by Mark W. Scala
Chief Curator, Frist Center for the Visual Arts
It was ages ago now, in 2009, when the New Museum in New York had its sweeping triennial exhibition The Generational: Younger Than Jesus. For me the show epitomized the rising curatorial propensity to use biennials and triennials to predict next-big-things just recently out of Hunter College, Cal Arts, SVA, Yale, or in the case of the standout duo Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, Rhode Island School of Design. The show did not really make the case that younger artists are more attuned or thoughtful regarding contemporary culture than those who fell on the other side of 33 years old. In truth, I felt that a lot of the artists in the show were channeling earlier ideas that they seem to have thought they had invented themselves. But wunderkinds Trecartin and Fitch were different; their deeply original untitled installation was hailed by many reviewers as the strongest work in the show.
I have to agree. This absorbing synthesis of freewheeling visual invention and mile-a-minute nasal chatter elevated the interactions of its cast of gender-bending kids into an expression of wondrous overload. The sprawling installation was random and surprising, with lounge furniture, an upended bed, and a jet-plane interior acting as a walk-in theater for a movie that zoomed through loony scenarios to the sound of dissonant music and high-pitched dialogue, satirizing Gen Y-ers’ angst about, well, everything in their digitally framed world. Held together through masterly composition and the staccato sequencing of its fragmentary vignettes, the work refused to allow the audience and performers any room to breathe or reflect—talking was always two seconds ahead of comprehension. This subverted patterns of comprehension in favor of allowing the experience to wash over the viewer: “Everyone is stuck in modes of anticipation,” Trecartin says—“or recollection,” adds Fitch. “They’re either remembering or foreseeing, but no one is actually having experiences. There’s a fear of being.”
An unrelenting horror vacui appears in other movies and installations by Trecartin and Fitch. Their characters, played by themselves and their friends, often act as futuristic pixies whose verbal clichés and mannerisms, contemporary speech patterns, and Twitter-based shorthand constitute a tribal code that parrots the “younger than Jesus” world of social interaction. While the movies are hard to follow, they do have actual storylines, which are often shot through with ambiguous desire: gay, straight, or bi, everything is mashed together in an inchoate longing for connection. This is consistent with the movies’ larger dissolves of dream and reality, emotion and melodrama, physicality and digitality.
As they teasingly mimic this manic universe, the movies of Trecartin and Fitch amplify an aspect of contemporary reality that in real life might be filtered through our senses, keeping us sane and allowing us to function. I have shown online examples of their work to university art majors, who typically beg me to make it stop. I understand—it is all I can do to watch for more than twenty minutes without feeling an intense desire to escape to a place that is governed by conventions of space, time, language, and identity (if such a place exists anymore).
Why, then, watch or write about this work? For me, it employs radical playacting to gleefully deconstruct and redraw social norms in a way that seems absolutely pertinent to this moment. When we speak of art’s various functions, one is surely to disrupt the established synaptic reception of the world. Our brains don’t always enjoy being rattled, but in the end it makes them more elastic and muscular, a bio-psychological asset needed now more than ever.