Reflections for Now fills the Barbican’s exhibition space across two floors and three decades of Weems’s career. The gallery rooms flow seamlessly into each other, open-ended like miniature proscenia arranged in a horseshoe pattern. It suits the artist perfectly, her dynamic works refusing to sit still and behave themselves, blurring the limits of time and space. While many of the pieces on display are photographs, they appear to move with the viewer as she walks along, the past constantly catching up with the present.
Reflections for Now
For her 20th birthday in 1973, Carrie Mae Weems was given her first camera as a birthday present, which she initially used to capture her experience as a union organiser. For her 70th birthday, Weems has been given a retrospective at the Barbican. Despite having a prolific 40-year career, across media including photography, performance, film, painting, and sculpture, her work is seldom seen amongst gallery collections. Her work is disruptive, tearing at the injustices of race and gender in the United States in ways which refuse to sit comfortably within the traditional remit of curation.
"dynamic works refusing to sit still and behave themselves, blurring the limits of time and space"
In some works, these historical ruptures are made explicit. Weems’s photographic series Roaming (2006) casts the artist as her own muse, enrobed in mourning black as she appears amongst the ruins of Ancient Rome, Mussolini’s monuments, and film sets at Cinecittá. The artifice of the moving image compels Weems as she looks to examine the nature of memory. In a film titled Holocaust Memorial (2013), the artist performs a ritual dance between the giant concrete slabs of Peter Eisenmann’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Set to music by American composer Gregory Wanamaker, we see Weems appear and disappear between the monoliths in a flow broken only by singular claps. These punctuative sounds disrupt the movement mirroring the passage of time itself, examining the processes of memorialisation and how the past shifts in our contemporary framing of historical moments. As Weems herself has said, 'By inhabiting the moment, we live the experience; we stand in the shoes of others and come to know first-hand what is often only imagined, lost, forgotten.'
"like examining the individual frames of a reel of celluloid, slowing down the moving image almost to a halt"
But Weems is not dictating to her audience. Other figures appear throughout her works, both alive and dead. Downstairs hidden in the darkness of the exhibition is a work called Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me – A Story in 5 Parts (2012). Staged between red velvet curtains, images appear and disappear against a pane of mylar, including the figures of Abraham Lincoln, photographer Lonnie Graham, and Weems herself. The design echoes the 19th-century illusory entertainment technique ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, which perfectly demonstrates the unreliability of our eyes when faced with a curated version of the past.
During the piece, a recreated image of the assassination of John F. Kennedy appears between the curtains as we hear Weems reading Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address calling for freedom in the name of those who had died during the American Civil War. This is not an original image, but one Weems herself made with students from the Savannah College of Art and Design for her Constructing History (2008) series. The photograph of Kennedy, entitled The First Major Blow, appears in the series alongside 1960s events including the deaths of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King. Weems is telling a narrative of American history that traces a line up to Barack Obama running for the presidency.
In Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me, Weems appears dressed as a circus ringmaster. As in her other series, she never attempts to mask the fact that she is pulling the strings in her photographs. She wants her viewer to be aware of her presence, both to assert her own space and voice, but also to make us aware of the constructive elements in all apparently objective photography.
The circus similarly appears in the Barbican exhibition’s centrepiece, The Shape of Things, the soundtrack of which fills the entire space as the viewer walks around. The effect is that the audience already forms a notion of what this video work contains without having seen it, including the voice of Amy Cooper calling the police claiming she was being attacked by a Black man in Central Park. As was later revealed, the accused was simply a birdwatcher who had asked Cooper if she would mind putting her dog on a lead. The power of Weems’s video art goes beyond that of her photography to throw into question the nature of sound, and how what we hear does not always match up with seen reality.
"what we hear does not always match up with seen reality"
The Shape of Things also takes inspiration from 19th-century entertainment, this time the huge cyclorama which here uses four projectors to create a curved screen. The film is divided into seven parts, one of which sees a clown conducting a brass band and an animal trainer leading an elephant around a circus ring intercut with pro-Trump insurrectionists storming the Washington Capitol on 6 January 2021. Weems’s work is seldom ambiguous, but rather clear and blunt about the comparisons she seeks to make. Perhaps this is because sometimes things have to be stated bluntly. As these works all show, and as Weems herself is quoted as saying, her work puts on display 'the terror of perpetual whiteness as a source of power, suppression, exploitation and oppression.'
Within that overwhelming framework Weems locates the Black body to show how it 'attempts to maintain or hold on to its humanness in the course of battling and struggling against forces that are attempting to destroy you.' In her best-known work, The Kitchen Table Series (1989-90), Weems casts herself in a fictional narrative told through 16 photographs and 13 text panels. It is a film played out in a series of still images, not dissimilar to La Jetée (1962) by Chris Marker or Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1977-80).
"offering clues but leaving blanks for us to fill in"
As we move through the series of square images, it is like examining the individual frames of a reel of celluloid, slowing down the moving image almost to a halt. The woman, played by Weems, sits at the table behind a mirror, poised to brush her hair but staring directly at the camera. She sits smoking with men who engage with her, who read the newspaper as she gazes elsewhere, as she stands behind the man and then embraces him from behind in the next frame. There are other women, locked in conversation or thought, at one point blurring the photograph with laughter. Then she is alone, her head pulled back on the table by her own hand, exposing her breasts from afar. It’s a story of lives surrounding a life, with Weems offering clues but leaving blanks for us to fill in.
Even in her still photography, Weems is a cinematic artist. By pairing her photographic work with her video art, the Weems retrospective at the Barbican takes its audience through an uneasy journey that refuses to follow a clear or singular path. That, for Weems, is our reality, whether the powers that be like it or not. The works on display, in their frames and screens, often work as mirrors that force us to reckon with our own selves and relationship to their content. A quote from Weems on why she uses mirrors in so many of her pieces explains them 'as a reflection for myself and I’ve turned the mirror onto society itself.' Look on and despair, Weems says, although there is always room for change.