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Mining Modernism

By Jacob Proctor

Synthesizing a range of media and genres — including painting and sculpture, but also literature, design, craft, and performance — Mai-Thu Perret mines the formal vocabulary and political aspirations of modernism in order to conjure for the viewer an imaginary alternate history of twentieth-century art, design, and social activism.

Mai-Thu Perret: An Ideal for Living runs through March 13 in the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery I at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Much of this work has stemmed from The Crystal Frontier, a fictional narrative that Perret began writing in 1999. The ongoing, intentionally unresolved story follows a group of young women who, in an attempt to escape the impositions of capitalism and patriarchal society, relocate to the remote New Mexico desert and form a utopian commune called New Ponderosa Year Zero. Presented in the form of diary entries, letters, manifestos, handbills, and the like, which are presented as the creations of the inhabitants, these texts are exhibited as artworks in and of themselves, framed screen prints in which particular attention has been paid to layout and typography.

Perret’s invented and fragmentary archive has also served as a generative mechanism for installations and objects, likewise presented as products of the commune’s residents. From objects presented as functional elements in communal life to others allegedly created for pleasure or leisure, Perret’s works occupy a range of positions relative to their fictional creators.

To watch a slideshow of the exhibit, please click on UMMA exhibit

The figures that make up Apocalypse Ballet (2006), for example, evolved out of what Perret originally conceived as objects for the display of clothing and textiles produced by New Ponderosa’s artisan residents. As sculptures, they become physical stand-ins for Perret’s fictional protagonists, their clothing and the neon hoops they carry simultaneously evoking such ostensibly disparate referents as the group exercises designed to prepare the body for socialist life in the USSR of the 1920s and the kaleidoscopic final sequence of the 1943 Busby Berkeley musical The Gang’s All Here.

Drawing on a different set of source materials, Perret’s three-channel video installation An Evening of the Book takes its inspiration from the eponymous 1924 Soviet agitprop play featuring sets and costumes designed by Varvara Stepanova. Originally performed in the 20s by actors from the Academy of Communist Education, the play dramatized the conflict between old, pre-revolutionary books and new, revolutionary books, the ultimate victory of the latter reflected in a parade of new libraries and editions.

For her “remake,” Perret created new props and choreographed a series of abstract movements relating to the themes of work, play, and rest, performed for the camera by a cast of both friends and professional dancers. The three resulting films are projected in a space hung with wallpaper that Perret created in a pattern reminiscent of Stepanova’s textile designs.

Although The Crystal Frontier’s narrative projects into the future, we encounter it as if discovering the remains of a lost civilization. For Perret, periods like the 1920s and 1960s signify earlier moments of radical possibility, when boundaries were broken and new social and artistic languages invented. Both represent what she has described as liminal moments, glimpses of a road not taken, momentary visions of an unattainable utopia.

Rejecting the sepia-toned lens of nostalgia, Perret adopts an archaeological approach, excavating these histories and reinserting the pieces into her own fragmentary matrix. In this way, Perret is able to chart an alternate trajectory through the artistic coordinates of the twentieth century, a new constellation that reopens the past to the possibilities of the present.

Jacob Proctor is associate curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

This exhibition is made possible in part by the University of Michigan Health System, Office of the Provost, CEW Frances and Sydney Lewis Visiting Leaders Fund, and Institute for Research on Women and Gender, as well as the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, Macy’s, the Consulate General of Switzerland in Chicago, and the Katherine Tuck Enrichment Fund.