[Above, Marina Abramovic and her posse dare the ocean to hit them with its best shot.]
Our City Dreams chronicles the careers and lives of five female artists, now based in New York City, who have been drawn there by everything the city represents — all its chaos, romance, and the advantages of being at the center of the art world. It opens with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge — from a car driving on it, presumably into Manhattan — a jazz soundtrack, and an apt epigraph from Susan Sontag, whose own career was inextricably bound up with the city: “I was not looking for my dreams to interpret my life, but rather for my life to interpret my dreams.” The words well suggest what is to follow: a documentary about five women who have each been able to realize their “dreams,” by which is meant both their ambitions and their artistic visions.
Director Chiara Clemente (herself the daughter of a famous painter, Franciso Clemente) followed each of these artists for a year, documenting some key moments in their lives. One artist opens her first solo show and another opens a 25–year retrospective. The women are profiled in order of age, so that in the course of the film you develop a sense of what an entire lifetime in art might mean for a woman. But since each artist started her career about a decade earlier than the one previously interviewed, we also get a brief history of contemporary art in reverse order, a series of personal views into some of the major currents in art over the past half-century, starting with street art and moving backwards through performance art, art explicitly informed by feminist criticism, and Expressionist art.
More than that, though, we get a clear insight into what it means to be a female artist in our society after the feminist movement — and something of what it meant to be one before. Near the end of the film, the painter Nancy Spero (born 1926) celebrates her eightieth birthday, and recalls, of the 1950s and early 1960s: “I was dying for people to ask me what I was working on,” as it didn’t happen much in those years. That memory makes for a sharp contrast with the first woman profiled, the street artist Swoon (born 1977; incidentally, you might have gone to this recent event) who seems to have the world before her: she says she feels lucky to be working “at a moment when women are being really encouraged” to be artists — and as if to prove the point, we’re shown footage of her first solo show, given when she was twenty-eight, at Deitch Projects. In between these two, we get studio visits and some time spent with Ghada Amer, Kiki Smith, and the self-described “grandmother of performance art” Marina Abramovic.
Altogether it’s a fascinating film and a good introduction to five of the most significant artists of our time.
The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is presenting this film at 7:30 on four evenings starting on April 9th and continuing through the 12th. Tickets and trailer available here.
[Note: When originally published, this article incorrectly stated the opening night as April 8th.]