Our City Dreams is quite a misnomer. There may be dreams and a sense of togetherness that justifies the “our,” but there’s not much city. Chiara Clemente’s art-tinged girl power doc opens with a typical NYC montage, including iconic images of the Brooklyn Bridge, the globe at Columbus Circle and Washington Square Park. Clemente opts for an uninspired opening instead of taking it to the streets, and the majority of the documentary takes place in museums in other cities. It’s difficult for her to send a love letter to NYC when she’s not sure of its true address. Nonetheless, Dreams is an essay whose thesis is irrelevant to its success. More biographic than geographic, Our City Dreams is a delicate little art documentary — not one that celebrates a living city, but one that humanizes aging artists.
The simple, yet inspired, structure is its avenue to depth. What begins as a straightforward glance at five eclectic female artists who live, or once lived, in New York City morphs into a collage of self-conscious acceptance and human struggle. Devoting roughly fifteen minutes to each artist, starting with the youngest (Swoon, age 30) and concluding with the oldest (Nancy Spero, 80), Clemente captures each female artist’s ruminations on their past, present, and future. Working in different mediums with disparate themes, each artist is linked through their very human awareness of life and mortality.
Swoon, an idealistic redhead, is struggling with the backlash that inherently follows institutional acceptance into the art world. Egyptian-born Ghada Amer is still running from her oppressive culture, and works with sexual taboos to express her worries about masculine hierarchies and the effects of globalization. Kiki Smith is still grieving over her father’s death as she reevaluates herself as a middle-aged artist setting up a retrospective exhibition of her work. Performance artist Marina Abramovic tenaciously devotes all of her body’s dwindling energy to her exhausting experiments. Nancy Spero spends time with her grown children as she reflects on her late artist husband and her political feminist art.
This pentagonal portrait works twofold, much like a record that sings a different tune when played forwards and backwards. When viewed as a linear life cycle, Dreams illustrates each vital checkpoint in an artist’s life —from their initial success, to the way that success conflicts with their desires and creations, and ultimately their reflection on the work they’ve created. When imagining the film starting with Spero and working back to Swoon, cultural progression becomes apparent. Swoon feels liberated to be an emerging female artist, while Spero speaks of the battles she fought amid her mid-20th century restrictions. The similarities within the evolution of artists is cornerstone to Our City Dreams’ message, but what makes this tapestry significant is its awareness of time healing ignorance.