Silvia Kolbowski, an inadequate history of conceptual art, 1998-1999. Video still.
Courtesy of the artist.
Silvia Kolbowski, After Hiroshima Mon Amour, 2008. Video still.
Courtesy of the artist.

Incisive, engaged, and particularly rich in meaning, Silvia Kolbowski’s work constitutes itself as an object and a field of resistance. In conversation with artist Walid Raad, Kolbowski states that she can only evolve as an artist within a culture of political resistance. But what form does an artist’s contribution take in such a context?

“[…] I think that artists can contribute by using images, words, sounds, the body, and objects in ways that do not instrumentalize power and commerce, by making work that offers a spectatorial position that foregrounds the structures of the unconscious in relation to the political realm, and maintains a social and historical space for experiencing those structures in a world that favours an eternal present.”1

This is a particularly demanding program for an artist to follow. The instrumentalization of power and commerce has infiltrated all spheres of life, manifesting itself in the most unexpected ways, so that one might unintentionally acquiesce to its processes, and sustain them. And the art milieu is a particularly insidious example of this. Arresting this process requires vigilance, insight, strategy, and critical thinking. Kolbowski has practiced this vigilance with acuity throughout her career, beginning in the late 1970s in New York, through photographic works, public interventions, and site specific installations that have examined, on different levels and with a particular sensitivity to the socio-political climate in which her practice evolved, what is at stake in representation. Feminism and psychoanalytic theory have been essential in the elaboration of her work, and it is these modes of thought and analysis, together with an ethical questioning of the vocabulary of art and of the artist, that have enabled her to actualize resistance in her work.

This exhibition presents two major works, produced ten years apart, which consider very different contemporary issues. On the one hand, an inadequate history of conceptual art (1998-1999) reflects upon the renewed interest in Conceptual Art, and on the other, After Hiroshima Mon Amour (2008), engages with American military interventions in Iraq, and the associated criminal neglect. These works offer subtle and provocative explorations of the meeting of unconscious forces with social, political, and historical structures as they are imbricated, not only with these events, but also with forms of art, cinema and writing that have radically transformed existing conventions. The rich and complex works presented in this exhibition reveal the artist’s thought processes and underline the significance of her work.

– Michèle Thériault

1Between Artists: Silvia Kolbowski in conversation with Walid Raad (New York: A.R.T. Press, 2006), 70-71.

Produced with the support of the Frederick and Mary Kay Lowy Art Education Fund.

Curator: Michèle Thériault

Exhibition produced by the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts


Silvia Kolbowski

Silvia Kolbowski is an artist based in New York. Her scope of address includes the ethics of history, memory, sexuality, and the unconscious. Her 2004 project Proximity to Power, American Style, a slide/audio work about the relational aspects of masculine power was published in its entirety by WhiteWalls and University of Chicago Press (2008). In 2007 she exhibited a revised version of her 1999 an inadequate history of conceptual art at the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. Her most recent project, a video and photo work entitled After Hiroshima Mon Amour, (2008), premiered in September at LA><ART in Los Angeles, curated by Christopher Bedford. Kolbowski’s work has been exhibited internationally, including a 2004 one-person exhibition at the Secession, Vienna, the 2000 Whitney Biennial, The Walker Art Center, and an upcoming installation at The Museum of Modern Art Ljubljana. She is on the advisory board of October journal.


Silvia Kolbowski, official Web site :

Kolbowski, Silvia. Proximity to Power, American Style. Chicago : WhiteWalls, 2008.

Kolbowski, Silvia and Walid Raad. Silvia Kolbowski/Walid Raad: Between Artists. New York: A.R.T. Press, 2006.

Kolbowski, Silvia et al. Silvia Kolbowski, XI Projects. New York: Border Editions, 1992.

Secession. Silvia Kolbowski : inadequate . . . like . . . power. Cologne: Walther König, 2004.

Thériault, Michèle, ed. Silvia Kolbowski : Nothing and Everything / Rien et tout. Montréal : Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, 2009.


an inadequate history of conceptual art, 1998-1999

Video, looped, 55 min.
Audio, looped, 110 min.
Participants (in alphabetical order, not playing order): Vito Acconci, Dennis Adams, Mac Adams, Connie Beckley, Dara Birnbaum, Mel Bochner, Hans Haacke, Eileen Hickey-Hulme, Mary Kelly, Joyce Kozloff, Louise Lawler, Les Levine, Jonas Mekas, Alan McCollum, Howardena Pindell, Lucio Pozzi, Yvonne Rainer, Dorothea Rockburne, Al Ruppersberg, Carolee Schneemann, Lawrence Weiner, James Welling

After a number of years of observing the resurgent interest in Conceptual art in Europe, the United States, and parts of Asia and Latin America, I was motivated to produce a project that would raise some questions about its return. This return has taken various forms: retrospectives, revived careers, academic and press attention, market interest, the coining of the term neo-conceptualism, and, more recently, books. The intended purpose of this project was to slow down the rapidity with which this return occurred, in order to be able to look more closely at its significance. I thought that if I asked artists to speak from memory about conceptual projects from the past, the recountings would include both valuable recollections and the fallacies of human memory. It seemed that these fallacies, the stutters of memory, so to speak, could trouble the fluidity of the official return.

