Strange Pilgrims at the Contemporary Austin

January 19, 2016 
By Wendy Atwell

I caught Strange Pilgrims at The Contemporary Austin on its last day. The show, featuring 14 artists, is curated by Contemporary Austin’s Senior Curator Heather Pesanti, who takes the title’s name from a series of short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Other parts of the show were located at the Jones Center and University of Texas Visual Arts Center, but I only had time to go to the Laguna Gloria location.

Inside the Driscoll Villa, the artist collective, Lakes Were Rivers, exhibited Swan Cycle: Chapter 1, a curated selection of photographs from the archive of Clara Driscoll. Swan Cycle: Chapter 2, a film, was screened in the room next door. This group of 11 artists, who began in Austin, performs an important act of inquiry into the nature of history, how meanings get made and re-made because of the ephemeral nature of time. The meaningful relevance of this project stems from the organizational history of Laguna Gloria. In the recent past, the organization, now called Austin Contemporary, has had a confused history in which the mandates behind Laguna Gloria have cause controversy about how to distribute the monies. Lakes Were Rivers recreates a large ice sculpture, taken from an image they found in the Driscoll archives, and makes a lyrical, gorgeous film that captures its deterioration on the grounds amidst palm leaves and birdsong.

We arrived just in time to see the foam start to bubble out of Roger Hiorn’s A retrospective view of the pathway, 2008-2015. This sculpture is made from a giant 6’ plastic tank set outside on Laguna Gloria’s expansive grounds. The foam machine sits inside of the tank and, when it is turned on, generates endless clouds of foam—and, when the foam is on, that’s the sculpture, not the tank. A huge crowd of toddlers and their parents clustered around the sculpture, screaming, crying and laughing as the foam bubbled out. Some kids covered their heads with the foam, smearing it in their faces and hair; others tried to catch chunks as the wind carried it away. Little fragments littered the landscape, their bubbles glowing like iridescent treasures.

In a 2014 interview with Glasstire’s Dorota Biczel, Pesanti described her goals for Contemporary Austin: “I am programming work that is interactive or has the ability to reach a broader audience and not just the people already inclined to support cultural organizations…. I am being very responsive just to the physical ‘canvas’ of my spaces.” This ‘canvas’ includes 14 acres of land along Austin’s lakefront, along with the Driscoll Villa and the Jones Center on Congress.

Hiorn’s piece fulfills Pesanti’s plan; so does Yoko Ono’s Summer Dream (Let Your Dream Come True on a Distant Wall), 2012/2015. Ono’s interactive piece allows viewers to type their dream into an iPad. They may then watch their dream scroll across an electronic sign, visible through the Driscoll villa’s windows that look out on the lake. Ono appropriates a commercial sign, like the ones used by banks and stores for advertising, to display intimate messages, to poetic effect. The words move across the sign and vanish, which reinforces the fleeting and temporal nature of these anonymous, strangers’ hopes and desires.

People wished for vegan waffles, world peace, time to watch their son grow up, and successful bone marrow transplants, but my favorite was “endless queso bar.” This made me imagine a long rectangular table with a million tostadas and bottomless bowls of good queso and hot sauce. But who needs it? I agree with my mom, who had just said that art fills her up in the best possible way.

That’s the effect of Orlando, 3-D video installation that was being screened in the Gatehouse, another building on Laguna Gloria’s grounds. This devastating and hilarious piece is by Trisha Baga, a New York-based artist from the Millennial generation.

We put on our 3-D glasses and sat down on a sofa in a darkened room to watch. Before going in, I read on the wall plaque that Baga also made pottery during her residency at Laguna Gloria, and that she often appeared in her films in cameos. I love looking for Alfred Hitchcock in his movies, so I was excited to look for the artist.

When we started watching, the film showed people line dancing with a female instructor in the lobby of a cruise ship. This group of elderly, mixed race people looked like joyless zombies-horrible dancers–compelled to perform arm waving, hip swirling and box steps.

