Boxed SetsJohn Haber
in New York City
Jill Magid and Kate Gilmore
Art is trapped. After Romanticism and the birth of Modernism, it has mostly given up revolutionary dreams. Instead of movements and paradigms, it has a remarkable but sometimes stifling mélange of shifting styles and trends. Perhaps Tennyson had it wrong: it is too late to create a newer world.
Two artists dare one to break out, and the results are not pretty. Violent, provocative, and even fashionably dressed, sure, but not pretty. Both are women, and both have a political as well as personal edge. And both create video art and installations out of actual boxes, Sheetrock and plaster walls not necessarily intact.
Jill Magid is deadly earnest and, for better or worse, very single minded. Her projects positively seek out censorship, surveillance, and confinement. At the Whitney, she imagines the gallery itself as a torture chamber, and then she struggles to define torture, with help from a scandalous memo that even the Bush administration eventually repudiated and Obama thankfully declassified. Kate Gilmore is quite the opposite—very funny and open to all sorts of interpretations. She rips right through confining installations, her smile intact, and then creates new obstacles to see what comes next. She places women on a literal pedestal, a platform in Bryant Park from which they cannot descend, at least until they wear out high heels.
In quantum mechanics, a "particle in a box" is the simplest system of all, and students would be stuck without it. It introduces the basic formulas, and it shows why atoms behave so unlike a handball court. Electrons get confined in the strangest places, in orbit around a nucleus. But if the lid of the box is open, a particle has a fair chance of slipping right through the walls and escaping. Art is at least as fluid and daring. At least someone is breaking out.
I often think of the lobby gallery at the Whitney Museum as a place where visitors kill time while waiting for the elevator and where art goes to die. For now, it is a place where one goes to be tortured—or is it? In August 2002, two justice-department officials advised the CIA and President Bush on the use of "enhanced interrogation." At the Whitney, Jill Magid asks one to study their language and to experience the results. Is it torture? Ask, as the title has it, A Reasonable Man in a Box.
One may not feel very reasonable facing the projection on the far wall. One recognizes the object of terror from its curled tail, although the roach-brown glow may evoke a New Yorker's familiar object of disgust. A scorpion of nearly human dimensions crawls along the floor, sometimes dipping or tunneling within. A reasonable man might find the promise of creatures within the walls that much more frightening. Another wall holds selected or censored lines justifying torture of someone with pathological fear of insects. The rest of us will not be reassured.
The tortured legalisms are frightening enough all by themselves. The memo, signed by Jay Bybee and drafted with John Yoo, explains how to play upon a subject's expectations without taking responsibility for what the prisoner knows. And never mind what he experiences or how he reacts. Suppose the interrogator has silently substituted a mere caterpillar. Suppose the interrogator just happens never to have mentioned that the arachnid at issue might or might not cause harm. See no evil, speak no evil.
Common law does not have to deal with torture, but it often limits liability for damage or negligence, even to the point of death. When the law speaks of a reasonable man, it most often has in mind not the victim, but the cause of harm. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., put it, one can demand no more than reason and a "reasonable man," because of the impossibility of "measuring a man's powers and limitations." The Bybee memo goes through cold, concise contortions to make a prisoner's helplessness sanction unlimited power. This, no doubt, is why Yoo now teaches at a school as elite as Berkeley.
Magid has her own rigorous logic. She does not go near other parts of the memo, justifying waterboarding. As a scorpion vanishes into the imagined floorboards, tweezers and an unseen hand waste little time in dropping another. She insists that she is not out to frighten anyone, and she is right. The projection, collaged text, and title stenciled on another wall create a curiously hypnotic, even relaxing installation. The artist invites one to fear interrogation and censorship, but also to share her fascination with both.
Magid's previous work responded to anti-terror policies by begging subway workers to search her and by bonding with the Dutch secret service. Remarkably, the latter actually commissioned her, to humanize its workings, and of course she was shocked, shocked when it censored her reportage. Perhaps that explains why her past installations have felt so detached, like books hung on the wall awaiting someone to file them away. Even at the Whitney, the parts of the installation never quite fill the room and never quite cohere. Yet they also draw on a difficult space to create a strangely welcoming environment—one that makes terror all the more intimate and real. The bug is so large, because, on the scale of an actual scorpion, Bush's torture chambers were so small.
Kate Gilmore struggles for her art. In surely the funniest video at the 2010 Whitney Biennial, she kicks and claws her way out of a plasterboard box. (Now here is a woman who can act her way out of a paper bag.) In fact, she broke out so successfully that she has been all over town, including three further group shows. (Her own gallery, Smith-Stewart, is in transit.) But is she trapped all the same?
Group shows have a way of trapping artists, and to her credit Gilmore can fall into any number of marvelous traps, like one extended Warhol Screen Test. At the Biennial, in a maze of videos fixated on identity, she becomes a feminist—and a self-obsessed one at that. With "Global/National: The Order of Chaos," she serves instead as an anonymous victim of global capitalism. Amid some rather literal-minded political art, she also supplies that much needed touch of chaos. She sorts, stacks, and stashes ever-shifting piles of folders in an office she continually reconstructs, even as it threatens to bury her. In "Knock Knock," she naturally plays the comedian, bashing her head against the wall.
