Mira Friedlander: Half of What's There
by Anna Tome
“Excavations are scientifically controlled destruction”
– Hansgerd Hellenkemper1
Can storage units, part of one of the fastest growing markets in America, also be an artist’s materials Brooklyn-based artist Mira Friedlaender certainly thinks so. Captivated by their aura of mystery and the way they mirror the subconscious and the hidden, she began an early iteration of Half of What’s There in 2011, when she decided to turn the contents of her deceased mother’s storage unit into a performance piece. Bilgé Civelekoglu Friedlaender, a Turkish-born artist active in New York during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, packed away her life’s work just before returning to her native southern Istanbul in the ’80s. She filled a storage unit with the carefully selected highlights of her career, as well as tools and references that happened to be in the studio at that time. That certain artworks were included but not others proves that she was aware of the image she’d leave behind, and perhaps wished for the inclusions to act as an archive of her legacy as an artist. But a“er the unit was filled, it lay dormant in a Philadelphia building for decades – long past her death in 2000 – until her daughter, also an artist, decided to create performance art out of it.
As apart of her residency with Recess Sessions, Mira Friedlaender’s Half of What’s There was twofold: she first moved the entire contents of her mother’s unit into Recess’s downtown Manhattan storefront gallery. Then, over the next seven and a half weeks, she opened the parcels, photographed them, attempted to archive them and hung them on the walls – all during gallery hours and in public. Out came Bilgé Freidlaender’s stunning geometric drawings and subdued, earth-toned paper collages, conveying a long and robust career of an artist who fit confidently within her epoch. Unexpected treasures were uncovered, among them an original Agnes Martin drawing hidden among the flat files, whose very existence seemed to share a kindred tenacity with Bilgé Friedlaender’s work – both achieved a deep impact after years in hiding. Once a week, works were taken down from the walls and new ones opened and hung in their place. Besides the art, other objects were unwrapped – labels, catalogues, books, listings and tools – accoutrements that transported one to the New York art world of the ’70s. In congruence with all this, Friedlaender and her assistant used slides and old-fashioned archiving materials to record the process.
If the contents of her mother’s storage unit were ever meant to be an archive, turning it into a performance rendered it ineffective – at least to the degree that an archive is meant to directly transmit information from the past. Because Friedlaender chose to unwrap the endless boxes, tubes, and folders in haste and in public, the archival integrity of the objects was forsaken and the preservation impulse behind this storage unit undermined. The information one could gather about the past was obfuscated: on one hand, her mother’s memory was resurrected – albeit without a hint of ceremony or nostalgia. On the other hand, the personal history her mother hoped to crystallize by saving the works was debunked as her daughter picked them apart and interpreted them with an interactive audience. Rather than express Bilgé Friedlaender’s idea of herself, the meaning of the objects was dictated by the particular environment of the present: their placement in the storefront gallery, the constant stream of visitors and the artist’s personal closeness to the subject.
In this sense, the performance was more destructive than constructive with regard to a pristine archive. In reality, the process was very urgent and works were hung and removed in haste. Additionally, the movers who placed the work back into the storage unit after the performance ended disrupted the original order of the archive, making it all but impossible to locate items. Given the timing and extreme conditions of unpacking and repacking in Half of What’s There, it was futile to properly document each and every piece they pulled out. In the practical sense, a functioning archive was never created.
And yet, the work held a vivid grip on the present. During the process of installation, the artist chatted with a continuous stream of visitors. Interestingly, this direct path between viewer and artist incited feelings of loss and mourning within viewers, as they imagined Friedlaender’s grief or pain at the loss of her mother – though she had long moved past these feelings over the preceding decade. Just as Friedlaender had likely wondered about the contents of the various containers before they were opened, public viewers projected their own ideas of trauma and loss onto the artist – trauma and loss that no longer existed for the artist, but only in the viewers’ imagination.
The boxes, now moved back into the static netherworld of the storage unit, will not be opened again until the next performance, underscoring their new life as artist’s materials. The future significance of these boxes will be articulated with the next performance, rather than by their treatment in this one, asserting that an object’s life is ever changing and cannot necessarily be preserved.
Friedlaender is herself intimate with the fastidious processes of art handling and archiving that happens behind gallery walls, and this performance brought such acts into the gallery, but without the requisite ritual and reverence. Paintings and drawings were hastily opened, hung, removed and replaced by other works – with the original hooks and holes left uncovered – while engaging, rather than excluding, the public.
It is clear that Friedlaender was very interested in – perhaps more so than the performance itself – the strenuousness of art handling and its accoutrements. However, the repeated gestures of art handling do little to comment on art handling. Rather, these gestures are used to articulate the artist’s underlying, existential questioning of the archive: why save what we save? What purpose does it serve? Can an archive accurately convey the past, and if so, how much of our understanding of the past is informed by context of the present?
By questioning the purpose and efficacy of an archive, Friedlaender draws attention to the artist’s most primal compulsion: to leave something behind for after they’re gone. Still, beneath all the layers to this work – the brandishing of invisible practices of art handling and archiving in a gallery space, the transference of her own history onto an anonymous public audience, and the arresting minimalist drawings and collages of her mother – the artist makes an acute philosophical reflection on the act of archiving, and most interestingly, a successful query into the life cycle of an art object.