Tuesday, 19 November 2013
Alex Bag - Untitled Fall '95
A performance video on art school, Fall '95 documents the fictionalized life of the New York City art school School of Visual Arts student, played by Bag herself. Taking the form of a video diary, Bag's character addresses the camera directly, expressing her thoughts on life and art, which mature significantly over the course of eight semesters. Interspersed between these entries are clips commenting on a variety of topics including male aggression, mockingly portrayed by toys, and video art from the 1970s.
The work that made Bag’s name was “Fall ’95”, from the same year. The DIY confessional film depicts Bag as an art student recording the growing pains of the art school experience directly into a VHS camera. Interspersed with the student protagonist’s development and thoughts, Bag added small segments like scenes glimpsed from a changing remote control. They ranged from a lo-fi toy soap opera about bunny murder to fake chatline sex ads, to a comedic take on dated video art.
Bag is the queen of pop metamorphosis, a mantle she may steal from Cindy Sherman. Like Sherman, she has used herself as a medium, twisting the process of performance to suit her sense of satire. In her films she personifies a cast of over-the-top characters, advertising clichés and Hollywood divas. The whole of audio-visual archive culture is hers to be reused and reworked. She highlights the ideological mechanisms that we suck up unawares. Her work is an ode to trash TV and its melting, ever-changing sense of meaning and identity. “Shapeshifting is a hobby that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone with a fractured psyche,” Bag says. “It’s a relatively healthy outlet to drain perpetual pain, disappointment and yearning into.”
Apart from Bag’s deft performances and transformations, what makes “Fall ’95” so enjoyable to watch is how it highlights the stupidity, hypocrisy and motivations of the art world itself.
In her Fall ‘95 (1995) tape, exhibited at the 303 Gallery in New York, Bag portrayed a student at the School of Visual Arts, checking in to report on her progress in each of eight semesters. In other bits she plays a phone sex siren in a cable TV ad, a girl scout and her mom, a McDonalds’ customer and a McDonalds’ counter person, assorted mourners of River Phoenix, the hostess of a rock commentary cable show (‘Rock Insights, the show that pontificates on the social and extreme nuances of rock music’), the hostess of a fashion talk show raving on in generic mid-Euro accent on the genius of Azzedine Alaia (‘small man, big ideas’), and a honky arrhythmic Salt’n'Pepa.
Alex Bag is truly versatile. She’s a woman of a thousand makeovers, like the Cindy Sherman of shtick, or a rarefied Carol Burnett. She gets all the microscopic nuances just right, the coif is high comedy, the lipstick and eyebrows are art. The rip in her T-shirt is art - finally grunge I can relate to. And the language, the diction and the accents and the phrasing are all dripping with mouth-watering verisimilitude. She’s fine art because she targets tastefully and destroys mercifully and elaborately things way outside the orthodox hit list. Way. She’s a cool scourge of the neo-banal. And it’s a feel-good kind of scourge. She’s bad. She’s Bag.
In 1995, as Matthew Barney became famous for his opulent, surrealist film epic, video artist Alex Bag rose to stardom as a kind of anti-Cremaster, creating no-budget video art with little more than cheap wigs, bedsheet backdrops, appropriated television clips, and stuffed animals. In Untitled Fall ’95, Bag played a student at SVA, reporting on each semester in a satirical video diary, which she punctuated with sketches that featured warring toys, a fake phone-sex commercial, and Björk explaining how a TV works. Now, Bag’s first monograph has finally been published, as her work is absorbed into art-school curricula and newly pirated excerpts are posted online. The book contains stills, photographs, reproductions of her notebook pages, essays by critics, and scripts for the videos. Reading these screenplays shifts the focus from the brilliance of Bag’s performances and her purposefully makeshift art direction to the strength of her writing. Her pitch-perfect use of vernacular speech and mastery of plot and character become clearer, underscoring what’s long been known—she is a comic genius, and one of the art world’s coolest harridans. Bag’s punk-inflected institutional critique was leveled against novel targets like the sexual politics of art school and the alienated labor of a professionalized art scene, and she depicted these insider subjects with the damning detritus of mass media and advertising culture. In one of Untitled Fall ’95’s interludes, a Ronald McDonald doll’s brutish come-on to a Hello Kitty toy is followed by Ronald proposing a marketing partnership—it’s the perfect introduction to the penultimate installment, about a summer job for a Williamsburg artist. She notes that she’s “never heard of him before, but apparently he’s like an overlord of this pathetic scene out there,” and almost two decades later it’s still funny, even on paper. Bag’s post-Pop, pre-YouTube tour de force has become a prescient cult classic for a new generation.