The recent work of Montreal artist Freda Guttman

The recent work of Montreal artist Freda Guttman is called Cassandra: An Opera in Four Acts and unlike her earlier work that had a more didactic approach to her activist concerns, this installation is notably more lyrical and introspective — a staged setting for Guttman to rummage through the layers of her own psyche. The installation uses objects, voices, music and film as props. Cassandra, a mythological Trojan woman, is the catalyst used to narrate an intimate story of the artist’s own life.

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Act One comes from a home movie Guttman found and has titled, “Film Muet/Silent Movie.” The film is short and looped so the small drama it portrays is constructed to be examined with scrutiny and interrogation. It features Guttman as a girl running with her brother toward the camera. She stops and begins to walk. Her brother keeps moving ahead toward their father who appears at the right of the frame wearing a fedora and woolen coat, looking strong, authoritative, protective. Both children run into his arms but only Guttman’s brother is embraced.

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The clip is interpreted through the story of Cassandra and Apollo’s desperate love for her. He gave her the gift of prophecy and in exchange he wanted her to marry him. When Cassandra spurned him, he cursed her so no one would believe her predictions (an unfortunate decision for the Trojans since Cassandra foretold of the danger of the great Trojan Horse, in which Greek soldiers hid, and Troy, her homeland, was overtaken).

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It is an intriguing myth for Guttman to stage her own childhood, partly because Cassandra’s story remains so open-ended. What is the final pronouncement? Apollo’s suppressive male power? Cassandra’s will to refuse him? Or her demise, and all of Troy’s, for not sticking to her end of the bargain? One thing is certain, Cassandra is a tragic figure of a woman who had great potential that went unfulfilled. But interpretation is from whatever vantage point you chose to take. And this is why this installation by Guttman is more effective than what has come from her in the past. There is Guttman’s childhood set up as an opera, once removed from herself, wrapped in a mythological tale that has multiple constructions, and therefore she has brought a greater and more flexible context for interpretation.

“Film Muet/Silent Movie” is a convincing clip of a Cassandra becoming powerless; the dismissive push Guttman’s father gives her while he draws her brother in under his arm is clearly there. But it is also manipulated to be read in only one way. It shows a moment of unconscious patriarchal choice of boy over girl, but it is also an isolated clip, blown up, slowed down frame by frame, and held within Guttman’s own private mythology.

Act Three is also about (re)interpreting an image and centres around a wooden General Electric radio box, crica 1940s, gorgeously preserved. It is like the radio Guttman’s father listened to each night to hear news about the war and Hitler’s anti-Semitic speeches. Guttman has replaced the small window, where the radio dial would be, with a tiny television screen. Another film loop: Hitler receiving a handful of flowers from a small girl in a white dress and patent leather shoes while a scratchy recording of a woman singing Bertolt Brecht’s O Little Box plays in the background.

The loop is short and sped up so the two figures move back and forth quickly, as if they are dancing and sharing something in common. It is a moment of propagandist farce, akin to politicians kissing babies; a moment of nothingness used to mean something, similar to what Guttman has done with her home movie. Both find their voice on the basis of our tendency to believe what we see on film, even if what is recorded and what its actual meaning is are entirely different.

Act Four is Guttman’s thirteenth birthday party. Five light boxes shelved in a row, blinking from left to right. The picture in each box seems, at first, identical — a suburban dining room table surrounded by girls in party hats, posing for a picture. Guttman is in there somewhere. Later it becomes apparent that the image of a female figure in uniform, separate from the group and leaning against the door frame, fades in and out from one frame to the next. In the third frame she is gone completely. She was the Guttman family’s immigrant maid who was invited in for the photo but stands conspicuously outside the group.

The themes Guttman is tapping with her opera are familiar ones: patriarchy, hierarchy, racism, alienation; all of which she has built on the construct of Cassandra and her “muteness.” Guttman has gathered up the disparate moments in her life, edited them down and arrived at a perfect structure that is both discursive as well as narrative. It is like a new history, a cross-referencing of the mythological Cassandra with documents and emblems that invoke her life within a modern interpretation.

The Cassandras of our time could be any number of women who sense the subtle gestures and subliminal messages which determine what is male and what is female. Young women’s fear, for instance, of voicing their opinion because it is seen as unfeminine. Guttman also presents Cassandras at the other end of the generational spectrum. Act Two consists of three drum-like tables, each with a set of earphones. Guttman had women tell their life stories into her tape recorder — ninetysix interviews, which makes it impossible to stand still long enough to hear them all. Setting down the earphones is like closing a door. Most are filled with intense dramas but the formal presentation counterbalances any notion of intimacy.

As much as this work’s construct and presentation seems entirely different from what has come from the artist before, there are still connected elements. In the past, Guttman’s installations included a kind of outreach aspect with talks and seminars meant as an integral part of the work; an awareness strategy to encourage pro-action. Guttman the activist is still present with Cassandra. The taped voices are voices of the community, but this time they are part of the work and are far more imaginatively juxtaposed to Guttman’s own personal exploration.