(Wendy's Subway, 2019)
Sara Magenheimer’s videos are talkative, associative jaunts, joining together all manner of images and sounds, found and made. Details of a 16th century oil painting are interspersed with a broadcast journalist’s botched takes, or a tubist’s treeline recital paired with a letter home from an early computer programmer, the friction of disparate elements producing a strange resonance. In the course of the narration, soliloquy may divide into dialogue, but the voice of the piece maintains a singular aspect. It can be characterized by both a defiant certainty and a boundless curiosity. Text-to-speech irregularities are sought out and on-screen type is used alternately as abstraction and signifier, relishing the possibilities of the misspoken and the illegible. The videos, like songs, condense distinct images on their surfaces and play cunning, rhythmic games underneath. Theirs is the kind of deadly serious playtime in which our subconscious minds are often engaged.
Magenheimer’s first book-length text, Beige Pursuit, is the second entry in Wendy’s Subway’s Document Series, an invitation for artists working in time-based media to publish in print. The book reads alternately like a screenplay and a long poem, its sparsely populated pages asking to be consumed slowly. The central figure, X, is a sort of Alice in the Waiting Room, navigating (among other things) the vagaries of the American healthcare system as she prepares to give birth. X appears variously as character, number, and mark; as redaction, percussive notation, and placeholder for a former name—traded then forgotten. Biographical similarities between author and character abound—both are filmmakers and expectant mothers—but Magenheimer has her fun with plausible deniability.
Unlike Lewis Carroll’s apprehensive Alice, X is “wishing to be absorbed and lost,” though—as in Wonderland—her encounters are often frustrating and sometimes traumatic. “Chesty, blooming peonies” yell her away from her own home, citing the architectural concept of an “intimacy gradient,” in which privacy can be inferred from design cues. A talking mushroom blows smoke letters that drift across these pages and proves to be a friend from whom X will grow apart even as they remain in touch. A case of the munchies shrinks X to one-quarter size. After drinks, she expands five-fold, becoming “the Big Woman” on the dance floor until she is “touched out.” At the book’s midpoint, she falls down an open manhole into Reagan’s America: full-color images from 1982 issues of Architectural Digest, the wallpaper’s millefleur pattern proceeding unimpeded onto the upholstery and the bedclothes.
From airplane cabins and food courts to hedge mazes and parking lots, X constantly finds herself at the gates of purgatory. We are whirled quickly through these palaces of time, however, seldom spending more than a page or so in any one. At the museum, X accidentally summons a genie from an ancient vase and successfully wishes for more wishes. Their discourse segues into another with a “socratic voice assistant” she calls “Mom,” and finally unfurls an eight-page litany of queries—some ponderous, some practical.
Motifs from Magenheimer’s videos reappear: mirrors, manholes, fallen fruits and vegetables, songs delivered from the bath. In the most direct moment of transference between screen and page, the author describes the production of an image from Slow Zoom Long Pause (2015), a pink suitcase emerging face-down on the return carousel: “Its pinkness makes her think of a newborn being conveyed into the world in the calmest way imaginable. This thought horrifies her. Stillborn, she shudders.” There is the sense throughout of an author struggling with a perceived sense of responsibility for the world as they bring new life into it; a moment of reckoning with the self as it produces an other, with history as we demand a future.
In her acknowledgments, Magenheimer thanks Wayne Koestenbaum for writing “In Defense of Nuance” (2010), an essay on Roland Barthes’s “gentle mission,” in which Koestenbaum describes “the fight against received wisdom, obviousness, stereotype.” One can easily apprehend how nuance (“a trace, like dust on plush”) must appeal to Magenheimer, in concept as well as form. For starters, the word contains much the same sound as “noon,”—“the softest time of day;” as “Nonna”—an Italian grandmother who wonders if X is eating enough; as “no one”—the erasure X both dreads and desires to become; and as “Nuno”—Magenheimer’s child, who appears at the end of the acknowledgments. These near-rhymes carry new resonance in the mood of Magenheimer’s prose, in which all coincidence is omen and every utterance an incantation.
The final pages of the main text act as a sort of artist’s statement or director’s commentary, reconciling the experience of living with the compulsion to language. “X makes videos,” Magenheimer writes, “in order to remember gestures in time, the matter and mass she was capable of shifting. Traces of her will. Evidence of her force and her witness. […] Video is fragile, contingent on mechanisms beyond itself and difficult to maintain over lengths of time. It’s a good enough medium in which to express the ordeal of having a body.”