Art

Comfort in Limbo

All still from various the "What Is on the Outside" program (all images via madmuseum.org)

If you find yourself at the Museum of Arts and Design this spring, be sure to check out its survey of unsettling quasi-documentary videos by Julika Rudelius, titled What Is on the Outside. The pieces, which were created by Rudelius between 2001 and 2010, range in length from three to 29 minutes, and the complete program (free with the price of admission) will be playing on a continuous loop in The Theater all day, every day, until July 5.

To the show’s theme of “the outside,” two videos speak explicitly of the devoted cultivation of one’s appearance. In “Forever” (2006), moneyed women approaching the end of middle age (or well beyond it) discuss the importance of maintaining their beauty. Lacquered, tanned and adorned with jewels, they pace manicured grounds in the hot Florida sun and detail the aspects of their faces and bodies that please them. A Polaroid camera is rigged for them to take self-portraits, and in the moments before the women snap their own photos, their frozen, self-conscious smiles seem heightened and almost grotesque.

Maybe it’s no surprise that rich, aging women would like to hold on to their youthful beauty, but it makes for an interesting contrast with another video, “Tagged” (2003), a video that features Muslim men in their early twenties who are obsessed with fashion. As the guys strip down to their underwear in a hotel room and model designer duds from their prized collections, they rattle off their favorite labels: Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Armani. One of the men explains that his father treats him to such luxuries, but another admits he has spent entire monthly paychecks on clothes alone. One young man spends three hours each day styling his hair and orchestrating costume changes (three times a day). Although they may differ from the ladies of “Forever” in age, gender, cultural background and economic status, the men in “Tagged” also rely on a precisely curated physical appearance to telegraph their “worth.” Celebrity- and youth-driven capitalism casts a wide net.

Of course no matter how much time, energy or money we may spend attempting to manipulate the outside world’s perception of us, we have only so much control. “Train” (2001) and “Family Times” (2004) point out this frustrating truth to chilling effect. In “Train,” a group of teenage boys aboard a train crudely discuss their sexual exploits and rank their partners according to “sluttiness” (a nightmare scenario for any teenage girl who has ever wondered what guys say about her when she’s not around). Compared with “Train,” “Family Times” — a collection of found home-movie footage from a museum — initially seems benign, yet it quickly takes a perverse turn. Its scratched, murky images of family celebrations appear typical, but then the camera zooms in on the private parts of the young women captured in these scenes, lingering over their thighs, buttocks and crotches. The women are oblivious to these machinations, and the effect is skin-crawling. [One can’t help wondering if Rudelius screened these two videos for the pretty but rabid preteen girls of “Dressage” (2009), who demolish a room with their bare hands. Those plaster-covered fashionistas sure seem angry about something. ]

The leering camera of “Family Times” ends up revealing more about the person behind it than it does about the people in front of it. Though a photographer or filmmaker may be standing “outside” the scene that’s being recorded, his or her point of view is inevitably inscribed within the image. But in “One of Us” (2010) — the longest piece of the program — Rudelius takes it one step further and becomes an actor within the frame as well. Here, multiple couples in a house recount (to their partners) the story of how they met and fell in love, spouting nauseating romantic bromides such as, “Without you, there would be no me.” The whole exercise would be absolutely excruciating if not for one detail: the woman (played by Rudelius) who haunts the edges of the frame like a singleton specter. As the couples mirror each other in words, gestures, and facial expression, the woman peers at them through windows or doorways, sometimes entering the room and sitting next to them, though they appear not to notice her. She is always excluded, like the ousted child of the Oedipal triangle, yet compulsively returns to the primal scene again and again.

With “One of Us,” Rudelius creates a visceral Freudian purgatory. A feeling of limbo is also captured in the program’s eeriest piece, “Adrift.” In this mysterious 2007 video, a group of dozing people sit in a room that appears to be rocking back and forth. On the soundtrack, the viewer hears moans, chants and an industrial-sounding hum, but the sources of these sounds is not evident. The camera pans across the room, occasionally zeroing in on the sweaty, flushed faces of the inhabitants, whose eyes remain half or fully closed. Where are they going? What are they waiting for? Are they engaged in a ritual of some kind? The answers are never made clear.

The experience of watching “Adrift” may be discomfiting for the viewer, but Rudelius seems most interested and comfortable in these limbo-like places. As the program notes on MAD’s Web site suggest, the “partially staged” works of What Is on the Outside “occupy the space between fact and fiction,” and depending upon which pieces you happen to catch in The Theater, the boundaries between the two poles can be very blurry indeed.

What Is on the Outside continues at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Columbus Circle, Manhattan) until July 5.

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