Our City Dreams opens with an epigraph by Susan Sontag, a reasonably reliable authority on the female artistic experience: “I was not looking for my dreams to interpret my life, but rather for my life to interpret my dreams.” This whimsical sentiment is an appropriate indication of the documentary’s insistence that dreams can come true for contemporary female artists in New York City. The documentary, produced and directed by Chiara Clemente, is the latest in that filmmaker’s string of projects designed to examine the experience of being an artist. It profiles five women who represent diverse heritages, nationalities, and artistic mediums, but who share a current home address in New York City. Each boasts a unique degree of commercial success, but all enjoy a thriving professional career. Some play the role of up-and-coming trend-setters (i.e. Swoon and Ghada Amer) while others represent staples of the urban avant-garde (i.e. Nancy Spero, Kiki Smith, and Marina Abramovic), but all are trained, driven, and well-versed in the politics of making and selling art.
Clemente uses few flourishes, relying mainly on detailed images of the artists at work and of their most recent gallery openings to portray her subjects. There are no flashy graphics or didactic narration, only a simple, rhythmic soundtrack and a few brief journeys to exotic locales. As the artists chat with the interviewer during casual moments of artistic inspiration, the expected questions concerning family and motherhood are addressed in an unsentimental manner. Apprehensions about how each woman’s art is perceived (the value or burden of its institutional acceptance, its degree of contemporary relevance) emerge as more pressing preoccupations to both the artists and the audience, especially as Clemente traces the preparation of each woman’s landmark exhibition or performance.
While the film is certainly not lacking in thematic continuity, it does fall somewhat short of thoroughly exploring the ways in which each vignette speaks to the others. It’s edited so that each artist’s portrait stands alone, tucked neatly between the portraits that precede and follow it. Consequently, the documentary, as a whole, suffers from a lack of dynamism and of flow between ideas.
With the possible exception of Nancy Spero, who was forced to confront her colleagues’ fear of feminism in the 1960s, the film offers surprisingly little sense of artistic struggle. Its subjects are either at the top of their professional game or are enjoying renewed industry interest in their work. None seems to recall any great difficulty in the process of becoming an artist. I don’t refer exclusively to difficulties based on gender—the artists don’t discuss any major difficulties at all. Swoon, for example, catapults from child prodigy in her home town to selling six pieces to MoMA by the age of 30. The film glosses over the tough bits in between, highlighting images of Swoon crowd surfing at her solo show and frolicking with friends during the playful construction of her Mississippi River float. It almost seems as though interview questions aimed at exposing discrimination or disadvantage associated with being a female artist backfire as the five confident, well-established women acknowledge their gender as a fruitful element of their professional experience.
Where is the conflict? Where is the redemptive sense of overcoming we so expect from a documentary about successful minorities? Why do all these artists seem so well adjusted? As reassuring as this scenario is politically, it makes for rather flat cinema. Yes, it is lovely and inspiring to watch talented women engrossed in their craft. Yes, this film creates a positive image of the direction in which female art and artists are moving. But how does this reflect modern realities about the life of a New York City artist? Our City Dreams is about women who, to some extent, have already fulfilled them. After all, each artist is filmed at either her first or her latest high profile solo show. It is a very heartwarming, but exceedingly optimistic picture of what dreams can become in a city with millions of artists competing for a place in the public imagination.