For "Mirror Mirror," a show of portraits, she develops a passion for the camera. Anything begins with her standing on the grass, her head tilted back, smiling and waving upward. She spends the next twelve minutes binding chairs into a makeshift tower before climbing up to touch the lens. Not that she overlooks the other shows' preoccupations—feminism and futility. She starts as a girl ever so eager to please, and she ends by effacing the female gaze with the palm of her hand in front of the camera. Her tower of psychobabble looks sure to collapse, and one catches onto her real aim only when she finally achieves it.
Of course, her work has something else in common as well, the struggle. Gilmore humanizes the art of endurance—and not just as a performance she can manage in a print dress and high heels. She does not have to mutilate herself with Chris Burden, to starve herself with Marina Abramovic, to undergo Clown Torture with Bruce Nauman, or to imprison herself with Tehching Hsieh. Unlike them all, though, she forces herself to breathe hard and to break a sweat. Unlike them, too, she makes a point not of stasis and repetition but a narrative. Even when she lugs one large concrete block after another off the ground, in a 2009 video, she fills the shelf at the end.
Not that a title from the year before, Progress, lacks for irony. Her video at the Whitney becomes an installation, along with the walled cylinder, and it sure does not look as if she made it out. People rarely sit through new media from beginning to end anyway. Gilmore's character may find herself trapped, too, even when she escapes. She will still be dressed for success, as in the 2006 Every Girl Loves Pink, and she leaves open whether she is mocking the female part, smothered in it, or recapturing it as empowerment. For that matter, all that kicking and elbowing goes with other stereotypes, as harpy or shopper.
No doubt the whole idea of a happy ending is part of the trap. My Love Is an Anchor said that in 2004, when Gilmore tried to free herself from a bucket of cement beneath a paper heart on the wall. I felt the same mix of joy, self-exposure, anxiety, and comedy only once more at Postmasters, in portraits by Jenny Morgan divided against themselves in color as well as psychology. Yet Gilmore still faces one last trap—a single idea that she has pursued for ten years. Anything dates from 2006, and the video for the Whitney varies an earlier work only slightly. When she has her next show, will she have freed herself, and should she even try?
The moment I asked if she were trapped by her own art, of course, Gilmore was plotting her exit. As an accomplished escape artist, she had already fought her way out of any number of walled chambers, with little more than her elbows, forehead, high heels, and a determined smile. She had also slipped past such easy labels for her art as comic, feminine, feminist, working class, identity politics, self-portraiture, performance, endurance, and new media—while embracing them all. And the very day I wondered if that still left her playing the same part, she was off camera at last.
As it happened, the day of my online review coincided with open studios in Dumbo, and there she sat, hardly sweating at all. She was also displaying a new video with hardly a sign of her, except for some heavy breathing. The young man on camera caught a medicine ball aimed at his chest and tossed it back so casually that I took it for a basketball. Someone else, though, was working hard to return the favor, after first bending over to dip the ball in wet paint. Its stains still transformed her studio wall into a temporary installation. Oh, and the guy was in the studio that afternoon, along with other friends, and he, too, had cleaned up his act.
Robert Bresson's 1956 A Man Escaped turns the slow, steady triumph of a prisoner of the Nazis into a rebuke to older narrative cinema, but also a parable of patience and spiritual release. Gilmore has finally put someone else on camera, male at that, but she is by no means changing her sexy act. (Think, for example, of another association with heavy breathing.) She has simply started inviting others to the party. For a week, however, they took over completely the burden of performance. Make that a work week, in more ways than one.
For ten hours a day, Monday through Friday, seven women in May strut their stuff on a platform eight feet above Bryant Park—like what another show of outdoor art with less self-awareness calls "Statuesque." They exchanged her polka-dot dress from the Biennial for yellow, while keeping the high heels. This is, after all, near the fashion district. The yellow matches the wooden platform, not to mention the umbrellas from the café bar next door. Stand beneath, and the footsteps become rolls of comic thunder. And Gilmore is nowhere to be seen.
One can ask whether performance art can fairly engage other performers. But it has, long before Tino Sehgal—and Gilmore, unlike Abramovic, is not using others to turn herself into a museum piece. One can ask if one can fairly put these demands on others, especially in high heels. But even their five-hour shifts pale after past feats of endurance, Gilmore's included. Speaking with The Times, she compares it to a familiar recourse for artists, waiting tables. The performers are definitely not smiling, by design, even when they lean briefly on the rail, but just try to watch for more than two minutes without smiling yourself.
It does not take hard work to see Gilmore's usual themes, though with natural sounds in real time. She confines women to ten feet in either direction, while literally putting them on a pedestal. Their uniforms and their aimless, repetitive motion speak to peons like me in midtown cubicles nearby. She also has her ability to engage all these themes at once—while laughing at them. Will Walk the Walk be her breakthrough? Time will tell, but those women sure put their foot down.
Jill Magid ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through September 12, 2010, "Global/National: The Order of Chaos" at Exit Art through May 1,"Knock Knock" at Fred Torres Collaborations through April 24, and "Mirror Mirror" at Postmasters through May 8. Kate Gilmore's "Walk the Walk" ran in Bryant Park through May 14, commissioned by the Public Art Fund. I quote The New York Times for May 10.