Don’t Look Back: Renée Green’s Present Tense

Renée Green, "Sites of Genealogy: Loophole of Retreat" (installation view), MoMA P.S. 1 for the exhibition, "Out of Site" (December 16, 1990 - June 9, 1991). Image courtesy MoMA.

Renée Green’s latest exhibition Inevitable Distances unfolds across two locations, the KW Institute of Contemporary Art and the daadgalerie, both of which bill the show as a “comprehensive retrospective.” While certainly true – the show includes works from the past three decades – the notion of a retrospective is counterproductive to Green’s work. In fact, her oeuvre rethinks relationships to time, how the shrapnel of history can resurface and puncture the present moment. Framing Inevitable Distances as a survey obstructs this aspect of Green’s work, how she poses a future which is nonlinear and in doing so disengages from paradigms of mastery implicit in the retrospective format. Green’s attention to the collapse of colonial and modernist pasts contradicts the curatorial logic that an artist progresses toward a final style or modality.

To KW and the daadgalerie’s credit, Inevitable Distances is non-chronological, allowing the viewer to skip between different periods in Green’s practice, the scope of which demonstrates her formidable breadth across painting, collage, installation, performance, and video. The KW show forms the bulk of Inevitable Distances and showcases Green’s wide-ranging interests: Portuguese colonialism, Black popular music, and Modernist architecture, among others. Most works are displayed on the ground floor without extended curatorial text; at the daadgalerie, texts in glass vitrines fill the main gallery and printed banners stream from the ceiling, functioning as a bibliographical and lexical supplement to the show at KW. We’re left to infer the relationship between the two parts of Inevitable Distances, a curatorial choice that happily subverts the periodizing expectations of a retrospective and opens multiple paths into the exhibition.

Openness is crucial to reading the many possibilities of Green’s work. In Green’s telling, the horizon is unfixed, a series of passages which overlap, loop back and repeat. Two videos from the project Tracing Lusitania, Slow Walking in Lisbon (1995) and Walking in NYL (2016), depict her discovery of past lives in the landscape. In both videos, the viewer seems to meander through the city alongside the artist. Walking in NYL distorts time and place by shuttling between New York and Lisbon – the hectic pace of the former cued by the honking of Midtown cabs, the latter’s ramble down steeply cobbled streets. The videos slow down when Green pauses to look at details, such as the tawny stone exposed by chipped paint.

Renée Green, Sites of Genealogy (Fear, Flight, Fate; Matrix), 1990, installation view, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2021. Courtesy: Free Agent Media; Bortolami Gallery, New York; Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne/Munich; photograph: Frank Sperling.

In her writing about the Tracing Lusitania project, Green explained that she wanted to start with tangible objects and work toward broader discursive themes. That is, Green takes an essentially inductive approach. In the case of Secret (1993/2006/2010), she probed the past from within the modernist object, literally documenting her stay at Unité, a Le Corbusier-designed building in Firminy, France. Her wry reflections attend to gender and race in the aftermath of the modernist project. Originator of the maxim “A house is a machine for living,” Le Corbusier as well as other modernist architects envisioned new architectural forms freed from the constraints of tradition. In both Secret and a later work, Begin Again, Begin Again (2015), Green addresses the outcome of such lofty ideals, often unconcerned with the lived experiences of intersectional politics. In the latter, she interrupts a reading of Austrian architect R.M. Schindler’s manifesto with soliloquies on the self, images of war and protest, and newspaper headlines. Begin Again, Begin Again’s measured, unruffled voiceover belies the intensity of the archival footage, which depicts scenes unimagined and unanticipated by Schindler’s 1912 polemic. Green makes visible the spaces where the past refuses to be submerged under an ideological vision of the future.

Begin Again, Begin Again is exhibited at the daadgalerie alongside a hard copy of Schindler’s manifesto shown in a glass vitrine. It’s formally analogous to Selected Life Indexes Series (2015/2018) and Within Living Memory (2015), alphabetically sorted and typed lists also under glass at the daadgalerie. The two works construct a loose net of ideas, splintered lines of poetry, and historical names that evoke the referential quality of a word-frequency cloud. These indices’ visual counterpart is a series of similarly free-associative black and white photographs, Certain Miscellanies (1995), curated in the same salon style as Green’s 1995 show at daadgalerie, when she was a fellow in the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program. In these photographs, Green observes the flow of stereotypes, visual jokes, and formal affinities between historical and contemporary images, another example of her work with porousness. One trio of photographs: a crooked arm in a 19th century painting, a woman with a similarly bent torso laughing by a fountain, a decorative band of metal slung around a pole. Another photograph depicts a row of dolls for sale, each with different skin colors, one wearing a stereotypical rice hat and carrying two woven baskets suspended from a yoke. These encounters are reminders of a dream logic – something untethered from empirical rationality; speculation powered by coincidence.

Renèe Green, ‘Inevitable Distances’, 2021, exhibition view, daadgalerie, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Frank Sperling.

The speculative power of Inevitable Distances culminates in Sites of Genealogy (Fear, Flight Fate; Matrix; Loophole of Retreat) (1990), an installation making use of KW’s stairwell and basement. Designed for PS1 in New York, it was originally a performance: in a room that visitors could enter, Green sat at a desk and wrote her observations. Every hour, she would wrap a white thread around three wooden poles surrounding her writing area, an exercise which, paired with Mason jars filled with spices and other goods installed nearby, conjured the movement of trade. The repetition of Sites of Genealogy without the artist leaves only traces of her presence – a desk, a typewriter, stacks of printer paper, a threaded lattice. Still, Green offers multiple sightlines into the work, symbolized quite literally by a telescope installed on a ladder along with, in the stairwell, framed quotes from Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Richard Wright’s Native Son, narratives of resistance that remain in our contemporary consciousness.

The restatement of Sites of Genealogy also creates a space in which to consider the changed context of the work. The threaded frame, Green’s poignant reference to the triangular trade and marker of time at PS1, suggests a cordoned-off space forbidden to visitors at KW. The institutionalization of the artist within the museum seems to impede rather than extend the experience of the work. During my visits, I saw other museumgoers walking along the lattice without sliding underneath to read her notes, although they are free to do so. Likewise, photographs hung far above eye level on the daadgalerie’s re-curated wall were difficult to see. The restaging at both venues limits access to the actual works and provides little more than a reminder of the exhibition as retrospective.

Inevitable Distances exists within the larger context of boosterish, historicizing blockbuster shows. The very nature of Green’s speculative and time-warping work, however, illuminates the incompatibility of the format. She perceives ways of thinking into the future, exposing discrepancies and moments of divergence between timelines. Inevitable Distances is better conceived this way, as Green’s potent imagination of a nonlinear future.

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