Is there a more romanticized life than that of the New York City artist? We imagine exposed ceiling lofts, walls splattered with paint, eclectic but sparse furniture, and a constant stream of characters wandering in and out. If you’re someone who yearns for such an existence but is bound by the obligations of life, Chiara Clemente invites you to live vicariously through the five female artists profiled her new documentary, Our City Dreams. This beautiful, patient, and thoughtful film examines what it means to be a woman working as an artist in the city that quivers with the energy of the past, present, and future.
Our City Dreams is, ostensibly, about five individual artists. But Clemente has smartly chosen women at different stages of life and career, and because the film begins with the youngest and concludes with the most veteran, it can also be seen as a fractured portrait of a single woman. As she ages, time moves backward, highlighting the growth and movement of feminism and art over half a century.
We first meet Swoon, a mid-20s street artist in transition. Her paper prints, made from intricate wood carvings of New Yorkers, were once plastered on urban walls. But during Clemente’s filming, Swoon experiences her first gallery show at Deitch Projects and an inaugural museum exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. As she rambles to the camera, we see her struggle to justify the legitimacy of “institutionalizing.” Her youth is worn in self-awareness; she’s still finding the right fit for her artistic persona. But she’s confident in her role as a female artist. In fact, she thinks that being a woman, at this moment, is actually a boon, rather than a hindrance. However, if Swoon understands that her path has been cleared by her predecessors, she doesn’t make that apparent.
Among those who fought to make space for women is Kiki Smith. The daughter of artist Tony Smith, she discusses her hesitation to follow in her father’s footsteps. Only after his death in 1980 did she feel comfortable pursuing art. As a woman who came of age during second-wave feminism, Smith admits that her focus was on defining her independence. She wanted to be known for her own work, to make her own name. And, as Clemente’s camera shows, her delicate yet often morbid sculptures, prints, and installations are uniquely Kiki Smith.
Clemente never appears in the film, and her directorial hand is subtle. She captures her subjects in their element, often balancing substantive and intimate interview audio with contemplative visuals of each artist at work. Cinematographer Theo Stanley uses a variety of camera types and film speeds to achieve the “textured collage” Clemente set out to create.
With each subject, Clemente pursues similar themes. Of the five women, only 80-year-old Nancy Spero, a pioneer of feminist art, is both mother and artist. Shortly before Clemete began filming, Spero’s husband, artist Leon Golub, passed away. Without relinquishing her own sense of self, Spero discusses the great loss she feels over her creative partner’s death. In contrast, Ghada Amer, an Egyptian-born artist whose work confronts the changing cultural role of women in her native country, explains that she can’t see herself having a child because being a mother is a job that would conflict with her career. Performance artist Marina Abramovic, who is not married and does not have children, doesn’t directly address the issue. But she implicitly examines gender roles through her boldly feminine and masculine work. She’s a voluptuous woman who uses her physical appearance, pushing it up against the extreme conditions she endures during hours-long performances.
Inspiring all these women is the city in which they have chosen to settle: New York. As each artist is introduced, Clemente provides the year she “landed” in New York, a nod to the immigrant history of the city and an implication that it continues in new forms. Smith, who grew up in New Jersey, felt the pull and influence of the city throughout her life. Abramovic had a full-fledged career in Europe before transplanting to New York in 2003, at the age of 57. The five women have come to New York for different reasons, but the city has given each of them artistic energy.
There are moments in Our City Dreams when Clemente’s own artistic vision overshadows her subjects. Occasionally, her attempt to create an interesting film mimics Swoon’s self-conscious presentation. The music is a bit cloying or the camera movement a bit overwrought. We become aware that we’re watching a film about art rather than remaining absorbed in the experience. But those moments are rare. Most often, Clemente complements her subjects, giving them space to explore their ideas while she gently shapes their stories.