Bunny in the Headlights
On view this July at the Whitney Museum of American Art is Bunny Rogers’ “Brig und Ladder,” a sometimes-confounding fusion of personal reflection and pop-cultural theatrics.
Bunny Rogers, still from A Very Special Holiday Performance in Columbine Auditorium, 2017. Color video, with sound. Collection of the artist; courtesy Société, Berlin
On April 20, 1999, on the outskirts of Denver, two students at Columbine High School killed a dozen of their fellows and one teacher, and injured multiple others, inscribing themselves in American culture in the process. The Columbine High School massacre, as it has come to be known, has sparked a wearying number of copycat mass shootings, as well as music, books, movies, TV shows, and endless tortured reflection. Bunny Rogers was nine years old at the time, and the reverberations of that day have stuck with her. The young artist has titled three of her recent exhibitions after the school's library and cafeteria—scenes of much of the carnage—and many of her works make reference to the event and its aftermath.
The centerpiece of "Bunny Rogers: Brig Und Ladder" at the Whitney, the artist's first major museum outing, is the animated video A Very Special Holiday Performance in Columbine Auditorium. The video itself depicts the auditorium's stage in relatively convincing 3D, and is projected in a darkened room fitted with six theater seats. These replicate those in the school, giving audience members the impression of being in a simulation of the original site. The stage in the video is eerily empty and completely bare save for a couple of plastic chairs off to one side, a boxlike plinth draped in black fabric, and an upright piano at which sits a female figure. Volumetric, yet not limned with the naturalism of her surroundings, the young woman makes for an odd avatar, half in the "real" world of the illusionistic digital rendering, half in the flatland of a cartoon.
The pianist plays a short piece, then two more girls enter and mount the steps to the stage. Both seem even more stylized than the one at the piano, moving stiffly, like paper dolls brought to life. They have smooth, U-shaped faces with flattened, truncated heads from which sheets of hair hang down, and their perpetually downcast eyes are represented by simple curved lines. The pianist begins again and the central figure, clad entirely in teen-goth black, starts to sing the familiar tune "Memory," from the Broadway musical Cats, but in Russian. The third figure plays a flute solo near the end of the song, the two young women exit, and a flock of small birds (or perhaps huge insects) flutters against the burgundy curtain at the back of the stage. Fade out.
The CGI performance produces a strange and complex affect. The plaintive, girlish rendition of the elegiac show tune, the weird mien and awkward quasi-life of the characters, and the magical-realist entrance and disappearance of the flying creatures combine with our knowledge of the setting to elicit a certain melancholy. This is commingled with a chilled splash of horror, even as we remain fully aware that these emotions play out as the result of kitsch piled on top of kitsch. A Very Special Holiday Performance in Columbine Auditorium is creepy and alienating, yet also quietly bracing in the way it forces us to watch ourselves being seduced by such transparent means.
But Rogers's project is also baffling. Specific meaning remains elusive, and the artist's choice of details cryptic. Why these figures, compellingly particular but unrelatable in their abstract artifice? Why that tacky song, and why in Russian? And what about the only other object in the gallery, a large plush-toy orca, Tilikum Body Pillow, named after the animal performer at SeaWorld who killed three people?
Stepping through a wine-colored curtain into a second room, we find more sculptural ciphers. Spotlit against mid-gray walls, these often occur, like the performers and chairs in the video, in groups of three. A trio of high wooden ladders, too platonically perfect to ever see use, leans against one wall. Each structure stands over twelve feet tall and sports a finish of metallic marker in a different hue: copper, blue, or purple. Those flanking the central one are missing one or two rungs, throwing their utility into further doubt. Three oversized cartoonish string mops have double-layered heads in paired hues—yellow and blue, red and green, blue and orange—like school colors. A knee-high female version of Thomas the Tank Engine (apparently a character named simply "Lady" in the boy-oriented world of the children's TV show) wears a bow and pulls two train cars, each with its own face.
A rectangle of chain-link fencing hangs on another wall, strung with scores of flat graphic leaves that replicate car air fresheners; some actually are air fresheners, faintly permeating the gallery with their industrial perfume, just as the music from the video next door wafts into the space. This work, Memorial Wall (Fall), resembles those makeshift public monuments that spring up spontaneously in response to tragedies involving multiple casualties. And a set of tall office chairs, hunks of upholstery ripped from their backs, evokes gaping wounds and the aftermath of physical or psychological violence.
Rogers's theatrical mise-en-scènes certainly conjure the oneiric, if not the Surrealist, but again her intention hovers frustratingly just out of reach. The artist belongs to a generation to whom appropriation and sampling are second nature, so her mixing of images from various realms of recent history and popular culture comes as no surprise. Columbine touches and links many of the works, but ostensibly not others, unless, perhaps, we take them to a maudlin degree of literalness. Are we really to equate the killer whale with the murderous students? Are the mops for school cleanup?
The Whitney's wall labels suggest that we should understand Rogers's works as manifestations of her personal obsessions, and as the results of a childhood spent bathed in the glow of TV and computer screens. The idiosyncratic appearance of the girls in the video, for instance, harks back to characters in Clone High, a short-lived MTV cartoon set in a school attended by genetic replicants of famous historical figures. And the artist's interest in Russia evidently comes from both her family heritage and some juvenile veneration of ideas about young gymnasts, ballet, and folktales rather than anything more involved. But in the end, one can't help feeling that reading Rogers's exhibition—and the sense of confusion it engenders—as the embodiment of concerns so private they resist legibility seems like a a cop-out.
Since the inauguration of its expansive new building two years ago, the Whitney has succeeded in balancing its exhibition program between the established and the overlooked, the historical and the emergent. It's tried to be, if not all things to all people, at least many things to many people (the 2017 Biennial, for example, was a controversial success). Rogers's appearance seems consistent with this admirable commitment to the promising yet untried. There is no denying her skill in creating ambience and mood, her consummate craftsmanship and stagecraft, or her fascinatingly idiosyncratic re-envisioning of iconic images and events. She's been compared to the antic Ryan Trecartin, and the frenetic velocity of the more established artist's take on contemporary culture provides an instructive foil to her deliberation and stillness, her mournful rumination, and her quirky, web-fueled cross-referencing, in all its unsettled subjectivity.
"Bunny Rogers: Brig und Ladder" is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from July 7 to October 9, 2017.
Joseph R. Wolin is a New York-based curator, critic, and educator. A regular contributor to Time Out New York, he is currently co-curating "Living Together," a performance series organized by the Miami Dade College Museum of Art and Design.