– Spring 2009

Role Refusal: On Louise Lawler's Birdcalls

Stacey Allan

The towering list of names is impressive: Vito Acconci, Carl Andre, Richard Artschwager, John Baldessari, Robert Barry, Joseph Beuys, Daniel Buren, Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Gilbert & George, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Neil Jenney, Donald Judd, Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Richard Long, Gordon Matta-Clark, Mario Merz, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha, Julian Schnabel, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Lawrence Weiner. Stacked one on top of the other, the appearance of these artists’ names might typically signal the inclusion of their works in a group exhibition, but here they serve as part of an audio-and-text installation by an artist who literally buries her name under the more recognisable names of her contemporaries. At the very bottom of the heap, a modest line identifies the work: ‘Birdcalls by Louise Lawler’. Perhaps only after reading this acknowledgement is one able to connect the ambient audio track and its incongruous cries with the names on the wall. The sounds are made by Lawler, who strains her voice to sing the names of twenty-eight celebrated male artists as though they were the songs of twenty-eight unique species of bird. She calls the first, last or full name of each artist as indicated by the part of the name that is printed in red or green, each name given its own specifically nuanced call: ‘Acconci’ is sung in a shrill staccato (‘acconCHEE!!’); ‘Gilbert & George’ takes a low-pitched chatter (‘Gilberengeorge, Georgengilber! Gilberengeorge!’ ); and ‘Artschwager’ has a manic squawk (‘aa-arrRRRT-SCHWAGERRRR!!!’). Like the artists

  1. A digital audio file of the work can be found at http://www.ubu.com/sound/tellus_5-6.html (last accessed on 26 November 2008).

  2. Douglas Crimp, ‘Prominence Given, Authority Taken’, Grey Room 4, Summer 2001, p.80.

  3. Andrea Fraser, ‘In and Out of Place’, Art in America, June 1985, p.123. This was both the first monographic essay published on Lawler in a major art magazine and the first critical essay by Fraser, an artist and critic who was then enrolled in the Whitney Independent Study Program.

  4. Ibid.

  5. D. Crimp, ‘Prominence Given, Authority Taken’, op. cit., p.80.

  6. Bourdieu writes, ‘There are in fact very few other areas in which the glorification of “great individuals”, unique creators irreducible to any condition or conditioning, is more common or uncontroversial – as one can see, for example, in the fact that most analysts uncritically accept the division of the corpus that is imposed on them by the names of authors … or the titles of works…’ Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (ed. Randal Johnson), New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, p.29. Some of the essays in this volume had been translated and published before, others were appearing in English for the first time.

  7. Linda Nochlin, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,’ Art News, January 1971, p.25.

  8. 8 Graham quotes Devo, in an interview with SoHo Weekly News: ‘We figured we’d mimic the structure of those who get the greatest rewards out of the upside-down business and become a corporation.... We decided that what we hated about rock ’n’ roll was STARS…. We watched Roxy Music, a band we liked, slowly become Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. If you get a band that’s good, you bust it up and sell three times as many records.’ Dan Graham, ‘Punk as Propaganda’, Rock My Religion: Writings and Art Projects, 1965–1990 (ed. Brian Wallis), Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1993, p.96.

  9. For example, Graham notes that endless hours of band practice in the garage (necessary for instrumental proficiency) was a socially acceptable form of teenage male-bonding. Since this was not true for teenage girls, proficiency would be coded as ‘male’. Ibid. , p.116.

  10. Ibid., p.119.

  11. Craig Owens, ‘Posing’, in Scott Bryson, Barbara Kruger, Lynne Tillman and Jane Weinstock (eds.), Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992, p.201.

  12. Ibid.

  13. D. Graham, ‘The End of Liberalism’, Rock My Religion, op. cit., p.77.

  14. Dick Hebdige, ‘Hiding in the Light’, Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things, London: Comedia, 1988, p.27.

  15. Styrene explains, ‘When people see people wearing bondage [fashions] they think they’re for bondage – but they’re not. Because by wearing it or singing about it, you’re against it … You admit that you’re repressed.’ D. Graham, op. cit., p.121.

  16. Schor writes: ‘Artists ... who have come of age since 1970, belong to the first generation that can claim artistic matrilineage, in addition to the patrilineage which must be understood as a given in a patriarchal culture ... despite the historical, critical and creative practice of women artists, art historians and cultural critics, current canon formation is still based on male forebears, even when contemporary women artists – even contemporary feminist artists – are involved.’ Mira Schor, ‘Patrilineage’, Art Journal 50, no.2, Summer 1991, p.58.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid., p.59.

  19. For example, Schor notes that Robert Morris’s ‘labial’ pink felt sculptureHouse of the Vetti (1983) clearly recalls the earlier work of Hannah Wilke. In a review of Morris’s work by Donald Kuspit, the obvious association with Wilke (or any similar women artists of the 1970s) was ignored. Ibid.

  20. Ibid., p.61.

  21. Ibid., p.63.

  22. Musically, this type of ‘shout-out’ is a practice that cultural scholar Dick Hebdige traces back to West African tradition by way of the reggae ‘toast’, which was simply a list of names or titles set to music. He writes that ‘the namer pays tribute … to the community from which (s)he has sprung and without which (s)he would be unable to survive. The speaker or singer’s voice is drowned beneath the sea of names it summons up around itself.’ Interestingly, West Africa is also considered by some scholars to be the ancient home of the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women in Greek mythology who lived and battled independently of men; memories of this fierce tribe were invoked by the all-female New Wave band The Slits, who posed bare-chested and caked in mud on the cover of their 1979 albumCut. Dick Hebdige, Cut ’n’ Mix: Culture, Identity, and Caribbean Music, London: Comedia, 1987, p.4.

  23. M. Schor, ‘Patrilineage’, op. cit., p.63.

  24. Ibid.