Chasing Shadows, curated by Vincent Ramos, The Onion, North Hills, December 11, 2010
Group exhibitions that respond to works from other media seem to be in the air these days. Just a couple of weeks ago, I caught Play It As It Lays, a collection of works responding to Joan Didion’s novel of Southern California vapidity and decadence. Perhaps mirroring its subject matter as well as its hipster mall environs at Hollywood’s Space 1520, this show was a bit too literal and a bit too limp, not inspiring much more than a quick glance. Back in the fall, there was also the Luckman Gallery’s Psychic Outlaws, 19 artists’ interpretations of individual chapters from Annie Buckley’s eponymous novel. That show benefitted from a book that was more elusive and mysterious than Didion’s, engendering artworks that were more pleasingly fugitive.
Chasing Shadows took as its guiding light They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, the 1935 Horace McCoy novel that subsequently became a 1969 film directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Jane Fonda. The Horses story revolves around desperate, down-on-their luck people, willing to try anything to make money, entering a grueling dance marathon with a cash prize. Spectacle turns into exploitation and degradation as the contestants are forced to dance for days on end, with many of them collapsing in agony on the dance floor. The novel, which emerged out of the Great Depression, was seen as morbid social commentary on the era. The hippie-era film was also seen as social critique, as well as a larger cry of existential anguish. And obviously, the story has terrific relevance for our present era of total financial and ideological meltdown.
Anyone who has seen the deeply disturbing film version of Horses knows how memorable its images are, so it’s no surprise that artists find inspiration in the story. For his spring 2004 ready-to-wear line, the late Alexander McQueen created a sassy and classic collection with Horses in mind, using the dance marathon scenario to stage an in-your-face fashion show that is still being discussed today. Also in 2004, Phil Collins (the visual artist, not the musician) got nine Palestinian youths to perform a two-day dance marathon to popular Western music, which was filmed and turned into a two-channel video installation titled they shoot horses. Like much of Collins’ work, this mesmerizing installation sits right on the border between funny/sympathetic and cruel/exploitative.
In contrast to those cheeky efforts, Chasing Shadows offered up a response that seemed overall to be aimed at offering healing during these times of economic distress and moral disappointment. Rather than building on the angst and frenzy of the story, the artists in Chasing Shadows created an evening of performances that was mostly quiet, mellow, and generous in tone, perhaps providing a needed salve in the face of recent traumas. Much of the work was pleasantly sound-oriented, with a few pieces riffing off the soundtrack to the film.
The piece that was most directly related to the novel/film was Tomas Moreno’s Pops and I Keeping the Tempo, 1941-2011-2053, Cycles, Patterns, Mark Making and pathways (tempo set to The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, Chasing Shadows, 1935). Moreno set up a metronome on a tray that was at the height of his waist. The metronome had a pencil attached to its arm, and as it swung back and forth, Moreno held a sheet of paper over it, capturing its marks. This dull, repetitive action went on for quite a long time, mimicking the endurance test in Horses. It also evoked a bit of impotent masturbating, given the placement of the metronome—a funny touch, in light of the phallically-coded history of markmaking. At the end of it, however, a beautiful drawing was produced, countering the apparent futility of the actions.
CamLab debuted a participatory installation titled Wholly Well. Large swatches of colorful fabric, shaped into the folds of a giant vagina, lay in the center of the recessed floor of The Onion, easily grounding the entire circular, groovy space. On top of the vagina lay various glass vessels filled with water and labeled with signs that read “Hot Sex,” “A Job,” “Love for DKW,” “No Rectal Bleeding,” “Sympathetic Ears,” “Effortless Birth Control,” “Gay Marriage,” “End of Capitalism,” “Good Painting Days,” “Chris Kraus writes about our work,” “Patience,” and various other “wishes” for both the audience and the members of CamLab and their friends. People were invited to drop coins into the receptacles of their choice to make the wishes come true. This sweet and funny work managed the strangely ingenious feat of seamlessly combining a humorous revival of bad feminist essentialism with a dead serious commitment to feminist principles. I’ve still got the menstrual-stained, tropical palm tree-themed labial fold burned into my brain.
Elana Mann collaborated with Juliana Snapper to create the short video, Wild Horses or Land, Horses, Land of a Thousand Dances, La Mer (de). In it, multiple shots of Mann dolled up in a variety of costumes congregate like a herd to perform a strident anti-version of the Rolling Stones’ wistful 1971 ballad, “Wild Horses.” I always thought it was a beautiful stoner song about frustrated love, but Mann experienced it as having more sinister, misogynistic undertones, and tried to address that aspect in her performance, defiantly spitting out the song’s lines like PJ Harvey in her Rid of Me phase. The video’s brightly colored backgrounds highlighted the artificiality of the performance, giving it an extra layer of sarcastic spectacle.
Danielle Adair has been in Ireland on a residency for the last few months, but she’s been keeping up with the LA scene by sending us Mp3 files of her latest works, which happen to be sound pieces. For Chasing Shadows, we were treated to Some People Are Without Guitar, a seven-minute abstract work incorporating Adair’s spoken words, Keith Winter on drums, and those creepy droning signals you hear during tests of the emergency broadcasting system. It’s a catchy but also elusive mélange, as noises fade into or fold atop one another and Adair’s words are sometimes drowned out. What can be heard evokes an anguished, frenetic grappling with the world we live in today:
“What is our mission? We’re just expired college students by proxy, learning the meaning of bachelor and blackmail, the danger of cost and benefit… Obama’s drones turn you into a realist, we should just be able to kill each other body on body, people contemplating people… Joan Didion says, this is where we run out of continent… tonight, some people are without guitar, let’s call it, let’s call it… the military does well at stifling mental illness, no left turns during rush hour…smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, or you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
Ending on such an ambiguous note, the work seems to speak to the inarticulate frustrations of the powerless, who are also unfortunate witnesses to power. It’s a beautiful and heart-stopping piece that’s reminiscent of beat poetry and early sound experiments, but is firmly placed in the sociopolitical context of the present.