– Autumn/Winter 2006

Andrea Bowers's History Lessons

Jill Dawsey

For every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.

- Walter Benjamin1


Consider this photorealistic drawing. Seated at a table, a young woman fixes her eyes on something, or someone, beyond the photograph's frame. She raises a finger in admonishment, perhaps, or instruction. Look here, she seems to say. Before her, caught in the shadow she casts on the table, a sign reads 'Abolish All Abortion Laws'; behind her another sign, the kind used in demonstrations, relays a sobering tally: 'US Deaths 1966; Viet-Nam 3,000; Abortion 7,000'. Death tolls in Vietnam would soon surpass those related to illegal abortions, but both figures would grow exponentially for seven more years until US troops began withdrawing and Roe v. Wade was passed. The young woman - she is Andrea Bowers's Young Abortion Rights Activist, San Francisco Bay Area, 1966 (Photo Lent from the Archives of Patricia Maginnis) (2005) - cannot know this in 1966. But her face is turned toward the future. She fixes her eyes on something, or someone - maybe us.

The drawing is a warning from the past sent to the present.

A pointing index finger points to - indexes - a referent in the world by means of its physical relationship to the person gesturing. Similarly, a photograph indexes a past - light patterns reflected onto surfaces at a particular moment in time. With its modeling and technical precision, this drawing mimics the look of a photograph. But as its title states, it also depicts an actual photograph, an object that inhabits space and bears the traces of time.

  1. Walter Benjamin, 'Theses on the Philosophy of History', Illuminations, Hannah Arendt (ed.), Harry Zohn (trans.), New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p.255.

  2. 'DIY School: Andrea Bowers and Eungie Joo in Conversation', Nothing is Neutral: Andrea Bowers (exh. cat.), Los Angeles: California Institute of the Arts/REDCAT, 2006, p.5.

  3. Pamela M. Lee, 'Some Kinds of Duration: The Temporality of Drawing as Process Art', in Cornelia Butler (ed.), Afterimage: Drawing Through Process, Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, and Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999, pp.25-48.

  4. See Susan Faludi, 'Reproductive Rights Under the Backlash: The Invasion of Women's Bodies', Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, New York: Doubleday, 1991, pp.400-53.

  5. See Hal Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', October, vol.110, Fall 2004, pp.3-22. The work of filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin comes to mind as an important model, apart from Bowers's own, of a practice that critically engages a feminist archive.

  6. Chris Krauss, 'Pay Attention', Video Green: Los Angeles and the Triumph of Nothingness, New York: Semiotext(e), 2004, p.61.

  7. Andrea Bowers, 'Magical Politics - Feast or Fasting', Cakewalk, no.6, 2004, pp.23-25.

  8. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), New York: Feminist Press at City University of New York, 1973. For an illuminating discussion of The Yellow Wallpaper that resonates strongly with the figure-ground relationships in Bowers's work, see Barbara Johnson, 'Is Female to Male as Ground Is to Figure?', The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis, Race and Gender, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1998, pp.17-36.

  9. At first glance it is tempting to compare her to the now legendary Rachel Corrie, but Marla was a real mover and shaker, a lobbyist and founder of the organization CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict) in 2003. (A biopic starring Kirsten Dunst is now in production.)

  10. As Barbara Johnson writes:, 'The background role is often played, in white western literature, by non-white characters.' B. Johnson, op.cit.

  11. Martha Rosler, 'Notes on Quotes', Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2004, p.144.