Tea Party Through Feminist Eyes
by Andreas Langen
Stuttgarter Zeitung, January 20, 2011
Translation from the German by Roger MacGregor
The exhibition “Poise, Power and Protocol.” The performance artist Caitlin Rueter shows her picture-puzzles in Stuttgart. A report from Andreas Langen.
Down on the gallery floor we find a young woman at her work. Unconcerned about the stereotypes of womankind, she kneels or crouches or squats surrounded by her pictures and her tools. She is arranging things; getting them the way she wants them. On the walls around her photographic images of herself pose as First Lady; life-size and done up in fancy dress. “Oh, those,” the artist laughs about the alter ego images; “they’re not me of course – they’re somebody entirely different.” The Canadian artist, with ancestors in Ireland, Switzerland and the Netherlands, married to an American and living in New York, has learned a few things about the complex issue of “identity.” When she went to the United States several years ago (in western European terms a stone’s throw away and using the same language) she was astonished at how much she felt like a foreigner. One illustration of this was the question of health care. In Canada it is the law that everyone is covered by health insurance. In the United States, millions of people consider this a communist plot of some kind. Rueter thus found the question of what kind of place she had ended up in more or less forced upon her.
As do many countries, the United States supplies official answers to this question with a pronounced inclination to symbols. High on the list are the President and First Lady – those hybrids of real people and an office of the state in the flesh. And in the case of the United States they embody yet another paradox – that of being aristocrats for the use of power in a country created by revolution against things aristocratic. In this pairing of image and figurehead, the artist Caitlin Rueter’s first concern is the female half, an area in which even the official placement and depiction of the gender is itself worthy of deeper inquiry.
For according to official protocol, the First Lady is first and foremost hostess in the official residence of the President. What would we say then if today Hilary Clinton were running the White House? Would Bill be First Man? But beyond such hypothetical questions, the real-life story of the office contains a wealth of material for Rueter’s investigations. For the past two years she has been meticulously searching the biographies of the First Ladies, on the lookout for photographs especially. For it is in visual images that we find concentrated what Caitlin Rueter’s work is all about: the posed image, the stage-managed image, the capturing of the moment; the act of remembrance. The collages also employ items of historic costume to document an American national sport (pursued mostly for purposes of patriotic cheerleading) – i.e. historic re-enactment, that is the re-staging of historic events using true-to-life costume and backdrop.
Some time ago the artist attended a meeting of the Tea Party for interest’s sake, unaware that anti-Obama sentiment would be rampant there. She turned the shock of the experience to creative purpose however. In performances entitled “The Feministic Tea Party,” we find her dressed in clothing from the 18th century, serving tea and involving passers-by in debate about women, art and the politics of the day. She cannot escape such involvement in any case, for it happens that her husband has a darker skin colour than her own. It is in this connection that she came to hear family stories and to acquire a view of the country much different from the official one. It begins with the storied first president of the country. George Washington could only afford to involve himself in politics because of the fortune of his wife Martha who was a slave-owner. Ms Rueter simply removed the figure of Martha Washington from an oil painting and replaced it with an image of herself. Over the photograph of herself she placed the frilly creation worn in 1861 by Mary Todd Lincoln at the Inauguration Ball of her husband Abraham who abolished slavery (and was murdered for it). For a long time though, Rueter’s feet remained shoeless. It was a year and a half before she came across an official portrait of the current President’s wife in Vogue and took from it the black shoes she has on.
The result of all this is now showing for the first time in Stuttgart – the life-size Martha Mary Michelle Caitlin Washington-Todd Lincoln-Obama-Rueter. The artist has blended most of the forty-four First Ladies with herself in similar fashion, to the extent that rights for copy and reproduction could be had. To start off, twelve blended people inhabit her personal ancestor’s gallery of First Ladies. Items of striking apparel come from some of them; from others a permanent hair-style, a bouquet of flowers or nothing more than a tiny little ear-ring. And all come with sophisticated titles. The complex nature of these has proven too much for even the professional translators. The name of the series as a whole is by itself untranslatable. Poise refers to posture and elegance but also to an indeterminate state on the brink of doing something. The same goes for terms like Power and Protocol. The resounding alliteration is lost in German. Likewise the evocative nature of “powder,” [Puder] a word taken from the old ceremonial life of the court - democratized in cosmetics to a cover-word for masking things and concealing the undesirable.
Like the titles, the way the figures are displayed is similarly rich in suggestive quality. Caitlin Rueter uses readily visible stick-pins to fasten the individual elements of her montages to the walls. This points up the fact that every picture can be taken down and rearranged – a state of affairs which must reasonably approximate human memory and which leaves open the validity of any interpretation of history. As Caitlin Rueter says: “I am not convinced of the hierarchy of conventional history. I am constantly wondering to myself what other stories or histories we miss because of it.”
The exhibition opens Saturday at 5:00 PM.
The artist will be present. Show runs to March 6, 2011 at the Galerie Bildkultur, 19 Markelstrasse in Stuttgart, Mondays and Wednesdays,
5 PM – 7 PM and by appointment.