated at the talk — not only because she was young and trying to understand her own role as an adult in society, but because she was trying to understand the roles that were on offer. The roles Wilson saw afforded some variety but ultimately led a young, intelligent, and intellectually curious woman coming of age in the early 1970s to either decoration over substance or some form of outsider status.
In her series titled, A Portfolio of Models (Vintage Photos/Contemporary Text) (1974) Wilson tries her hand at “The Lesbian,” “The Working Girl,” “The Earth-Mother,” “The Goddess,” “The Professional,” and “The Housewife.” She finds that she is not suited to any of them, despite the fact that women are encouraged to assume many of these roles and promised happiness and fulfillment living them. Each image shows the artist dressed to type and engaged with the camera, accompanied by a short text describing the role from within. The text for “The Lesbian” reads: “She hates the goddess, because actually the goddess was invented by the men on Madison Avenue. She alone sees through the goddessdom, but unluckily, her sexuality is so misplaced that the rest of society ignores her. Her intelligence is a flyweight issue in light of her emotional problems.”
When Wilson talks about this work, she tells us sincerely that she was just trying to find her way, describing these images as a voyage of self-discovery. She reminded me of the idea that we can learn about ourselves simply by watching what we do. Because her quest for identity was performed for the camera, the rest of us are able to watch and learn, too. In a related group of photographs, from 1972–1973, she explores the narrowness in behavior granted to those assigned the label female. In a photograph titled “Posturing Age Transformation” (1973), Wilson stares at the camera. She is seated on a red sofa that illuminates the background with a soft crimson glow. She has red hair to match, and is dressed in a shiny white satin pants suit. The conceit of the piece is that the young artist has attired herself as a 50-year-old woman trying to look 25, Wilson’s age at the time. The text states: “I was extremely uncomfortable dressed up like a middle-aged female, which I take to be an index to how much fear I have of ‘past thirty’ status in society.” The deadpan humor of her work is everywhere. It is hard not to burst out laughing at the absurdity, yet she delivers it with an impeccable straight face.
In addition to founding the Franklin Furnace Archive in 1976 and making her own work, Wilson was the founding member of the band DISBAND, which was active between 1978 and 1982. The all-woman artist band included Barbara Ess, Ilona Granet, Donna Henes, Daile Kaplan, Barbara Kruger, Ingrid Sischy, and Diane Torr. A video presentation, Best of Disband (1979) is on view in the back room of the gallery. None of the members plays an instrument, making the band the perfect feminist dis of the macho guitar-strumming frontman, the standard trope of rock and roll. As these women sing and frolic on stage, they appear to have a great time. At the same time they are declaring the right of women to activate space and command our time and attention.
As Wilson’s work matured, she took on the penultimate female role in America, that of first lady. She began by inhabiting and performing the role of Nancy Reagan and then Barbara Bush. She took a slight detour with Tipper Gore, wife of then-Vice President Al Gore, instead of Hillary Clinton. Tipper, of “anal vapors” fame, became the spokesperson in the 1980s for the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), an organization responsible for censoring song lyrics and labeling records for explicit content. Gore was no match for the likes of Frank Zappa, who testified against censorship in music before Congress in 1985. Most recently, we see Martha Wilson as Melania Trump. In a one-minute video in the exhibition, titled Makeover: Melania (2017), Melania’s face slowly fades and blends into Wilson’s, until the First Lady is gone and Wilson is present.
Wilson, who is now 70, is at the age when women become completely invisible in society. Past objecthood and motherhood, women have no utility, and therefore virtually cease to exist in public spaces. Ironically, it is at precisely this age that numerous women artists are suddenly being “rediscovered.” These discoveries are bittersweet. While we celebrate deserving artists finally getting their due, it is infuriating that it took so long and that, as a result, countless people were deprived of the artist’s incredible work and knowledge. This impacts what we were taught in art school about the lineage of art, which was a complete distortion — which, in fact, was something else entirely.
At her talk, Wilson discussed turning gray and the way people started bumping into her in the street. She was literally invisible. After a performance in which she died half her hair a startling bright red, and left the other half gray, she found that people began to notice her again. She has kept her hair that way. A friend recently commented to me that the final frontier isn’t space, it’s ageism. There are all kinds of strategies for visibility. “Weirdo works,” Wilson said with a smile at the close of the talk.
Martha Wilson: Staging the Journals continues at mfc-michèle didier (66 rue Notre Dame de Nazareth, Paris) through November 9.