Emily Newman at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery
In the seven recent videos included in this exhibition, Emily Newman – who was born in Singapore, identifies as American, and currently resides in Russia – Presents a self-portrait that also functions, at its best, as a cultural inquiry. Mainly through informally shot footage of her young son, Isaac, and of Saint Petersburg, Newman examines the vicissitudes of cultural assimilation. The videos, which range from four to twenty minutes in length, do not feature a traditional narrative structure, and instead use occasional intertitle card and brief on-screen text to help orient the viewer. Not knowing immediately what they are looking at, viewers have the opportunity to identify with the videos’ culturally uprooted subjects and to better understand the artists’ own investigation. Often, however, the lack of narrative thrust parallels what seems like a lack of conceptual direction. It is of course difficult to navigate a foreign culture and fully understand its mores. But here such notions were not presented with enough artistic panache to stave off a one-word follow-up question: “And?”
Valhalla, NY Chernovo, Leningradsky Oblast’, 2008, a split-screen video presented, like all the work in the show, on a monitor resting on a freestanding pedestal, is composed of footage shot in the summertime from cars moving through the American and Russian locations indicated by the title. The two lush, green landscapes are dotted with similar charming, somewhat dilapidated structures, effectively highlighting the fact that the two cultures have arrived at similar architectural styles. The artist has written that Russian and American culture “feed selectively off of each other’s aesthetic values,” but the simple juxtaposition of footage leaves many questions unaddressed. (To take just one: How does class factor into this aesthetic homogenization, if at all?) Another work, 4,000 km. from the Mouth, 2008, from which the show takes its title, is composed of Saint Petersburg street scenes filmed from the dashboard of a moving car and has as its sound track an interview with travel writer Patrick Richardson that originally aired on BBC Radio. In it, Richardson discusses “the appeal of the remote” and “what it means to [lose] yourself in the void.” These are apposite metaphors for the sense of isolation that can attend removing oneself from one’s native culture. But, assuming that Richardson speaks for the artist, his confession of, among other things, his politically dicey attraction to “colonial places slipping back into the past” undermines Newman’s effective, more subtle presentation of the fluidity of identity achieved in The Izyushkin Project, 2007, one of several chronicles of her young son.
The eight-minute video adapts the visual characteristics of home movies to an exploration of what it means for Isaac to be nurtured in two cultures simultaneously and, more interestingly, what effects this hybridity might have on the adults raising him. As he speaks, Isaac slides effortlessly between Russian and English, along the way inventing words that seem like conflations of the two languages. Newman juxtaposes footage of him counting and speaking with that of his parents and caregivers attempting to mimic this pidgin language. The generational rift this on-screen re-creation underscores is striking, and a potentially fruitful avenue of exploration. Yet in other videos, such as the split-screen Sadik’ Ethnographic, 2008, which places footage of Isaac at nursery school adjacent to that of displays in Saint Petersburg’s ethnographic museum, Newman assumes that striking together two dissimilar sequences will cause sparks to fly. Too often it doesn’t.