Elisabeth Subrin  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Elisabeth Subrin, is a Brooklyn-based film and video artist and curator. In 1990 she received a B.F.A. in film from Massachusetts College of Art. She then received an M.F.A. in video from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1995, where she stayed to teach in the First Year Graduate Programs until 1997. She has taught at Cooper Union, Amherst College, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Graduate Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Harvard University. Her work has been screened and exhibited internationally, including solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art, the Vienna International Film Festival, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and the San Francisco Cinematheque, as well as group shows at the 2000 Whitney Biennial, the Guggenheim Museum, the Walker Art Center, and the Rotterdam International Film Festival. She has also received numerous grants and fellowships.

Her film and video work explores relationships between history and subjectivity, especially within female biography, as well as the nature of evidence. Working across narrative, documentary and conceptual art practices, she also explores questions about the nature and meaning of mental illness, the legacy of feminism and the impact of recent social history, in particular, the ‘60s. Subrin has described her work as having been “…fairly experimental, in the sense that it’s very difficult to say whether it’s fiction or nonfiction."

Subrin has found influence by feminist theory as well as by independent filmmakers like Chantal Ackerman, Todd Haynes, and Charles Burnett. While she is often seen as a feminist filmmaker, she says her own work is, “more about history and subjectivity, the meaning of the dominant history and personal experience. Obviously that’s seen through a feminist perspective, but I think it would do it a disservice to say it’s either just feminist or just experimental. Feminism embodies so many different kinds of work.”

Film and Video Work

Swallow (1995) Subrin's first notable work is a film short which concentrates on early adolescence and focuses on the search for self-identification. Simultaneously, the film raises cultural and political questions concerning the contradictions of race, identity, and gender within a post-industrial, patriarchal culture structured on alienation and difference. Tina Wasserman wrote in The New Art Examiner (1996) that, "For Subrin, as the visual metaphor of silence or speechlessness---evidenced primarily by the repeated use of white-out on the body, text, and image---gains prominence in Swallow, it becomes clear that the fragility of female identity in post-feminist America appears, in part, as the failure of language itself.”

Shulie (1997) Shulie is Subrin's most prominent work, shot on Super-8 and transferred to video which won a Los Angeles Film Critics Award in 1998. The piece is a shot-by-shot remake of the 1967 experimental documentary by an earlier generation of students at Art Institute of Chicago including Jerry Blumenthal, Sheppard Ferguson, James Leahy and Alan Rettig. The original version of Shulie (1967) is a cinema verite portrait of Shulamith Firestone, author of the radical modern feminist text [[The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution]]<ref>Firestone 1970</ref> during her final B.F.A. year at the Chicago Art Institute in 1970.<ref>Haug 1998, p.1.</ref> Kate Haug wrote in a review of the film, “Given the late ‘80s art world trends of appropriation and the ever-growing experience of simulacrum, it is not so shocking that an innovative filmmaker would take on celluloid cloning.” And continued to state that "By creating a replica film of the ‘60s she [Subrin] harnesses the remake’s amorphous quality of time to deftly address contemporary politics." This film forces its viewers to reconnect to and become re-aware of the historical context – the individual and radical origins of U.S. feminism’s Second Wave and how that course of events was subsumed and re-defined by the ensuing conservative political culture of the ‘80s. B. Ruby Rich, author of the book Chick Flicks noted, “She has created a document within a document that makes us remember what we didn’t know, [and] makes us realize all over again how much we’ve lost."<ref>Rich 1998, p.384.</ref> The temporal gap between 1967 and 1997 grants the audience a chance to re-think the future of feminism. By not completing or adding to Firestone’s biography, Subrin intentionally leaves the history of feminism incomplete – instead of following Firestone as she matures, Shulie (1967 and 1997) stops before feminism takes off.<ref>Haug 1998, p.2.</ref>

The film animates melancholia for both a collective political past and an individual subject’s child-self, suggesting that there may also be a productive afterlife to identities that seem foreclosed within the filmmaker’s own present tense: second-wave feminist, girlchild of the 1970s, even student. Refusing distance from the child-self becomes a means of critiquing contemporary public culture in the 1997 Shulie, in Subrin’s other videotape Swallow, in the works she has produced with Sadie Benning, and in the ‘zines and videos of the 1990s.

The Fancy (2000) Subrin's video piece, The Fancy, is a experimental biography of the life, death, and intriguing legacy of photographer Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide at age 22. Nicole Armour wrote of Subrin's videowork in The Fancy, that she "turns her critical gaze to the life and art of a renowned young female photographer whose early death left behind a controversial body of work ride with psychosexual implication. Rigorously structural in form, this speculative bringing-to-light meticulously sifts physical evidence and sketchy facts in an attempt to uncover the traces of a seemingly suppressed history embedded behind the photographers’ pictures.”<ref>Armour 2000</ref>

Other Work by Subrin

Subrin has also worked in collaboration with many artists and producers, such as on Crisis in Woodlawn (1994). Other projects include The Judy Spots (1995) five television spots produced with Sadie Benning for MTV, and The File Room (1994), an interactive electronic archives produced by Antonio Muntadas. In 2002 she directed the music video well, well, well for New York-based feminist electronic band Le Tigre and worked as a creative consultant and videographer for the historical documentary Slumming It: Myth and Culture on the Bowery (2002), produced by Mixed Greens.

Her most refent work consists of a two channel video installation, Sweet Ruin (2008, HD), showed at PARTICIPANT, Inc. in New York City and will be presented in Copenhagen later this year. Her feature narrative project, Up, is in development with Forensic Films placing herself as director in collaboration with Los Angeles-based writing partner, Evan Carlson. She is currently working on a new two channel installation about the haunting of 9/11 in daily life in New York.


  • Haug, Kate (Nov/Dec, 1998). "Shulie. - Review - video recording reviews", Afterimage.
  • Creative Captial (2001): [1] "Elisabeth Subrin: Up" (essay), Creative Capital.
  • Firestone, Shulamith (1970). "The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution", New York: William Morrow and Co.
  • Rich, B. Ruby (1998). Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
  • Armour, Nicole (Nov/Dec 2000). "Disappearing Acts”, Film Comment 36:6.
  • Jensen, Jytte (Winter, 2006). “The Colony Gets Its Close-Up”, MacDowell, Vol.35, No.2: p.5.
  • Freeman, Elizabeth (2000). "Packing History, Count(er)ing Generations", New Literary History 31:727-744.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Elisabeth Subrin" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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