Five From the Whitney Biennial Babette Mangolte


The career of French artist and cinematographer Babette Mangolte, who moved to New York in 1970 and has resided here ever since, is a template for longevity by means of hard work, good friends, autonomy and iconoclasm. Almost immediately upon arriving to New York, Mangolte began to document—with film and still photography—the performance works of artists/choreographers including Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris. Mangolte used her training in cinematography and filmmaking, and, more importantly, her unique understanding of experimental performance, to record seminal works, including Brown’s 1973 dance performance Roof Piece, which took place on a series of roofs in New York City. Since that time, Mangolte has divided her career pursuits between cinematography, experimental film, video, photography and installation. Her own humble, intellectual, multi-faceted artistic practice has been honored in this year’s Whitney Biennial, where her contribution (an installation that involves still photography and film) spans and builds on her unique career.

 “The work is partially new and partially old,” says Mangolte of the installation of black-and-white photographs and film she created or the Biennial. “In part, it’s a reconstitution of a piece that was shown in 1978 at PS1, titled A Photo Installation.” The 1978 work was an examination of the objecthood of photographs (which again feels timely), and a rumination on the act of making an art installation. It included a large wall full of black-and-white photographs, and a table stacked with some duplicates of these photographs printed out as playing cards, complete with a woodcut design and the artist’s initials stamped on the back. In the exhibition, viewers were invited to handle the photograph-cards, which in some cases meant instigations to thievery: “The card that was the most stolen was a portrait of Richard Serra, which is not surprising, everybody knew him and he was a very nice guy,” remembers the artist. “It wasn’t a surprise that no one stole the picture of my nephew, a baby. But nobody did any kind of real destruction, and there was a great deal of respect.” Critical recognition did not follow, however. “The PS1 show had a terrible review,” says Mangolte. “No one looked at it seriously.”

The exhibition’s exploration of conditions of viewerhip went unrecognized, which is why the Biennial reformulation of the piece is interesting proposal, since questions of material in photography are being seriously re-addressed by a younger generation of conceptual artists who don’t identify as photographers, among them Elad Lassry, Marlo Pascual and Anne Collier. In the re-constituted work, the artist has again installed a wall of photographs, amounting to more than 450 images. “What you see is not about each individual photograph,” she says. “It’s about how photographs blend into each other.” Again, a table is  organized with photograph-cards, some stacked atop each other, acting as a child’s game of house of cards. But this time, the cards will not be touchable, says the artist-at least not for the museum visitors. “Every week, for the duration of the Biennial, I will reorganize [the photographs], so the order will change,” says Mangolte, whose compulsive reordering of the images recalls both fugue musical composition and Fluxus art practice—as well as an aesthetic card shark reshuffling the deck. A new addition is a black-and-white film that, in part, depicts the documentation of the de-installation of the 1978 piece.

Mangolte’s Biennial nod comes on the heels of the 2007 film 7 Easy Pieces, Marina AbramoviÄ?’s reenactment of seminal performances from the ’70s, which Mangolte documented. She says she’s still friends with most of the artists of that she worked with in that era (and continues to make work with some)—and that they continue to be informed by each other’s work. “It’s a certain sisterhood—though that’s a banal word. The work we are doing is still connected, and it is political. We have not sold out.” Mangolte worked with Chantal Akerman extensively, shooting several of her films, including Hôtel Monterey (1972): “We, who were feminists in the ’70s, we did not want to say ‘We are women! We are here!’ We wanted to say that the perspective of a woman cannot be that of the man. That’s why I hated the New Wave. It was just the Hollywood crime movie or the buddy movie, but doing it in the quotidian of Paris life. Although now I see I was too hard on it.”

But it was a time for strong opinions, the artist says, “In Paris, I went to a film school for cinematography, and there I was the only woman with 29 men.” In the ’60s, she could not get a job as a cinematographer in Paris because she was a woman. ” So I came to America, which was much less misogynistic.” And, in fits and starts, the New York art world has continued to walk the path that Mangolte and her contemporaries and co-conspirators paved and continue to pave. This year’s Whitney Biennial features many more women artists than in past years, and the inclusion of an artist like Mangolte feels like something new, all over again.