Nobody can tell you who you be

The very tall, slim man, with his hand on a short, plump woman’s shoulder, said as they passed me on the street, “Nobody can tell you who you be.”  That statement was clearly the theme for my day in New York.

Anticipating my professor’s panel discussion with Eleanor Antin, I went to see a show of her work from the 1970s on constructed identity.  Oh dear, you’re thinking, how boring.  Trust me, this show at Columbia University’s gallery is anything but dull.  Antin is known for the harsh diet she put herself on to “carve” her body, documenting her weight loss in photographs each day for a month.

This show has a different focus.  More in the vein of Cindy Sherman, Antin takes on new physical realities.  Unlike Sherman, she clearly remains herself, constructing new identities.  Hilariously, she teaches herself ballet from a book and is photographed as a prima ballerina, on pointe.  The video of her own choreography defies the idea of the artist’s ego.

I also really liked the various nurse incarnations as Eleanor Nightingale.  Her photographs as if from the 19th century definitely have that period feel, even as she comments on Vietnam, the senseless war raging at the time.

Me, 1854

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And the puppets on a hijacked plane and the accompanying video of playing with paper dolls sends up gender roles.

Here are the dolls inside the airplane.


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My favorite was probably Antin becoming a 1920s, exiled, Russian male movie director, shooting a film for the nostalgic Jewish audience in the US.  She got the silent film stereotypes just right as she played off 1970s political sensibility.2013-11-02 13.10.05








The work that stood out to me as perhaps having a different meaning today than she originally intended is Antin as King of Solana Beach.  She riffed on Anthony Van Dyck’s aristocratic painting tropes to indicate disgust at her impotence protesting against the Vietnam War.  So she decided to become king of her own geography.  



Acting as a valiant but ineffective ruler of a tiny beach community was her way of coping.  I saw the series as a contemporary statement of how insular and self-oriented we have become. We’re each king of our own little worlds and as such, have no room left to make other people and their priorities important.

That cynicism was both tapped into and eradicated by the new musical version of “Little Miss Sunshine.”  As Tolstoy stated, each family is miserable in its own way.  In this family, each character is passionately and uniquely miserable.  Except for Olive, the tiny contestant for the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.  Where do they find these children?  Goodness.  At age nine, this one has already been in fifteen different musicals.

Well, if any Off-Broadway production were more clearly headed for The Great White Way, then tell me.  I don’t want to miss it, just as you need to hurry and get your ticket for this one now.  The scalpers were already working the show.

This one is upbeat for such a dark, miserable bunch of characters–laugh out loud funny, with hummable songs.  A very feel-good ending that isn’t warranted given the action.  That contradiction is part of why the show works.  It’s tighter and crisper than the film, which I think is an improvement.

And you might just come away King of who you be, with just enough room for all the other Kings out there who matter most.