Renée Green, This Was Now Then, 1994 – beautiful drapery designed by Green to include startling images relating to slavery.
© Courtesy the artist & Free Agent Media

A milestone exhibition that includes works produced over 20 years by Renée Green, the most cerebral yet engaging of contemporary American artists occupies the entire Fine arts museum in Lausanne. Making use of multiple media, including photography, video and sound, the show is intriguing, packed with content and of interest to casual visitors, art amateurs and school children-alike.

A voyage through the meanders of her experiences and perceptions is what the American artist of iconic stature proposes. Renée Green is a painter, a photographer, a writer, a film-maker, an architectural and textile designer, as well as a sound engineer all wrapped into one.

Renée Green, Some Chance Operations: Between and Including, 1998
Installation. Média mixte: 9 ensembles de photographies noir/blanc et textes sous cadre sur des murs de couleur
Rubell Family Collection, Miami

Her works have received star billing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Tapies Foundation in Barcelona, the Secession in Vienna and more recently at the art fair in Basel, but the labyrinth on display in Lausanne, entitled “Ongoing Becomings”, is the first time that her pieces over so many years are presented together.

“I am seeing things that I have forgotten about and discovering new layers and combinations” said the artist on opening day.

Renée Green, United Space of Conditioned Becoming 1, 2007
Installation. Média mixte, dimensions variables
Crédits photo: John Berens
Courtoisie l’artiste et Free Agent Media

As one enters the formidably ugly Palais de Rumine where the Musée cantonal des beaux arts (Fine arts museum) is housed and the retrospective is on show for the next three months, one is struck by an unusual sense of peacefulness.

This is strange, because there is nothing peaceful in the open-ended questions that Renée Green is asking. Through sophisticated installations, poems hung on flags, references to historical documents and archives of fictional and non-fictional films, she is bombarding us with thoughts that refer to origins, interpretations, immigration, identities and illusions.

The 30 works on display illustrate the “infinite process of linking” that Green applies “to allow other kinds of knowledge to emerge from unexpected conjunctions”.

This might sound arid, but it isn’t. Green is like a Renaissance woman of the 21st Century who explores our collective memory to suggest new interpretations and artistic associations. She is teasing our collective references.

Songs by the cabaret singer Josephine Baker, who was the darling of Paris in the twenties, images of the National Guard charging students at Kent State University in Ohio in the seventies, engravings of a Senegalese nun from a popular novel of 1824 woven into draping cloth resurface to shift the mosaic of our perceptions.

Renée Green, Partially Buried in Three Parts, 1996-1997
Installation. Média mixte, dimensions variables (détail)
Crédits photo: Pez Hejduk, Matthias Herrmann, Stefan Lugbauer
Courtoisie l’artiste, Free Agent Media, et Elizabeth Dee Gallery, New York

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1959, Green started a career in publishing and editing following her studies at the Parson’s School of Design, Harvard and Wesleyan University. It was not until 1989 that she started to construct the enigmatic and powerful pieces that were to become her hallmark.

Many of her pieces are site-related as she has pursued her “ongoing-becomings” in Lisbon, Berlin, Amsterdam, Naples, New York and Los Angeles. She currently holds the position of Professor and Dean of Graduate Studies at the Art Institute in San Francisco, that she now considers to be one of her homes, along with New York and Majorca, the birthplace of her husband.

Renée Green, Endless Dreams and Water Between, 2009
Installation. Média mixte, dimensions variables
Courtoisie l’artiste, Free Agent Media et le National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

“Endless Dreams and Water Between” is Renée Green’s most recent work and it closes the exhibition in Lausanne. It was completed at the beginning of this year for the Greenwich National Maritime Museum in London. The sound of waves and ships’ hooters saturate the air as visitors move between a suspended poem written by Laura Riding when she was living with Robert Graves on the island of Majorca.

A video on four fictional characters who comment a text written by George Sand when she spent a winter on the island with Chopin is woven into the time-frame of the installation.

That such experiments in “thinking and acting” are actually accepted as art and shown in museums and galleries is a tribute to Green’s creativity and to her capacity to make us alight into her world.

The curator of the exhibition, Nicole Schweizer, does not hide her passion for Green’s work. The two have worked together for two years to construct an exhibition that respects the instability of Green’s art, the fact that her works are rarely finite and can be revisited with different meanings.

“This exhibition is meant to be one of total immersion” says Schweitzer to explain how the pieces interact with each other and remain in constant flux. Sounds, constructions, vivid colors and moving images vie for the visitor’s attention, contributing to making the show attractive, even for children.

Green adds that she “wanted to activate the spaces so that they can be read both ways”, since the linear design of the museum obliges visitors to view the works twice, once on the way in and again on the way out.

Even so, one visit may not be enough. Renée Green is offering us an “Inventory of Clues”, “Certain Miscellanies” and “Idyll Pursuits” (all titles of her works) that make us want to come back for more.

Published with the generous financial support of the American Embassy in Bern, Renée Green, Ongoing Becomings, is a bilingual (French / English) monographic reference catalogue on sale for the price of CHF 50.-/ 35 Euros.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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