Bradford Kessler: Become Gift, Sky Become Shadow
New York CityInterstate Projects
September 20 – November 3, 2019
In Become Gift, Sky Become Shadow a surreal atmosphere of anticipation connects two works that examine cultural myth and personal trauma. Through a combination of theatricality and subtle detail, Bradford Kessler contrasts the generic and fictitious nature of popular history with the textures and temporalities of subjective memory.
The sight of a squat blue body, seized in mid-air by a tree branch jutting out from the far gallery wall, is a disorienting first scene. As one walks further into the gallery two important facts are revealed: the body is that of an adult male dwarf, and the branch that seizes him does so with a human hand clenched around his neck while a second hand is open and ready to do likewise just beneath the dwarf’s crotch. The violence is more symbolic than sensational: it is provocation toward subtextual meaning rather than a general affect.
A press release written by scholar and curator Wills Baker makes explicit the historical registers against which Become Gift (2019) is made to be read. In the original version of The Wizard of Oz, directed by Victor Fleming and released by MGM Studios in 1939, an inexplicable figure floats between the trees of a background forest in a shot featuring the four main characters. Before editing out the anomaly, the studio attempted to explain it away with reference to a stage equipment malfunction, and even, incredibly, to the movements of large animals on loan to a nearby zoo. As with any “official” narrative that tries to make the mere suggestion of alterity into the misunderstood result of something ultimately quotidian, a secondary explanation eventually developed: the figure was in fact an actor suicide—specifically a dwarf set to play a munchkin. This narrative is believed to roughly coincide with the time of Oz’s 50th anniversary, around which an aggressive advertising and home video campaign was organized. Though logistically nonsensical (the Munchkinland scenes in Oz were filmed several weeks after those in the forest, not to mention the implausibility of such an event transpiring during filming and producing no reaction from cast and crew), the cultish overtones, and the idea of an institutional cover up, transformed the belated and commercially stimulated story into an urban myth.
Kessler’s work re-animates this conspiratorial narrative by exaggerating its imagery. The dwarf, barely visible in many early copies of the film, no longer moves fleetingly in the background. Instead, the body is rendered in a monochrome blue, rigid and uniform. The trees that provided camouflage in the film are now what suspend the body in mid-air, offering it up for voyeuristic consumption. What was once a momentary aberration, a slight tear in the symbolic fabric of a Hollywood production, is in Kessler’s hands made into a crude icon, a way to converse with a past that likely never was.
The latent sense of coming violence that Become Gift registers is both intensified and transmuted into something stranger and more oblique in the show’s second work, Sky Become Shadow (2019). Located in the basement of the gallery, at the end of a pair of claustrophobic hallways, is a Lynchian scene of distorted reference and durational unease.
A room outfitted with a kind of medical examiner’s table offers two clear glass windows for viewing. On the table is an inert form with hardly a trace of familiarity: a pair of shriveled hands and feet, disproportionate to its bulging and wrinkled sack of a body, extend outward, as does its unnaturally long neck. A door at the far side of the room is painted, as with the rest of the walls, a sky blue. A matte yellow telephone hangs on the wall next to the door, and the name Thelma is painted in white lettering directly above. It is at this stage of having taken in and catalogued the details of the tableau that one realizes the phone has been ringing in intervals the entire time and that the door has been left ajar. Again, the press release informs us that the amorphous silicon mass on the table is meant to invoke a dead bird hatchling, itself drawn from a traumatic memory from Kessler’s childhood, in which a group of baby birds were found helpless on his driveway, suffering from the oppressive heat of a Kansas summer. As the story goes, euthanasia was used to end their plight.
Kessler revisits this memory by staging its most sensational details within the exhibition space. The shag carpet and diamond-shaped blue overhead light inscribe the hallways with the specificity of a place defined by subjective experience—though not our own, we can recognize the peculiar vividness that comes from having endured in memory over time. A ringing phone, with its consistent audible expression, suffuses the entire space, concrete paneled room and carpet lined hallways alike, with an odd and unsettling air of expectation. Because it rings without interruption, and because the door never opens or closes completely, the work remains in a liminal state, forever on the cusp of further action and possible resolution.
This indeterminate state of Sky Become Shadow mirrors the experience of memory itself. For although our past is called upon to provide meaning to present experience, the terms of engagement with it are never fixed. In Kessler’s work the mutability of memory, and our use of it, is made to pivot almost exclusively on the anticipation of what is still to come.