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Issue 221

Anne Turyn's Shrine to Feminist Autofiction

An exhibition at Kunstverein, Amsterdam, highlights the artist’s pioneering work with progressive writers of the 1970s and '80s, including Kathy Acker, Constance DeJong and Pati Hill

BY Julia Mullié in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 19 MAY 21

Currently the subject of an eponymous exhibition at Kunstverein, Amsterdam, Top Stories (1978–91) was a series of chapbooks made by the writer and photographer Anne Turyn. Reflecting the artistic milieu of Hallwalls – an alternative art space in Buffalo, New York, where Turyn co-programmed events – each issue of the periodical was entirely dedicated to a single female writer and included short works of autofiction, with second-wave feminism, the AIDS epidemic and the rise of the internet as recurring themes. Originally sold for US$2 per issue, Top Stories is now a collector’s item, reflecting a renewed interested in the era’s progressive artists and writers, including Kathy Acker, Constance DeJong and Pati Hill – all of whom had issues dedicated to them. Rather than displaying these rare objects behind glass, however, Kunstverein’s director, Yana Foqué, has avoided the usual shortcomings of an archival exhibition by acquiring a complete, first-edition set of Top Stories and displaying it on a magazine stand for visitors to actively engage with.

'Top Stories', 2021, exhibition view, Kunstverein, Amsterdam. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstverein, Amsterdam 

The show also features a newly commissioned, two-channel film, A Conversation that Took Place on March 21, 2021 (2021), by experimental filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh. Played on two 1980s Hantarex televisions, on one screen we see Turyn sitting in her overflowing Top Stories archive in New York, discussing ephemera related to different issues, which she then passes to Ahwesh, whose hands we then see flipping through the items on the second screen. This clever play with perspective – which is reminiscent of the way writers such as Acker played with multiple registers – is also subtly emphasized by the show’s title, ‘Top Stories’, which is painted right to left on opposing walls of the Kunstverein. Alluding in style to the Letraset typography that Turyn used in her chapbooks, only the word ‘Stories’ is visible when initially entering the exhibition; it isn’t until you’re at the back of gallery that you can read the full title – an apt visual metaphor for the non-normative viewpoints celebrated in the periodical.

'Top Stories', 2021, exhibition view, Kunstverein, Amsterdam. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstverein, Amsterdam ​​​​​

As I listen to Turyn speaking to Ahwesh about Top Stories #9: Kathy Acker (1981), I pick up the issue in question and flip through it. In the film, Turyn describes how she took care of the imagery for this issue herself, after Acker wrote her a letter saying that she wanted ‘the photographs to undermine the text’. In response, Turyn walked through Manhattan, from 57th Street to Chelsea, with Acker’s text, New York City in 1979, in mind, taking photos that – while showing no direct connection to the text – similarly evoke the unique social landscape of Times Square. The chapbook is bookended by two photographs of a clothed woman sitting on a chair, with only her lower half visible. On the first page, her legs are closed and, in the last, they are wide open. Turyn initially thought the chapbook should finish with the image of the woman’s legs closed to signify the end of the book, but Acker wanted it the other way around, arguing: ‘Literature should be open-ended.’ It’s something that could also be said of this exhibition, which, through its pared back yet insightful presentation, shows the importance of letting writers speak for themselves, offering an experience that is as open-ended as Acker intended her work to be.

'Top Stories' at Kunstverein, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, is on view through 26 June 2021.

Main image and thumbnail: 'Top Stories', 2021, exhibition view, Kunstverein, Amsterdam. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstverein, Amsterdam

Julia Mullié is an art historian based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.