<Book Review>
Enacting Others: Politics of Identity in Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, Adrian Piper,
and Anna Deveare Smith
. By Cherise Smith.
[Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011 | 328 pages, 58 illus, 18 color plates | $24.95 (p), $89.95 (c)]

In Enacting Others, Cherise Smith interrogates the continued relevance of identity politics, arguing against postidentity claims that view race and ethnicity as increasingly unimportant factors in American culture. Centrally concerned with the ways that racial identity is “represented, performed, signified, and embodied in recent American art” (4), Smith examines the work of four artists who employ strategies of performance in order to cross the boundaries of race, class, gender, age, and sexuality. Putting it baldly in her introduction, Smith explains her objects of study: “[Adrian] Piper goes from black to blacker in the Mythic Being (1973-75), [Eleanor] Antin goes from white to black in Being Antinova (1981), [Anna Deveare] Smith goes from black to everything in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1993 and 2000), and [Nikki S.] Lee goes from yellow to white, black, and brown in her Projects (1997-2001).” On the surface, these boundary crossings seem to challenge conventional assertions of the stability of identity. A closer look reveals, however, that many of their performances permit the artist to occupy a liminal space in which self and other coalesce. This sort of identity performance, Smith argues, thus offers a unique opportunity to “scrutinize the relationship between original and reproduction, enactment and re-enactment, reality and artifice” (155). Interested in the negotiations involved in “the making and taking of identifications” (58), Smith is ultimately concerned with the “slippery ambivalences”(231) of identification, racialization, and identity making in contemporary America.

Adrian Piper is a conceptual artist and philosopher whose work was shaped by the women’s art and black arts movements, which both raised important questions about community building and collective identification. In the work that occupies Smith’s attention here, Piper takes on the accoutrements of working class black masculinity (Afro, facial hair, dark glasses, and tight jeans) in her performance of a fictional male persona, the Mythic Being. Smith is quick to point out, however, that Piper was decidedly unsuccessful at passing as male (13). Her hands are too fine, her body too slight. The project “puts Piper’s difference from the fictional persona she created on display” and seems, then, to confirm the inability to free oneself from “the bind of identity” (13). In this way, Piper’s Mythic Being alights upon what Smith sees as a central concern to all the performances explored in this book. This is not a performance that attempts to replace a “true” self with an adopted persona; instead, it sets out to explore the liminal space in between self and other, and to consider the double consciousness that comes of being both self and other. As Smith is careful to point out, enacting others through the conventions of passing, blackface minstrelsy, and cross dressing carries the risk of consolidating stereotypes, but it also offers artists the opportunity to “delight in the disjuncture between their own and their assumed identities” (17).

Like Piper, Eleanor Antin’s border crossing takes the form of public performances of an imagined persona, Eleanora Antinova, an ageing “black” Russian ballerina. In the late 1970s, the character of Antinova – with an intricate back story involving a career with Les Ballets Russes – wandered the streets of New York, rented an apartment in Central Park West, lingered over lunches at the Russian Tea Room, and offered twice weekly play-performances titled Recollections of My Life With Diaghilev at the Ronald Feldman Gallery. Like Piper, Antin-as-Antinova does not pass successfully as black; her “blackness” is signified by patchy dark cosmetics on her face, arms, and legs. Smith historicizes Antin’s performances by placing it in a longer history of Jewish American minstrelsy, arguing that the work has the capacity to draw attention to “the power differentials within difference” (111). Smith additionally argues that Antin’s performances as a “black” woman engage the shifting identity politics of the late 1970s and early 1980s – a time when mainstream feminism’s understanding of “woman” as a coherent identity category was rightfully coming under attack. In this context, performing blackness is Antin’s route to undermining the hegemony of white femininity: “Antin participated in the nuancing of feminism and the politics of identity by aligning herself with difference and marking herself as ‘other’” (90). At the same time, Smith insists that we recognize that Antin’s performances are enabled by identity: “blackness belongs to Antin because she is white and privileged” (98). And so, like all of the artists explored here, Antin’s efforts to destabilize identity boundaries come with the risk of their re-stabilization (137)

