On ViewGreene Naftali Gallery
September 3 – October 3, 2015
“I didn’t tell you what impulse drove me except I was a biographer. Was I surprised I could understand their language? Yes.” With these words, Trisha Baga speaks to her audience from the future. Orlando, which takes its name from both the Virginia Woolf novel about the eponymous, gender-swapping immortal, and the Floridian city, is an exhibition out of time, taking place in an imagined future after a great flood consumes Florida whole. It is, for lack of a better word, a meta-exhibition, replete with a faux documentary explaining the mechanics of the imagined thaw and flood, an array of “archaeological finds” Baga has hewn out of sloppy ceramic and displayed on spot-lit pedestals, and, at its center, MS Orlando (2015), a 3D video chronicling the postdiluvian aftermath. Inviting us into the ruins, Baga challenges us to decipher the story she transmits.
In MS Orlando, the exhibition’s organizing meta-museological conceit quickly dissipates into a delirium of imagery and sounds. The video unfolds through an anarchic process of free association: Baga juxtaposes low-res footage of contemporary life—bodies streaming through Times Square, a man costumed as a bagel dancing spasmodically on the street, women gathered in a mall aping Michael Jackson moves demoed by a mic’d guide, portly men in Speedos flipping flips on bungee cords—with shots of her Pekinese, her mother, her studio, her friends, her iPhone, peacocks pecking, computer graphics, and websites. The video is in 3D, but the soundtrack—a medley of clips from movies, audiobooks, and orchestral and pop music, interjected with Baga’s own voice reading from a script—is so intense I’m tempted to call it 4D. The bipolar flood of sound, alternately triumphant and melancholic, trepidatious and eerie, injects the mundane visuals with unexpected emotional force. The experience is disorienting; it is all but impossible to parse a coherent narrative from the onslaught of stimuli. Eventually you resign yourself to the flow of images and sounds, to moments of recognition and others of complete confusion.
The video’s inscrutability, in spite of the backstory outlined in text, is one of its greatest virtues. Baga manages to elicit a whole slew of emotional responses and to invite us to interpretation without wielding a heavy hand or ever letting us get too comfortable in our conclusions. The shots of pedestrians, pre-fab offices, and cruise vacationers call to mind the quotidian banalities Harun Farocki strung together in films like How to Live in the Federal Republic of Germany, and they produce a similar effect, stirring dull pangs of horror at the state of our relationally and recreationally dysfunctional culture. But MS Orlando is also funny and frenetic, inflected with a pell-mell of millennial technology and cultural references, what the press-release terms a “technological economy of accelerated attention spans,” that serve to temper any somberness with ironic absurdity—Farocki doused with a diluted dose of Ryan Trecartin. Unlike the state of half-delighted/half-terrified paralysis Trecartin’s abrasive, apocalyptic videos of millennial culture induce, however, Baga’s is an emotional rollercoaster. A slow shot through a carwash accompanied by surging John Williams-y orchestral music feels, preposterously, like the most jubilant moment of your life; a clip of an indigenous flutist playing the actual John Williams Jurassic Park theme song casts you into a state of despondency, so predictable it’s farcical.
MS Orlando finds its literal three-dimensional embodiment in the ceramic objets displayed in the gallery space adjacent to the projection. Coated in bright, marbleized glazes that bleed together or burst into iridescent crystals like mildew, the ceramics pose as the detritus of our millennial moment—iMacs, Crocs, soap dispensers, cans of Cheez Whiz—bloated and petrified into psychedelic rock. The glazes are beautiful and the point of these “artifacts” in relation to the video and the exhibition as a whole are well taken, but the statuettes themselves are clunky and monotonous, especially compared to the video, which is so full of flux. Realized in such literal terms, the exhibition’s museological motifs begin to feel a little gimmicky and, in obvious contrast to MS Orlando, one-dimensional. The best ceramics are the more abstract pieces, large perforated blobs or small spangled fragments reminiscent of the amorphous shapes that appear and disappear in MS Orlando. Rationed out among the ceramics are a few “fresh” tokens from reality—real cigarette butts, a lighter, a beer can, some doggie kibble in a Croc—that replay the mix of fact and fantasy that informs Baga’s work. The trash alludes to, but unfortunately doesn’t deliver, the thrilling and moving chaos found in the video work.
Gimmicks aside, space and time are the reverberating themes of the exhibition. “Time isn’t linear, we just perceive it that way,” the voiceover in MS Orlando announces, quoting Terminator. The silhouette of Baga’s hand reaches across the projection as if to caress one of the objects inhabiting another layer. But, constrained by the boundaries of its plane, she touches nothing; the gesture is thwarted, just a flourish. This frustrated act emits a quiet melancholy, evoking irrevocable rifts and impossibilities that, like so much of the film, are ineffable. In another scene, Baga’s face, mostly obscured by her messy hair and the large glasses teetering at the end of her nose, peers down into the camera; not at us, her audience, but through to other worlds unfolding on different layers of her video. She is the “archeolojist” [sic], the self-proclaimed “biographer,” reaching through layers of space and time to piece together the story of our antediluvian present. We watch with her.