Still Life with Mouse
Picture a still life -- shiny fruit, pretty flowers, cleverly arranged objects -- the most innocuous of artistic genres. At their peak in Holland during the 16th and 17th centuries, still lifes were de rigueur for every bourgeois Dutch home. The lushly subversive photographic still lifes in Martha Burgess's installation at Rice University Art Gallery, "Manly on the Plaid," would have knocked those Calvinists on their asses, and probably could cause double takes in Amsterdam's red-light district today. She arranges objects, running the gamut from the mundane to the bizarre, into beautiful compositions and then photographs them. The images are visually fabulous with a saturated hyperreal Technicolor. It is only when the intoxicating effects of the color and texture begin to recede and you start to focus on the objects that Burgess's scheme dawns on you.
While Dutch artists may have been commenting on the transience of pleasure -- or life itself -- with their vanitas paintings, Burgess's commentary freely roams the vast and varied terrain of contemporary culture. She applies a liberal coating of beauty over objects that are by turns sexual, absurd, visceral, saccharine, gross, lovely and raunchy. Working with innuendo, pop culture, personal anecdote, literature, feminist and queer theory, the Bible, and double, triple and quadruple entendre, Burgess most aptly sums up the works when she describes them as "treading" somewhere "between the archive and the kitchen sink."
The gallery space is painted in a wonderful network of vividly colored plaidlike stripes and bands, but the still lifes are the hinge upon which the installation hangs. Displayed on the walls, the photos are incorporated into an interactive CD-ROM that allows you to digitally explore the imagery, uncovering additional layers and associations. Two iMacs are thoughtfully set up next to two Adirondack chairs. (Burgess understands the importance of comfortable seating to interactive art -- even the most dedicated art viewer will sit on a metal folding chair for only so long.) The start page presents silhouettes of various significant objects from the photographs; clicking on them causes the full photo to materialize. Moving your cursor over the image will illuminate various hidden "charms."
Golden Orchid is an arrangement of white orchids, syringes, Chinese porcelain, a bottle of Lysol and mangoes. Clicking on the flower reveals a snippet of information about the Golden Orchid Association that served to marry and give legal status to lesbians more than 100 years ago in China. Clicking on the mangoes leads you to a clipped, electronically Asian voice saying "mango" over and over until it begins to sound like "man go." Then a spray can appears with the label Man Go, a spoof product for repelling men that satirizes the lesbian "man-hater" stereotype. Clicking on the syringes brings up a newspaper story about a lesbian couple in China who tried to commit suicide by injecting themselves with Lysol on the eve of one partner's marriage.
In DeSire, the ribald and the theoretical coincide. Burgess created the interactive program based on Leslie Feinberg's book Transgender Warriors, which asserts that three signifiers are necessary for a figure to be read as female while only one (guess which?) is necessary for a figure to be read as male. Clicking on a large black strap-on dildo reveals an anatomically ambiguous pelvis clad in only a jockstrap. A variety of silly "phallic" objects then rotate over the top of the crotch area -- pickles, cigars, peppers, hot dogs. Clicking again reveals the rest of the figure to be that of a woman. She twitches her hips in a goofy, digitally jerky manner as a penis intermittently peeks up from her jockstrap, causing our identification of her gender to fluctuate from male to female.
The bright artificial colors of sugary candy sit next to a petri dish of snails and some chopped-off fleshy appendages. The title of the piece is Sugar N, as in "sugar and spice and everything nice." Relax, the fleshy things aren't puppy dog tails, but they are pig tails. Click on the candy necklace, and you trigger one of the more poetic and introspective aspects of the show. A black screen pops up with a galaxy of tiny pinpoints of light. The text slowly appears and flickers on the screen:
"When I was six, I had an out-of-body experience. Floating to an upper corner near my bedroom window. I was about to explore the universe when a voice stopped me, "You're leaving youngWhy not live a while?' So I turned back in to her."
Then the text disappears into a tiny pulsating dot among other tiny pulsating dots. The effect of the text, haunting electronic music and animation is simple, poignant and mesmerizing. The experience is from Burgess's childhood, and her phrase "So I turned back in to her" conveys the image of a genderless mind re-entering a physically gendered body.
It's easy to get sidetracked by the sensational aspects of the show (like, for example, the singing vaginas). Sex in general and homosexuality in particular are loaded issues in society as well as in art. The installation comes from a particular point of view that you may or may not identify with, but it is intrinsically linked to the culture at large. We gain insights into the mind of Burgess as well as into our own culture.
Objects can conjure up a million different associations; Burgess is interested in how many associations we all share and how many we don't. When is a cigar not a cigar? Clicking on an image in the CD-ROM triggers another image in the same way that a thought triggers another thought -- sometimes the second thought is obvious, sometimes intriguingly tangential. It's like sitting front row in the artist's brain as she has an illustrated conversation with herself. It makes you very aware of the thought process, of how ideas flow from one to another.
The best way to approach the installation is not to try to decode it all. The work is packed with such a huge range of references that attempting to follow all the threads is exhausting, and misses the point entirely. A spirit of play is important: Latch on to what appeals to you and go along for the ride. Burgess is an academic as well as an artist and has lectured on queer deconstruction at Barnard College in New York City. It is to her credit that while theory underlies and occasionally surfaces in the work, she does not force it upon the viewer in a didactic manner. Yes, it informs her ideas, but she has fun with it. It is similar to how Burgess takes technology and makes it work for her. It becomes a tool to realize an idea, not a "gee whiz, look at what this stuff can do" gimmick. Burgess manages to make the staid still life a jumping-off point for a powerful and complex mix of humor and social commentary.
The gallery has posted the customary adult-content warnings; this would probably not be the show to introduce your eight-year-old to contemporary art. Parental discretion, after all, is always better than childproofing culture.
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