With her chapter on Anna Deveare Smith, Smith examines Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a one woman play first produced in early 1990s and released as a film a decade later, in which Deveare Smith performs text from interviews with people marked in one way or another by the L.A. race riots. Deveare Smith’s goal in Twilight was to perform and thus encourage dialogue across identity-boundaries. It was conceived, then, as a community-service project, but ought to also be understood within the larger context of 1990s discourses of identity politics, which, Smith argues, were marked specifically by a suspicion of multiculturalism and a sharp cultural move toward postidentity politics. Although Smith reads the encouragement of dialogue as a valuable ideal, she is also concerned that Twilight risks catering to universalist claims that undermine difference. Deveare Smith seems to easily slip in and out of identities, enacting a panoply of figures: the Jewish Stanley Sheinbaum, white Daryl Gates, Korean June Park, African American Cornel West. Like other artists explored in this book, Deveare Smith’s performances are not seamless; she plays at being both herself and the figures whose language and gesture she embodies. But Smith suggests that there is a “discursive ambivalence” (188) to these performances; while on the one hand Deveare Smith’s performances speak to a democratic ideal in which multiple voices are granted a hearing, they also rely upon caricature and mimicry, and thus risk “fixing and stabilizing identities rather than setting them in motion” (179). Importantly, it is Deveare Smith’s identity that is potentially fixed here as well. Twilight privileges Deveare Smith “as the ever-present, powerful author-editor, mediator, and enactor” (187), subtly undermining the calls for dialogue and multivocality. Ultimately, Smith argues that, as with other works explored in Enacting Others, Twilight has both resistant and conciliatory possibilities, possibilities that are only taken up in the uncertain moment of reception.

The ideologies of postidentity towards which Deveare Smith points enter center stage in the work of Nikki S. Lee. Lee is best known for a series of projects completed in early 2000s. Often described as employing a chameleonic style, Lee’s photographs depict her ability to infiltrate cultural groups. By changing her clothing, make up, and general bodily comportment, Lee passes herself off as a punk, a skateboarder, a yuppie, an old woman. In her reading of Lee’s work, Smith describes Lee as “exemplary of the professional class of artists created by the postidentity ideology” (206). The discourse of postidentity is, Smith argues, deployed in order to dislodge the politics of identity. Postidentity discourses are “a series of far-flung and far-reaching ideologies, adopted by both left-leaning progressives and right-leaning conservatives that seek a return to a universal humanism...” (191) Lee’s almost effortless capacity to move in and out of multiple identity categories reads, on the surface at least, as the celebration of postidentity’s plurality. But even in this work, often celebrated as presenting and performing the unfixity of racial and gender identity – every identity can be performed, after all – is, on Smith’s view, marked by ambivalences. The work relies upon Lee’s self-sameness; it relies upon her permanent difference from the “others” with whom she poses (227). Moreover, Lee herself is quick to assert the ways in which her own identity as a Korean woman informs the project: “In Western culture, identity is about ‘me.’ In Eastern culture, the identity is ‘we’” (224). Smith points out, then, that Lee’s Projects ultimately contradict “the very post-racial and postidentity ideology” they are said to represent. Even the darling of postidentity ideologies can – must – be understood as an artist whose work is part of the larger widespread project of making sense of identity and identification, shaped ultimately by the (morphing, shifting) discourses of identity politics. Lee’s work thus attends and alerts us to the contradictions inherent in postracial claims that circulate in broader American culture, not only in the field of art.

In Enacting Others, Smith effectively explores the shifting politics of identity and makes a strong case for her overarching claim that the interrogation of identity is an ongoing project in American art. She argues that the politics of identity are particularly pronounced in these works, not because they make unambivalent claims for their identities but because on the contrary, they draw on performance strategies in projects that interrogate “the limits of individual and communal identity, exploring the making of identity, and negotiating the boundaries between self and other...” (236) Central to her argument is that identity politics in art is not stable, but, like the ethnoracial landscape of America in general, the politics of identity are amorphous and under constant revision (5). Certainly, each of these performances have the “potential to intervene in ideologies that maintain identification separateness” (17), but this potential is marked or perhaps marred by “slippery ambivalences” (231) of racialization and identity making in the United States. Smith uses this term to describe racialization and identity making in the United States and it would seem that the whole book – and all the artists she explores here are “guilty” of a certain slipperiness. However, as she divulges in her preface, for Smith, “slipping between identities is a birthright” (xi), sometimes radical sometimes risky but always informed by shifting politics of identity discourses.

     — Michelle Meagher , University of Alberta

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