Sabrina Gschwandtner’s latest show at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Los Angeles, “Scarce Material,” performs an act of historical remediation, recovering the names and works of under-recognized women filmmakers of the silent era. Her “quilts” spliced and stitched together from fragments of footage taken from those artists’ century-old works attest to the long-standing suppression of women’s voices. They do so as vivid objects in their own right, with tremendous visual kick and formal integrity, from their minute details to their arresting overall patterns.
The Los Angeles–based artist revitalizes works from French director Alice Guy-Blaché, considered the world’s first female filmmaker; Marion E. Wong, founder of the groundbreaking Chinese-American Mandarin Film Company; Germaine Dulac, whose 1928 Surrealist film predates the better-known work of Luis Buñuel; and the pioneering silhouette animator Lotte Reiniger. Gschwandtner sourced footage from international archives and made prints from their digital files on 35mm black-and-white film stock. Cut and sewn into traditional quilt patterns, the strips of film come to read as line and tone, even brushstroke and woven thread. Secondary matter, such as the numbers on countdown leaders and miscellaneous words of identification on the films, appear sporadically, oriented in all directions—a kind of charged, concrete poetry. Encompassing work made since 2019, the show presents five small quilts, each roughly one-foot square, as well as four larger quilts, some of which extrapolate geometrically from the smaller modules, mounted on lightboxes. Also on view are a video and related prints, some of them reproducing explanatory notes about the subjects and images.
Among these pieces, Guy-Blaché Serpentine Dance Square (2021) is characteristically engrossing. Here, Gschwandtner has arranged lengths of footage from an 1897 film in concentric squares that buzz with black-white contrast and pop with staccato rhythm. The selected footage shows a woman on a dark stage performing an imitation of American actress Loie Fuller’s signature Serpentine dance. Manipulating her pale, voluminous costume with hidden rods, the dancer evokes a dynamically pulsing organism, a bud unfurling into blossom, a bird folding in and stretching out its fluttering wings. The larger quilt using this same footage measures 72 by 48 inches and joins six such reverberating squares in a grid that verges on Op Art dazzle. Hanging freely over the lightbox, the fabric-like surface buckles slightly, its seams imposing frequent breaks in the continuity of the imagery, in the manner of rough edits.
Throughout this show, Gschwandtner engages in her own shape-shifting, time-bending dance. She breaks film down into its constituent parts—still, discrete, stop-motion photographs—and transforms the usual temporal flow of its narrative into energized fields of now now now. She foregrounds the medium’s original material properties, its aesthetic potential as a surface to be looked at and not just through. A spirit of reclamation prevails.
For all the works’ brilliant opticality, the appropriated footage never loses its essential significance as cultural artifact. Gschwandtner has chosen each sequence deliberately for how it speaks of individual agency or under-credited achievement. The pieces made from Wong’s film, for instance, depict a bride preparing for her traditional Chinese wedding, but opting, against convention, to dismiss her attendant and style her hair herself. In the piece derived from the Guy-Blaché film, not only is Fuller’s authorship absent (her Serpentine dance was never copyrighted), the filmmaker’s own identity and stature as well have been forgotten over time.
Concern for the traditional, persistent devaluation of work done by women has been a throughline of Gschwandtner’s practice for more than a decade. Her film quilts, initially spurred by her acquisition of a cache of deaccessioned documentaries about the production of textiles from the Fashion Institute of Technology, operate as both critique and corrective. In disassembling and reassembling women filmmakers’ surviving “scarce material,” Gschwandtner mends some unconscionable gaps in film history, and affirms the fundamental connection between expressive voice and laboring hand.