In 1998, I sent letters to sixty artists, asking them to participate in this project. Forty artists agreed to respond to the following statement: “Briefly describe a conceptual art work, not your own, of the period between 1965 and 1975, which you personally witnessed / experienced at the time. For the sake of this project, the definition of conceptual art would be broad enough to encompass such phenomena of that period as actions documented through drawings, photographs, films, and video; concepts executed in the form of drawings or photographs; objects where the end product is primarily a record of the precipitant concept, and performative activities which sought to question the conventions of dance and theater.”

The artists were told not mention their own names, the names of the artists whose work they described, or the titles of the works. They could mention the dates of the works and the locations. In addition, their hands were videotaped in close-up while their accounts were being audio-recorded. In the resultant audio-video installation, the large projected images of their hands play without sound and out of synch with the audio component of the artists’ voices.


  • gestures and the role that they play in this work;
  • failure and, more specifically, the failure of memory and how it is illustrated in this work;
  • the notions of absence and loss;
  • the discrepancies or differences between official and unofficial histories, in this case of conceptual art, and how they might be characterized.



  • How does the separation of sound and image function in this work?
  • Do you think that gender plays a role in an inadequate history of conceptual art? If so, how?
  • What strategies does Kolbowski employ to question the resurgence of interest in conceptual art?



Carson, Juli. Five Paragraphs on Sol Lewitt. ArtUS 8 (2005) : 29-37.

Kolbowski, Silvia. An Inadequate History of Conceptual Art. October 92 (2000) : 52-70.

Leung, Simon. Contemporary Returns to Conceptual Art : Renée Green, Silvia Kolbowski, and Stephen Prina. Art Journal 60.2 (2001): 54-71.

Nixon, Mignon. On the Couch. October 113 (2005) : 39-76.

Silvia Kolbowski : an inadequate history of conceptual art. Warsaw : Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, 2007.

After Hiroshima Mon Amour, 2008


A Film Will Be Shown Without the Sound (Hiroshima mon amour, 1959 Director: Alain Resnais; Script: Marguerite Duras), 2006.
DVD projection, looped, 90 min.

After Hiroshima Mon Amour, 2008
DVD projection, loop; 22 min.
Video and 16 mm b+w

Direction : Silvia Kolbowski
Actors : Nuria Carapetian, Scott Cunningham, Sanjit De Silva, Tiffany Needham, Roslyn Ruff, Grace Savage, Sarah Tadloui, Dominik Tiefenthaler, Anar Vilas, Lana Yoo
Music and Sound Design : Maxim Kolbowski-Frampton
Video Editing : Maxim Kolbowski-Frampton
Photographic production : Jeff Barnett-Winsby
Lighting : Jeff Barnett-Winsby
Videography : Michael Crane, Erl Kimmich
Sound recording : James Wilkins
Sound engineering : Leslie Lavelanet

After Hiroshima Mon Amour, 2008.
Inkjet on Dibond
11 panels : 40 x 60 cm; 1 panel : 40 x 27 cm

Developed over a three-year period (2005-2008), After Hiroshima Mon Amour was begun with the intention to look at sites of American military incursion and governmental neglect through the lens of the celebrated 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour, directed by Alain Resnais and written by Marguerite Duras. After Hiroshima Mon Amour uses various visual and aural strategies to layer and analyze instances of violence and trauma. Titles, silence, brief sync sound, and music are used to create a new story out of an old one. The allegorical couple of the 1959 film is played by ten interconnecting actors who blur distinctions of ethnicity, race, and gender, undermining the categories that are often used to rationalize violence. And as in the Resnais/Duras film, eroticism and violence are interwoven. Various scenes in black and white are faithfully recreated from Hiroshima mon amour, contemporary material downloaded from the Internet is included, a remix of the score and sound design of the original becomes a “character” in the video, and color appears at inappropriate moments.

By using an earlier film as a palimpsest onto which layers are added, the contemporary focus on Iraq and New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina, rests on an earlier traumatic incursion and site of criminal neglect.


  • the ways in which past and present meet and intertwine;
  • the relationship that exists between the verbal and the visual;
  • the notion of reenactment and its importance in this work;
  • the connections between war, violence, and love, and the ways in which their interaction with each other and their coexistence are examined in After Hiroshima Mon Amour.



  • What links between the body and narrative exist in this work?
  • How is sound made use of in this work? Does it have a particular importance or function?
  • Consider the differences between appropriation and a remake. How do these notions and the distinctions between them inform this work?



Bedford, Christopher. After and Before. Frieze 119 (November/December): 180-183.

Cua Lim, Bliss. Remade in Silence: Silvia Kolbowski’s A Film Will Be Shown without the Sound. Art Journal 66.3 (2007): 85-87.

Kolbowski, Silvia. After Hiroshima Mon Amour. Art Journal 66.3 (2007): 80-84.

Kushner, Rachel. Allegorical Imperative. Art Forum (January 2009): 190-195.

Leung, Simon. The Look of Law. Art Journal (2007): 35-45.