Carrie Mae Weems Sets the Stage and Urges Action

Weems’s analysis of our current political landscape will be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention over the past few years — including, I would imagine, most of those who visit the show on Park Avenue. What is more compelling are the visual and historical connections she makes — often insightful, sometimes funny, and occasionally quite direct — and the way she remixes her earlier work.

In the Cyclorama video, we see two different clips projected on the curved surface: one, a group of white, pro-segregation marchers in 1960s Boston; the other, a group of Black anti-segregation marchers who confronted them in the streets. Weems had originally used the footage in her 2012 installation “Cornered,” installing each on adjacent walls in a gallery in a way that highlighted the confrontation between two sides. Here, we see not so much contrast as continuity — the endless racism and the endless need to protest that racism.

Later, Weems lifts a sequence from her “Louisiana Project” (2003) of shadow puppets enacting a scene of slave-owning ladies having a tea party on the porch of a plantation house. This she overlays with audio of Amy Cooper, who, when an African American bird-watcher asked her to leash her dog in Central Park, infamously called 911 to report him as a threat. The commentary — on the way white women benefit from white supremacy, in the past and in the present — couldn’t be more biting, or stark.

In another sequence, a video of a clown dressed in red, white and blue conducting a brass band is intercut with cable news images of the Jan. 6 pro-Trump insurrection at the Capitol and historical footage of an animal trainer leading an elephant around a ring. (Tom Eccles, the curator of the exhibition, cites the adage “Elect a clown and expect a circus” in his note on the show.)

Other associations are more subtle, and gratifying so, as when Weems alternates silhouettes of men in hoodies walking across the screen in a gridlike array with historical images of prisoners, and coal miners in elevators being transported deep underground, spinning a delicate thread that connects race, incarceration and capitalist exploitation.