What We Know

Roberta, Frankfurt, Germany

In a city where the art scene is dominated by large institutions and dotted with disconnected artist-run spaces around the Städelschule, Roberta – a new space in Frankfurt founded by Anna Goetz, which occupies a private apartment near the train station – represents an important counter-model. Its inaugural exhibition, entitled ‘What We Know’, was a seemingly informal but careful selection of works focusing on the construction of subjectivity, juxtaposing artists from three generations: Moyra Davey, Lynn Hershman Leeson and George Rippon.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Roberta shares its name with that of a fictional persona invented by Hershman Leeson in the 1970s: Roberta Breitmore. Portrayed by the artist herself, Roberta moved in the ‘real world’, acquiring a credit card, a driver’s licence and turning up in public spaces. For the duration of the ‘The Roberta Breitmore Series’ (1974–78), Hershman Leeson produced documentary material around the character’s life, including Roberta’s Body Language Chart (1978), on display here, which comprised black and white photographs of Roberta sitting in various positions during a therapy session, accompanied by short texts offering clichéd interpretations of her body language. Another framed text, titled Description of How Roberta Wrote in Her Diary (1975), reads like an extract from her psychological profile. Hershman Leeson’s project not only demonstrates how subjects are defined through social and cultural constructs, it also disrupts that same system by introducing a fictionalized character into it.

Davey’s film Les Goddesses (2011) further probed the paradoxes of presenting autobiography in art. The film is based on an essay written by Davey, in which she interweaves her own family history with the life stories of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughters. Among these fragmented narratives, Davey ponders the possibility of conveying an autobiography through text, film and photography, using quotations from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle. The temporally fractured image sequences show the artist walking through her apartment, followed by close-ups of photographs that she took of her siblings in the 1980s, while occasional shots through the window act as meditations on the present. At one point, Davey cites Goethe’s diaries: ‘I can say nothing now except I am here.’ Like Hershman Leeson, with her anthropological documents of Roberta, Davey maintains a distance from her subject’s story: she dictates her essay into a recorder, and then retells it in the film with a monotone voice while listening to the recorded version. The artist, here, is writer, reader and listener.

Rippon’s work also focuses on the presentation of autobiography. In his first show at the Städelschule in 2011, while still a student there, Rippon exhibited a letter written to him by his father, regretting their lack of communication and asking for forgiveness. Since then, Rippon has produced unstable sculptures made of related found materials. One such assemblage, Tree (2013), shown here, comprises two interlocking, partly charred wooden planks sticking out of a bucket. Rippon correlates single parts to his family members: thus, the ‘tree’ becomes an abstracted, almost pathetic ‘family tree’. Rippon’s use of autobiographical documents echoes both Hershman Leeson’s and Davey’s. While all three artists represent strategies for creating ‘authentic’ subjective portraits, Rippon’s work – the youngest artist shown here – felt the most nostalgic and sentimental.

Issue 173

First published in Issue 173

September 2015

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
At La Panacée, Montpellier, Nicolas Bourriaud’s manifesto for a new movement and attempt to demarcate an artistic peer...
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018