‘I’ll Construct That Moment’: Watch Artist Carrie Mae Weems Bring Historical Tragedies to Life as a Way to Recast Our Present

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Carrie Mae Weems's cameo in a screenshot from She's Gotta Have It courtesy of Netflix.
Carrie Mae Weems's cameo in a screenshot from She's Gotta Have It courtesy of Netflix.

Over the course of her four-decade career, Carrie Mae Weems has employed photography, film, sculpture, and archival footage, all in the name of storytelling. Described as a “21st-century oracle,” Weems is as adept at interpreting the conditions of the present as she is at giving a voice to the past.

Now, a multi-faceted new exhibition by the artist has just gone up at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, titled “The Shape of Things.” It features new work by the artist, as well as seminal works from her early career, showing how Weems has continued to confront each new terrifying and heartbreaking news event that casts a shadow over its era. 

The show takes the form of a circus—an apt metaphor for the current political climate—a place that often seems jovial from the outside, but has a dark undercurrent running through it. Within the exhibition, images are projected on a cylindrical platform (a cyclorama) surrounded by large-scale installations that engulf the viewer and probe the fragility of memory. Cycloramas are intended to make viewers feel as if they are inside an image, and were popularized in the 19th century as traveling shows, and the idea of placing a viewer inside the work, experiencing it in real time, is one that Weems has touched upon before.

In an exclusive interview filmed in 2009 as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century, Weems recounts the creation of her series “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” in which she invited local university students to help bring famous historical photographs to life. The Birmingham Riots in the 1960s, the Kent State Massacre, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy all became new source material for her. “I’m gonna bring that photograph to life. I’ll construct that moment,” she tells Art21. “It was important for me to consider deeply in my heart how we had arrived at this moment.”

Describing the work of assigning students to play historical roles in deeply traumatic moments, Weems reflected on telling them, “It’s not about you. We’re using these bodies to talk about something else that’s much bigger than we are.”

In “The Shape of Things”—a shape which might refer to a circle given the cyclical nature of media horrors—Weems touches on more recent tragedies, including the incessant murder of Black men and women, and her words from more than a decade ago still resonate deeply.


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. Carrie Mae Weems’s The Shape of Things is currently on view at Park Avenue Armory through December 31, 2021—and the related Land of Broken Dreams series is happening through Saturday, December 11.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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