Aliza Shvarts: Purported
On ViewArt In General
Cite/Site (2020) is the most immediately visible of eight artworks that make up Purported, Aliza Shvarts’s retrospective at Art in General. For this work, the artist filled the tidy squares of the gallery’s exterior windows with 72 widely circulated texts and images culled from pop culture and critical discourse. These citations exemplify feminine interdiction: moments when women spoke on behalf of themselves but were ignored. From the sidewalk we can read the words of Gayatri Spivak (“she used her menstrual blood as a way to inscribe her message and was not heard”) or witness the tightly cropped face of Anita Hill as she testified to sexual harassment by then Circuit Judge Clarence Thomas. By framing the show through a lattice permeated by stories of doubted women, Shvarts delivers a riposte to the grid’s historical complicity in misogyny. This is recorded, for instance, in the patriarchal viewpoint of Albrecht Dürer’s draughtsman, who surveys a prone nude model through a gridded perspective device, and in latter-day theorizations of the grid as a signifier of modernism, disinterestedness, and silence.
Inside the gallery, Shvarts’s “Disconsent” works (2018–2020) probe the thresholds of verbal testimony. Who speaks for whom, and who is believed? In each of Discontent’s three digital videos, students, curators, or colleagues with whom Shvarts has worked narrate instances in which they consented or dissented in a particular context. The next filmed participant then recounts their own story and switches the terms of their peer’s testimony by changing “consent” to “dissent” or altering its details, thus destabilizing both the utterance and the believability of its speaker. Shvarts’s work engages a remarkably capacious set of considerations: the interpersonal and the institutional, the practical and the theoretical, a historical act and its circulation. These concepts expose the systems that structure our societies, revealing their inequity while encouraging us to imagine how our own bodies are already ensnared within them. Shvarts shows the gendered, raced, and classed reception of bodies and speech acts most poignantly in Anthem (2019–present), a large-scale installation in which rape kits from 42 American states are displayed in two neat rows across the gallery’s walls, with each kit’s contents emptied onto a shelf below. The work surfaces disparities between states’ quantification of sexual assault, suggesting that these elaborate apparatuses cannot possibly capture the nuance of a person’s experience. Most kits’ diagram of a body in profile, for instance, reveals the presumed availability of that body to investigative scrutiny as well as normative assumptions about its gender identity, size, and shape, right down to the texture of the hair. Rife with charts and diagrams that flatten difference, Anthem makes a strong case that the body simply cannot be constrained by the grid and its penetrating gaze.
The show’s earliest piece, Player (2008/2018), claims Shvarts’s own experience as something of a catalyst for her later practice. The work consists of footage from Shvarts’s 2008 undergraduate thesis, in which she allegedly inseminated herself before ingesting an herbal abortifacient, timed so that even the artist herself didn’t know if consequent bleeding resulted from monthly menstruation or self-induced miscarriage. When Yale University asked Shvarts to declare the performance a fiction, she refused. Censored by Yale—and recently shown in New Haven and Prague, but not seen in New York until now—Purported kindled international debate about the legislation of bodies and the reduction of experience to supposed fiction (it also prompted a vicious smear campaign against Shvarts on the Internet). At Art in General, Player is shown through a custom-variable media player keyed to stretch to the length of the show. Its impossible duration—1632 hours—precludes viewing it in full, frustrating any expectation that the video wholly disclose itself as either an evidentiary or originary act. (The show shuttered early due to the pandemic; if it reopens, Shvarts will recalibrate the remaining footage to extend through a new closing date.)
The repeated experience of being disbelieved is also taken up in Banners (2018), a series of long, ceiling-suspended vinyl scrolls that reproduce a screenshot of a viral tweet, video, or news story—including, Banner (Aliza Shvarts, Yale Daily News), the eponymous publication’s reporting on Shvarts’s thesis project—and the comments section below. Against the simplicity of a typical banner’s outsized, iconic message, Shvarts preserves the specificity of individual circumstance, bringing the viewer face to face with history in a situation akin to what Adrian Piper has called the “indexical present.” Within Piper’s framework, relationships are constructed so that they prioritize the immediate experience and complexity of the other, rather than giving way to easy classification or xenophobia. Mary Kelly’s “practical past,” in which the past is seen as a resource for solving problems, is another of Shvarts’s guiding concepts. By bringing these two ideas together, Purported goes beyond merely identifying the structural inequities of speech and representation to suggest the possibility of imagining their redemption.