I couldn’t hear the music they were dancing to, because the Orlando soundtrack differed from the actual sound of the line dance footage. The asynchronous soundtrack is typical of Baga’s work; it adds to the disorientation and bizarreness of the situations she portrays. The group danced in a mall, in front of a shop called the Cupcake Cupboard. Doing some  research, I discovered that this shop is on board the Royal Caribbean International’s Allure of the Seas. This $1.5 billion ship can hold 8,684 passengers. It is the world’s largest cruise ship, and boasts seven neighborhoods, 25 dining options, and 2,384 crew. The mall, aka Royal Promenade, runs the length of the ship which also has a zip-line, Broadway show, Starbucks, rock climbing walls, ice skating rink, casinos, designer boutiques and a faux Central Park.

These added features and gargantuan sizes of the ship exceed even what David Foster Wallace wrote in his classic, satirical piece on cruise ships.

I have now seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled suntan lotion spread over 2,100 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as “Mon” in three different nations. I have seen 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide. I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced. I have (very briefly) joined a conga line.

The horror of these giant moving cities polluting the oceans pairs with the absurd reality of how these ships incorporate banal suburban settings to surround the travelers. Even though they have left home, they are surrounded by the illusion of home with malls and coffee. Whereas Marquez’s series of short stories evoke the perplexity of travel, the ship’s simulacrum disallows this experience of strangeness.

While watching the cruise ship footage, I was chest deep in what is best described by Wallace as sadness, despair, dread and angst, until I saw a person who had to be Baga. She was there in the mall, dressed in a white lab coat, taking notes on a clipboard. She wore overly big sized glasses and she looked like a science nerd, which set her visibly apart from the cruisers; she appeared to be studying them. As a member of her audience, I joined her in this scrutiny. The clips of footage she offered to us seemed to echo this line of inquiry. The camera lingers on the oversized torsos of a man and woman hugging one another. They are wearing navy and white striped matching outfits. A man poses for a picture in front of cheesy graphic banner; there were antique cars and most absurdly, a man in a weenie bikini being hoisted out of the ship’s swimming pool and lifted into the air, while doing frantic frog kicks with his flippered feet.

The other hint I read before going into Baga’s film was that she used a “Dada-esque form of storytelling.”[1] The Dada movement was “anti-art” created in response to the horror of World War I. Absurdity was used to counter the supposed reason and logic that could lead to war. Baga’s Orlando furthers the absurdity, but even the content she is distorting is absurd in and of itself—a “Central Park” floating across the ocean. Why not go to NYC instead?

Baga collages varied footage including the cruise ship scenes, but also a morning-after scene from a party; scenes of dogs and cats that get startled by something that they are look towards; a raccoon; and pigs swimming and eating. Over these scenes, Baga places different details, like a scattering of cocktail peanuts, or ceramic sculpted lips and a nose; and blue paint smears.

Watching her film made me feel like she was inside the part of my mind that navigates computer technology, flitting from screen to screen, because she also includes scenes from this process: a screen shot of a cryptic text message from “Mom” about personal hygiene; desktop images; rolling credits and informative pseudo-documentary text. The words are nonsensical, funny and haunting. They reference bones from the bottom of the sea that have been congealed. Her ceramic pieces get cameos as well–a roughly sculpted cup in a stream and intriguing images of white ceramic heads and bones, accented with black paint.

In Strange Pilgrims’ accompanying catalogue, contributor Tatiana Reinoza writes about a “hyper-Brechtian element, in which the artist breaks down the fourth wall between the audience and the mediatized work.”[1] There is stream-of-conscious feeling when experiencing her work; Baga’s videos have the effect of “bleeding into space and experience rather than causing a conscientious break.”[2]

Mostly, though, I appreciate Baga’s humor. I love the idea that she might have been on that cruise, witnessing all of the activities and the ship itself, and that she put it in her art. I had just been reading a disturbing New Yorker article, The Siege of Miami by Elizabeth Kolbert, which describes the effect of rising ocean levels on the city of Miami. Kolbert has a similar sense of humor. Her matter-of-fact reportage documents the bizarre denial of Miami’s inhabitants, helpless to the impending dreadful reality.

In fact, the overarching narrative of Orlando plays with the name–Baga references both the Florida city and a character in Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name. Throughout the course of the book, Woolf’s Orlando changes from a male to a female. Baga’s sci-fi futuristic narrative references this and describes how Orlando the city gets relocated to the East River in New York. No matter how outlandish this may sound, Baga’s cruise ship footage makes it seem plausible nevertheless.

[1] Tatiana Reinoza, “Trisha Baga,” Strange Pilgrims, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015, p. 138.
[2] ibid.