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I am sitting in the dark at the Menil Collection staring at a wall-sized video projection waiting for something, anything, to happen. The frame is filled with the head and shoulders of a woman underwater, her eyes closed, her face lit from the side, her dark hair floating in an inky cloud. The video, part of Anna Gaskell's show "half life," is comprised of a short section of footage that has been repeatedly looped so she that seems to be swaying slightly back and forth in the water. Her eyelids flicker promisingly, but still nothing happens. Two long minutes into the video, her eyes open and then close. That's it for the action; over the next 21 minutes (an annoyingly long stretch in video time) her eyes blink open approximately nine more times.
Although 21 minutes doesn't hold a candle to the duration of Andy Warhol's infamous Sleep (at least it was eight hours for a reason), Gaskell is pushing her luck with viewers. In the beginning there is a certain amount of anticipation -- will she spring from the water like that woman in What Lies Beneath? -- but eventually you realize that you wouldn't have missed anything if you had left a long time ago. It's not anticlimactic; there isn't a build up, it's just boring. Art videos don't need the pace of a Hollywood action flick, but neither do they need to be self-consciously and gratuitously "arty" by taking longer to get to the point than is conceptually necessary.
"Half life" is loosely based on the 1938 Daphne du Maurier novel Rebecca, as well as Hitchcock's 1940 film version of the same. In Rebecca, a new young wife is haunted by the unseen ghost of the previous one who tragically drowned. Much of Gaskell's work draws upon literary sources for initial inspiration -- from The Lord of the Flies to Dracula to Daddy was the Black Dahlia Killer. She poses young girls in staged photographs that hint at the darker and more savage aspects of youth. Her Alice in Wonderland "inspired series" presented girls in often disturbing and ambiguous scenarios. Spooky twin Alices lay side by side in one image; a mass of legs in white tights and black Mary Janes filled the frame in another for a Humbert Humbert "meets Hans Bellmer" wet dream.
There is a lovely film noir quality that runs through her work, "half life" included. The lighting is warm and dramatic; all the scenes feel nocturnal. Gaskell's photos look like disjointed film stills, vignettes of ambiguous narrative. But while the strategy has worked for her in the past, it falls short of the mark in this series. Many of the photos in "half life" feel like rejected suspense-film publicity shots -- the ones that were a couple of frames too early or too late. You could build narratives on these images, but there's nothing about them that really compels you to do so.
Nine photos in assorted sizes are hung at various heights around the room in an effort to make the traditional photographic display less static. We look over the shoulder of a young woman whose pink puffy sleeve is obscured by a tangle of long dark hair and peer down a long, richly carpeted hall with dark woodwork and heavily crystalled chandeliers. She seems unkempt in comparison to her surroundings.
In another image we see two legs and the ballooning hem of a skirt in silhouette, symmetrically placed against a staircase that recedes in one-point perspective; a chandelier hangs in the distance between her knees. In yet another, the girl -- all A-line skirt and mass of hair -- is seen from behind at a low angle as she looks out from a loge into the opulence of the theater. In one of Gaskell's campier shots, a distorted hand reaches across the lens in front of a steep staircase.
A chandelier appears in almost every frame, a recurring symbol of elegance and excess contrasted with the gangly young woman. It's most effective as a spiderlike shadow cast over a pedimented doorway and a white, coffered ceiling. A straggle of dark hair intrudes into the upper right corner of that picture.
The colors are beautifully saturated; these are technically satisfying photographs. And Gaskell has found some wonderful, opulent and evocative shooting locations. Still, something feels missing. It seems like the artist is trying to be more subtle, to dampen the melodrama and pare down her staging. The photos are lacking the "off-ness" of her earlier works. In fact, some of them seem to have more affinity with a hip fashion shoot than with her earlier images of the dark side of puberty. You can argue for the success of some individual images, but the overall impression is lackluster.
"half life" is making its debut at the Menil, and it goes without saying that commissioning new work is a risky but admirable venture. Gaskell is a young artist in transition from her early work. Here she replaces the unsettling undertones of violence and sexuality that created the edginess of her earlier work with a middle-of-the-road suspense that is neither unnerving nor campy. The result is a sleekly presented installation with all the sound and fury of art, somehow signifying...not a lot.