Entering Andrea Lilienthal’s Small Disturbances at Carter Burden, the viewer is immediately engaged in a stunning manner due to the extreme conflict between the message being conveyed and the means being used to convey it. Lilienthal, with the help of dressmaker Nina Klimov, takes New York Times photos of people and nature under duress and, using a 1947 Singer sewing machine, creates children’s dresses out of them. Except for a spray meant to gently fortify the paper and stabilize the images, the dresses are completely newspaper and thread.
The means of expression becomes a cute, endearing, innocent evocation of childhood forced to carry the message of a world dominated by discord, deceit and destruction. This flawed relationship between means and message creates a powerful visual statement. By presenting this extreme contrast we become more fully aware of the message the dress imparts as well as the message imparted by the photos. The discord between them adds a further dimension. The dresses are based on designs from the 1950s, a time many Americans feel were the halcyon days of the American empire. People tend to remember the Eisenhower era nostalgically, as we seemingly went through eight years of peace, economic prosperity and moved toward greater civil rights for all races. Environmental disasters, terror attacks, endless wars and a hopelessly disunited country could not have been imagined at the time.
We are not just affected by the juxtaposition of innocence and grief, making both more piquant to us, but we arrive in a better situation to assess the level of manipulation to which we can be subjected by both means and message. For example, do these visual images engage us toward meaningful action or do they merely lead to a type of learned helplessness, where we feel that the world is spinning out of control and there is little we can do within our own spheres? Newspapers are in the business of soliciting emotions from us ranging from outrage to empathy and this is done for profit or an ulterior political agenda.
Herein lies the strange beauty of the dresses, as we are drawn toward both the innocence of childhood in a perceived golden age and the feeling of false potency engendered by an awareness of the world’s strife. There is a strange beauty to the dresses which is hard to fathom. The images do create amazingly colorful patterns but one realizes that the never-ending social and international conflicts and natural disasters are producing this never-ending series of patterns for the dresses. The visual images of extreme distress, in all their blazing glory, become an endless source of attractive patterns.
The dresses are, of course, frozen in a period of time and thus possess a sense of permanence. We have the permanence of the dresses mixed with the transience of the images, which are normally consumed on one day and forgotten by the next. By combining the image and the dress we get an attempt to both make the dresses seem more fleeting and the images more permanent. We get layers of impermanence becoming the permanent as, ironically, the only thing really permanent is our memories, however flawed they might be. This mirrors how news events become a part of our own personal timelines and our personal timelines have become darker as history seems to be moving in a negative direction, closer and closer to social and environmental collapse.
Yet, we might be forced to ask whether these dresses, or the children who might have worn these dresses, bore the seeds of the tumult we now experience. After all, the last four presidents were members of the baby-boomer generation, as the world has dovetailed into greater and greater chaos. Three of the four grew up in the 50s (Obama was a sonic-boomer, born in the early 60s), when these dresses were popular. Was it the children of these halcyon days who bear responsibility for the current mess of the world? How did we go from Ike to The Donald?
Also, what about the fact that this artist only creates dresses? The girls of the 1950s became the activists of the 1970s. They rebelled against the passivity and purity represented by the dresses created for them. Yet, the images may be testament to the fact that they were not able to execute a complete influence over the course of history and must now look on what was wrought despite their best efforts and intentions. The dresses were an attempt to mold an entire gender and this failed, but the world also now seems to be failing.
One of the board members of Carter Burden told me that Lilienthal got this idea by thinking of the lovely dresses she wore as a child while realizing, in retrospect, that there were horrors occurring around the world that she, as a child, could not possibly have imagined or understood. This led to combining the horrors of today with the dresses of her now lost innocence. Perhaps the dresses are an invitation to view children differently and how they are educated or introduced to the more problematic aspects of the world. Are we shielding our children too much? The images compel interest, sympathy and disgust at the same time that the wearer would be unable to grasp, perhaps, what is really happening.
It is as if the dresses had been left in a museum and instead of becoming moldy they became filled with these images. These are Dorian Gray dresses. They have ostensibly maintained their youth and innocence but bear the markings of the sins of the world.