‘We’re Using These Bodies to Talk About Something Else’: Watch Carrie Mae Weems Explain Her Work That Has Students Restage Traumatic Historical Events

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

Artist Carrie Mae Weems at the 15th annual Art for Life Gala in Water Mill, New York. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for Art For Life Gala)

For decades, the artist and storyteller Carrie Mae Weems has been weaving narratives of American life through a blend of archival and contemporary images. From early daguerrotypes picturing enslaved families, to her own family photographs, pictures have served as the raw material for Weems’s moving videos, photographic series, and performances.

In exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century, Weems explains a project she organized featuring university students reenacting pivotal historic moments, including the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the Kent State shootings.

We revisit the past,” Weems explains in the video, which first aired back in 2009. “The students examine the facts and will participate in the construction of history, a history that has been told to them by others—but now, with their own bodies, they engage their own dark terrain, their own winter.”

By restaging these critical moments of collective trauma and memory, the students take ownership of their country’s history and pain with compassion, creating their own physical memories. In artworks like Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment (2008) and Coming Up for Air (2003-4), Weems is part of the artist’s ongoing work to “look at this history, to really think about where we are now, contemporarily.” 


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below. “Carrie Mae Weems: Coming Up for Air” is on view at the University Art Museum in Albany, NY, through April 5, 2023.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century debuts on April 8 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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