Bert Stabler pointed out this Dara Birnbaum video to me…because, of course, it’s about Wonder Woman.
So my first reaction to this was fairly intense visceral dislike. The goal seems to be to deconstruct icon and narrative to reveal a subtext of explosive violence, gender dynamics, image making and, most of all, manipulability. The stuttering spin and spin again as Diana Prince turns into Wonder Woman and then turns and turns into Wonder Woman, or runs over the same segment of forest and then reruns over it, makes us see both the narrative and the heroine as constructed and artificial. Like much appropriation art, it’s using camp to destabilize the normal and the normative, so that, for example, when Wonder Woman breaks out of her mirror prison, the rhythm comes not as climax, but as anti-climax — culminating in her stale banter with the inevitable man she saves.
The problem is, this camp undermining of Wonder Woman is significantly less camp than the source material. The intimations of dominance and power from manipulating the tape, for example, or from the connection of WW’s transformation with explosions, are far more muted, and far less sexualized, than the compulsive bondage games in Marston/Peter. The replicated Wonder Womans in the mirrors are less daring, less loopy, and again less sexualized than Marston/Peter’s precocious dabblings in pomo themes of replication and artificiality. The disco double-entendres at the end, rhyming “under” and “wonder”, again seem positively tame compared to Marston’s spiraling fantasies of women dressed as deer eating each other, or giant vulva-flowers consuming men and women alike. Christopher Reed in his book “Art and Homosexuality” argues that the avant-garde always lags behind pulp sources in its use of homosexual and controversial content, and this seems like a painful case in point. Marston and Peter created an incredibly sexually daring, homoerotic, and feminist comic book, and some three decades later the art world comes along and preens itself on “discovering,” in much less confrontational form, all the themes that were there to begin with.
So, like I said, that was my initial reaction. On second thought, though, I probably don’t need to be that harsh. In the first place, the Wonder Woman television show was not the Wonder Woman comic by a long shot. With that in mind, Birnbaum can be seen in part as re-excavating the invention and the sexual charge that the TV writers largely removed. In particular, Birnbaum has rightly figured out that the only part of Wonder Woman the TV show that is really worth keeping is the transformation scene. That explosive (orgasmic?) moment spills out of its original context, as if Marston and Peter’s original erotic vision has shattered the dull genre narrative built to contain it.
Beyond that, it’s probably worth noting that Birnbaum isn’t really part of the avant-garde, at least as Reed discusses it. Feminist art and pop art were both still very much outside the institutional art world in 1978. From that perspective, Birnbaum might be seen not as (or not just as) appropriating Wonder Woman and television, but as identifying with them. Diana Prince’s explosive, exciting transformation into Wonder Woman is also Birnbaum’s accession to the wonderful, gleeful joys of control. Wonder Woman stutters back and forth and spins around and around and runs over the same ground not to subvert her, but because the power over those images, and the power of those images, is just so darned fun. Birnbaum’s video, then, might not be so different, in concept or execution, from those Yourtube compilations of every Lynda Carter transformation ever:
In other words, I like it more as a fan video than I do as avant-garde art — which isn’t necessarily a dis, since part of what it’s doing (especially in retrospect) is anticipating, or forecasting, or helping to bring about the (ongoing) collapse of the walls between fandom and art. I still wouldn’t say it’s great, and it’s still very simple-minded, ideologically reticent, and formally underwhelming compared to Marston/Peter. But I can see its historical importance and appreciate its energy. It’s certainly one of the most inventive uses of the character since Marston died — which may be damning with faint praise, but is praise nonetheless.