The Days of the Commune: A Conversation with Zoe Beloff

TI: When you scavenge for other people’s stories, do you have rules about what you can or cannot use? I am thinking about your projects that deal with the history of psychoanalysis and women suffering from hysteria.

ZB: If somebody is alive and didn’t want me to use their story, I would never do it. When it’s somebody who lived a hundred years ago, we are in a different realm. My film Charming Augustine is about a young girl in Paris in the 1870’s; her case history was published in the Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière. But that story is incomplete because the doctors who wrote it had their preconceptions about the world and about women. And although Augustine is not here and I am not her, there are things we may say now that could not be said then, and I must try to say them for her or with her. In addition, I wanted to see if Augustine could be seen differently within history. I wanted to see how the performances of hysterical women could be related to the birth of cinema. When conventional history books talk about the beginning of cinema, they talk about the mechanics, not the cinema’s imagination. Instead of showing Augustine simply as a victim of the medical establishment, I wanted to see how she inspired doctors to document her performances of hysteria. She was a performer on the historical stage, and I’d like to give her place in the invention of narrative cinema.

TI: This brings me to the issue of gender. Augustine was a woman, but some of your characters are male, such as Albert Grass, the founder of the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society. Is it more difficult for you to inhabit a male character?

ZB: I don’t think so. I really felt like Albert Grass, a working class Jew of my grandfather’s generation. My grandparents were Eastern European Jews, so I have a sense of these people and I feel more confident speaking with them then with people coming from a very different background. I don’t think I could speak for someone who was African-American, I could not do that in an authentic way. Whereas some Jew from Poland – that shouldn’t be a problem! (laughs) The gender is not a problem – in fact I am mainly speaking with men right now. Look at this quote over my desk “It is my desire to intone the hymn of the male, the strong, the virile, active, vertical composition.” That’s Eisenstein speaking in 1930. It’s fantastic – it’s so male. I love it! I love the fact that I am just taking that on. I think women should be able to take on whoever they want. Because there was a time we could not. I mean, why not? Why should not I work with these really macho guys? So tell me about the characters you inhabit.

TI: I am not as good a medium as you are. I think of them as characters, but I do not inhabit them. My Blumenthal project is about abstract painting and the history of abstraction, and although it has a character – a Russian-American artist working in New York in mid-20th century – she is secondary to the paintings themselves.

ZB: In terms of your practice, you are doing two radically different things. On the one hand, there are abstract paintings that exist as paintings, and on the other – a story. Where do you see stories in relation to the physical objects that you make?

TI: Perhaps that relationship exists only in my mind. A lot of my work is about discovering new or unexpected connections between disparate events, objects, or narratives. The story of Blumenthal helps me to create new relationships between some of my works and the history of abstraction. Because the story is secondary, I resist the impulse to fill in Alissa’s rather sketchy biography or to show many of her photographs. I don’t want people to learn more about her than they would about any artist from a short entry in an art catalogue. When you see a Barnet Newman’s painting, you might know a few basics facts about him, but you probably won’t remember how tall he was or how many siblings he had. You might vaguely recall he had a mustache, but then again you might not…This is the kind of abstract art-historical presence that I am creating for Alissa. Her story comes after the painting themselves – they have their own material lives and painterly logic that helps to produce them. But there is a complicated back and forth relationship between the objects and the story. As soon a painting is finished, the story immediately begins to affect it by linking it to other paintings and contexts, and this in turn, changes the story a little.

ZB: Your film Yalta is made of archival footage from 1945 and tells a story a Soviet-American double agent. So you look into something that already exists and draw out a hidden history. And I was imagining that just because we are different people, we could both take that footage and make two different films. I like the multiplicity, the fact that within footage there are other stories waiting to emerge.

TI: Exactly! The footage, like paintings, has a material presence, but its meaning is created by us, in our own minds. And so is humor. I’d like to about humor now, because you don’t talk much about it in your interviews.

ZB: Because nobody ever asked me about humor! (laughs) I think we both have a similar deadpan humor. Some of your work is really funny, such as the film about Ayn Rand’s sister, Twins and Pies, in which a pie is used to tell the difference between a selfish and an altruistic child. Pies come from some deeply magical space. In fairy tales, children are baked into pies, and emerge from pies…I also like the moment when you look at photographs in which people are lined up in rows and talk about how Russians must have a thing for certain numbers…that’s a particular way of looking at the world, which I think we share.

TI: Yes, and this way of looking is not particularly light-hearted. It is funny, but it may be quite dark. This is why I see it as Eastern European or Jewish humor.

ZB: Yes, it’s the history of oppression! It’s the small person who gets the laugh. The humor of people on the wrong end of bureaucracy. I was reading this joke about a Jew who is trying to leave Russia in the 1980s. The official says, “Tell me why do you want to leave.” The Jewish person says, “Well, frankly, I don’t think Communism will be around that long, and you know what happens afterward – there’ll be a mess and as always, Jews are going to be blamed for everything.” The official says, “No, Communism is strong, it will last for the next few hundred years.” and the Jew says, “Well, that’s the other reason I am leaving.” (both laugh)

One of my installations, The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff, explored the question whether humor, by upsetting the status quo, may be a liberating force. I was particularly interested in slapstick, physical humor, upsetting the rhythm of work. I love slapstick films, I love early cartoons, they are a huge inspiration to me. My project was very theoretical but hopefully, funny. Walter Benjamin saw the revolutionary potential in laughter but his friend Theodor Adorno was not so sure. He looked at cartoons and saw not liberation but cruel laughter. He saw Donald Duck getting a thrashing and thought that was another way that ordinary people get a training in punishment.

TI: Do you ever find yourself in situations when other people consider your sense of humor inappropriate?

ZB: It is often considered inappropriate in art context, but I can’t help myself. Right now I am preparing for a gallery exhibition and I want a sandwich board outside advertising the show with big pictures of Bert Brecht and Hanns Eisler. What artist puts a sandwich board outside the gallery? I think that’s funny, but serious too. I want Brecht to be open for business in a very proletarian way. But some people might not like it. You couldn’t do it outside Marion Goodman Gallery. She wouldn’t appreciate a sandwich board.

TI: No, unless it was covered with diamonds and there was a guard next to it…

ZB: Yes, I am wondering…maybe someone will steal it. I should take that as a complement.

TI: Well, may be you should chain it, at least for the duration of the exhibition.

ZB: Chain it? (laughs) But I don’t know… What if it really appeals to people? Maybe someone wants it?




Zoe Beloff: The Days of the Commune is on view at Participant Inc. in New York, NY July 20 – August 7.
Images courtesy of the artists.

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