For Alex Bag’s current solo show, Reality Tunnel Vision, the front room of Elizabeth Dee gallery is wrapped with forest-patterned wallpaper on one side (curling off the wall at the far end), dead plants hanging from the wall, some dead bamboo sticking out of dirt on the gallery floor, an old barbeque, and a few drawings. The drawings, sketched in a cartoony crudeness, depict some of the despicable characters currently swarming our cable channel reality TV shows, such as puffy-lipped Barbie-women with impossibly huge breasts, or the muscled, faux-hawked, tattooed men who compete on national television for a chance at “true love,” money, or their own spin-off show.
The back room features a dizzying projected video in which, for example, a black-haired woman stumbles through a video store overwhelmed by the choices, collapsing on the floor, while later, another woman takes you through a Wiccan-style garden show to discuss a particular herb. Here Bag, who came to prominence in the mid-1990s, continues a long-standing interest in examining the tropes of popular television by making her own campy, demented videos sometimes laced with bizarre references to witchcraft, conspiracy theories, and the occult. The characters in the video are completely deranged, and their stories seem to have little to do with the rest of the exhibit, although I suppose that the Wiccan herbalist tromping through the forest rhapsodizing about herbs is connected to the dried flora in the first room. But one set of plants is real and one is filmed. Makes you question “reality,” doesn’t it? The worst choice was that the back room is painted green to evoke a green screen, and there’s Astroturf on the floor. This epic clash between reality and artifice is about as captivating as the drunk confessions of true love in Rock of Love 2.
And there lies the problem: Bag mirrors the low-budget no-standards style of reality television so faithfully that there’s no real filter beyond her particular interests in weird shit (this show is claimed to draw from Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, a favorite tome of deadheads and those fond of Masonic conspiracies). What you get as a viewer is not that different from what you get when you watch the shows: this is cheap and fucked up. Except that Bag’s work is in a Chelsea gallery, so it’s also meta, precious, and self-conscious. In terms of actually provoking dialogue about reality and staging, this work goes nowhere, and why should it? It’s a show about show business. Questioning reality here seems pointless, not to mention: Who needs to be reminded that reality TV is A) very weird, and B) isn’t real at all?
Art about television, like art about the Internet, has its particular set of challenges: it’s up against two mediums that are vastly more far-reaching, and often vastly more outlandish. Bag knows this, and isn’t trying to compete per se. She acknowledges her own love/hate relationship to bad TV having stated, “…[TV is] the most awful thing. But I can’t stop watching it” in a 2004 interview. Well, similar to younger artists who can’t stop watching YouTube or surfing the Internet, their addiction is only interesting if they do something interesting with it. Mirroring it back in a gallery-ready package just offers the same feeling of wasted time that actually sitting on your ass in front of a screen does. And that’s just not worth the trip to Chelsea, dead plants or no.
Alex Bag’s Reality Tunnel Vision at Elizabeth Dee (545 W 20) closes October 24, 2009