This Artist's Talking Teddy Bear Animates Existential Suffering
In Juan Antonio Olivares's new show at the Whitney, a damaged toy speaks in the voice of the artist's father.
Still from Juan Antonio Olivares, Moléculas, 2017. Whitney Museum of American Art. Courtesy of the artist
The star of Juan Antonio Olivares’s animation Moléculas, on view now at the Whitney, is a one-armed talking teddy bear that delivers a monologue in mumbled Spanish (with English subtitles). The ten-minute video opens in a spare room with parquet floors and marble-paneled walls; our bear, sometimes looking at his doubled image in a corner mirror, sometimes reclining on a chaise longue as if on an analyst’s couch, recounts a story of early childhood and memories of his late mother. A text on the wall announces that the voice belongs to the artist’s father, knowledge that colors our experience with a sense of Olivares’s personal investment.
The “camera” pans around the room and up the bear’s meticulously rendered matted fur, even delving into the filaments of batting inside the hole left by the missing arm. Eventually, it moves across a desk on which sit a lamp, pills, an iPhone, a MacBook, an alarm clock, an empty coffee cup and saucer, and scattered sheets of paper covered in handwritten notes and diagrams that seem to relate to the making of the video itself. That fleeting emphasis on the already rather gravid self-referentiality of the work gets a further boost when we come to a snapshot of a bathroom on the desktop and dive right in, landing in the bathroom itself, which promptly floods, echoing the tears shed by the bear moments before. As the narration grows increasingly sad, the artist’s father is wracked by sobs while speaking about his mother’s death.
Olivares has rendered Moléculas in black-and-white with flashes of color—a blue toothbrush on the sink and a golden yellow bar of soap on the chipped edge of the tub; cerulean blue rims on the bear’s watering eyes—which evokes old movies or the most conventional of cinematic dream sequences. It also adds to an overarching air of melancholy, Pixar-ish visuals notwithstanding. Toward the end, the video explodes into full color. Protoplasmic abstractions accompany a musical crescendo and a voiceover that becomes more existentially grim until, finally, we return to the bear, who literally explodes, his Steiff-ness atomizing into cocoon-like spores of stuffing.
Moléculas features a high degree of what passes for naturalism in contemporary animation. A shattering lightbulb and some rippling ocean waves are nicely executed, but familiar. The real source of our engagement with the video is the oddly compelling disjunction of the damaged cartoon bear speaking in the emotional voice of Olivares’s father about love, loss, death, and the ultimate meaninglessness of life. An essay by Jane Panetta, curator of the show, argues for the ability of the work to incite an emotional response, but this seems slightly misplaced. In place of empathy, what dominates Moléculas is our distance from the father’s memories. The simulacrum of life, not to mention the fairly leaden symbolism, actually results in a lack of affect. The video does not visit the uncanny valley, exactly, but it does journey near the realm of Teddy Ruxpin, that disconcerting storytelling animatron of yore. In the end, Olivares uses his father’s incredibly personal confession to generate a spooky atmosphere of emotional disconnect. It feels a little bit icky.
The deployment of cartoon animals in explorations of sadness and affect has become a trope of recent art. Think of Adam Shecter’s 2009 New Atlantis, which centers on flooded rooms, or Bunny Rogers’s Brig und Ladder, seen last year at the Whitney, which appropriated characters from the animated TV series Clone High for a morose school musical. Even the fractured fairytales of Wong Ping’s Fables in the current New Museum Triennial might be seen as part of the trend. The reason for this turn to the expression of adult angst through the seemingly childlike may not be hard to fathom; we live in a moment, after all, when cartoon villains occupy the White House. Perhaps, when our public discourse has been so degraded, putting our feelings into the mouths of teddy bears makes for the clearest speech of all.
Juan Antonio Olivares: Moléculas is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through June 10.