Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s exhibition “Teeth, Gums, Machines, Future, Society,” comprising a video and a sculpture installation, focused on the grill, a decorative metal plate over the front teeth, pluralized as “grillz” or “fronts”—American rap culture’s version of a tradition of dental adornment stretching back at least two-and-a-half millennia and spanning societies as disparate as the Maya, Etruscan, and Viking.
In the half-hour-long, quasi-documentary video that was the exhibition’s lodestar, the talking heads of Reynaud-Dewar’s interviewees are often shown in close-up. Their mouthy half-faces speak through grillz with which the artist had them fitted, each uneasily flashing their finery. The setting is Memphis, Tennessee, where, during a residency, Reynaud-Dewar began connecting the materialist and feminist propositions in Donna Haraway’s 1984 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” to the city’s racial and labor history. The specific incidents that the artist draws upon are Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 speech to striking sanitation union workers and his assassination the day after, which are addressed in the video via imagery of trash and a critical discussion of King’s legacy. The thumping bass of the video’s hip-hop and electronic soundtrack, coupled with interspersed B-roll footage of Memphis streets, recalls the gangster-rap music videos that popularized grillz at the end of the last century.
The human encounters Paris-based Reynaud-Dewar (b. 1975) orchestrated in Memphis between a diverse group of local spoken-word and comedy performers (along with an electronic noise musician) supply the video’s narrative. Their responses to Reynaud-Dewar’s questions often lead to a freewheeling discursivity. “The concept of a woman as a cyborg is kind of offensive to me, because women are characterized as overly emotional or compassionate,” says one woman. Even though she later resolves this objection, the element of doubt renders the exchange speculative but not conclusive, a critical riff rather than a polemic.
A separate gallery displayed six works for which the grillz designed for Reynaud-Dewar’s participants were enlarged to body width, cast in aluminum, and affixed to waist-high poles. The hollows of the grillz are stuffed with the refuse generated over the course of the video’s production—cigarette cartons, paper cups, etc. This detritus also littered the gallery floor, which was carpeted with posters depicting the performance in a Memphis band shell that is the culminating point of the video. In rare moments of computer-generated intervention, the same garbage floats ethereally on-screen. In the band shell scene, the artist reads Haraway’s manifesto from a high stool while her interlocutors converse beneath her, resulting in a cacophonous, incoherent layering of speech.
The different ideas at play in “Teeth, Gums, Machines, Future, Society” felt less calcified than opened up by this strategy of associative accumulation. While “conspicuous consumption accentuates the surface politics of the mouth,” as artist Deanna Havas writes in a brief yet dynamic text accompanying the exhibition, the “conspicuous” historical facts Reynaud-Dewar invokes seem to trouble the past just as the grillz trouble the mouth. These parallel procedures refocus the testifying, narrating mouth as a lexicon in itself, encoding as it codes—and so glittering grillz come not to adorn hidden incisors and cuspids but rather to represent the occluded legibility of the historical violence that haunts Memphis.
“What a century of hands!-I shall never have my hand. Afterwards domesticity leads too far” was the cryptic title of this solo show by Lili Reynaud-Dewar (b. 1975), a French artist whose work in performance, sculpture and the moving image has often touched on historical figures and performers. Five column-shaped loudspeakers occupied the gallery; propped against each was a plaster cast of a human leg from about the knee down or, in one instance, just a foot. Three flat-screen monitors around the periphery of the room showed Reynaud-Dewar, naked and in black body paint, dancing in the same space at Karma International in the manner of Josephine Baker, the videos constituting the first works in which Reynaud-Dewar has herself performed. Previously silent, the speakers suddenly began emitting a beat track, after which the artist’s voice emerged, providing a first-person meditation on the work. Her voice quickly multiplied, becoming entangled with two additional tracks in which she offered similar musings. The mesmeric quality of the sound was intensified by linguistic repetitions, the visitor hearing, for instance, that Reynaud-Dewar had performed the dance in her studio “hot summer night after hot summer night.”
Reynaud-Dewar’s anachronistic dance made for uncomfortable viewing, conjuring the dubious history of blackface and an age when the idea of exotic Africa was a treasure trove for European artists. In a 2010 interview in Art Press, she expressed interest in dissident forms of entertainment, or those that oppose “what the dominant industrial logic establishes as a model.” Baker is only the latest person to be cited in her work, after Sun Ra, Ettore Sottsass, Peter Saville, Peter Berlin and others. Nonetheless, at Karma International she revealed herself, both bodily and intellectually, more than she had done before. Some of her concerns were stated in the piece, including the way in which curators and directors of art institutions serve as landlords doling out privately owned space; or the issues of inserting her own body into the economy of art production and providing “abstract bits” of herself for public consumption.
Reynaud-Dewar is too thoughtful to take risks without calculation, and, indeed, her risks here paid off, for the installation was rewardingly provocative. The cross-contamination of cultural tropes-with historical trends of exoticism mixing with contemporary modes of personal revelation-proved productive, and the artist’s own disquiet was affecting. The viewer was not confronted by this work but made party to an uneasy reflection on culture past and present.
Photo: Video still from Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s mixed-medium installation What a century of hands!—
I shall never have my hand. Afterwards domesticity leads too far, 2012; at Karma International.