The two stunning videos in Tracey Rose’s second solo show at The Project offer a strong concoction of the urgent conceptual theme of identities in the global context through an appealingly unpretentious yet formally acute aesthetic. Based in Johannesburg and merely twenty-eight years old, Rose has an impressive international exhibition history, including the 2001 Venice Biennial and residencies at ArtPace in San Antonio and the South African National Gallery in Cape Town. While her improvised, thrift-store DIY aesthetic smacks of the populism of this year’s Whitney Biennial and her global themes and global identity (she is a black South African woman and an international artist) should have made her a shoe-in for Documenta XI, Rose’s videos are ultimately as much about her art practice—a fine combination of video, performance, and photography—as about any “issue” of identity or globalization.
To make “TKO” (2000), Rose literally fought with her camera: four surveillance cameras record the artist boxing with a punching bag including one in the bag itself. Projected onto a translucent scrim in the middle of a dark empty gallery, “TKO” is composed of multiple, layered images of the artist’s gloves and feet attacking the bag, her naked torso stepping back, and then the small room spinning out of control as she lands a punch and sends her camera flying inside her “opponent.” The screen hands like a punching bag, inviting the viewer to spar with the artist and the work through the act of looking, as the artist enacts her own struggle with her camera, violently directing it with punches that turn the lends back on the artist herself. The simultaneous projection of images and the chaotic, open direction of the camera prevent the complete depiction of the artist’s form or a fixed perspective of the scene. Her punches are aimed at the viewer through her camera. And Rose has enough humor and intelligence to include her moments as the object of violence as well as the subject: sometimes the punching bag swings back at her, knocking her out.
This depiction of the artist’s struggle to work is an interesting alternative to Bruce Nauman’s recent installation at the Dia Center. Both works are surveillance videos-cum-sculptural video installation with a meditative and humorous tenor. But while Rose infuses her body and open sexuality into her struggle, Nauman just left the studio.
The translucent fabric and the watery, pale gray quality of the images give “TKO” and ephemeral quality not found in many “new media” art works, which seem poised to last forever, burned on DVD and played in Technicolor on high-definition televisions. The haphazard direction of the camera and the juxtaposition of images give the work an abstract quality, although the subject matter never disappears. Rose has said about this work: “Monet’s water lilies struck me—that commitment to the surface—my understanding of boxing was that it was an art, a passion, like dancing, and the intention was that each punch would be a mark, a gesture, building up to something.” Building up the “surface” of her video through her violence and passion for art, Rose infuses her work with a tense eroticism that is formidable and seductive. The video is accompanied by a muted soundtrack of guttural cries, grunts, and moans. Played at a barely audible volume, the sound of the artist’s violence is rendered as subtly as the images and is as erotic as it is angry. The lo-fi quality of the surveillance tape and sound reference early video art as much as a painterly condition.
Rose continues to explore the infusion of canonical art history (through her own postmodern eye) into the more recently established traditions of video art in “Ciao Bella” (2001), a video triptych of a Last Supper attended by a motley crew of women and girls. In the opening scene, a school marm-ish woman stands in front of a heavy curtain and recites her lines: “All the world’s a stage. Men and women have their exists and entrances.” The curtain opens to reveal a long table running across all three screens. The guests at this warped version of Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” sit, stand, and lounge on the table set directly against bright primary color backgrounds. “Ciao Bella” is a collage of characters, extreme versions of well-known female stereotypes. Venus Hottentot, Lolita, a mermaid, a dominatrix, and an exotic Asian beauty are all played by the artist, constructed through grotesque makeup and carnival costumes made of industrial detritus, like Cindy Sherman’s recent plays on aging Hollywood types, but without Sherman’s glossy surfaces. There is no overarching narrative; it is a video collage as each character plays out her role, some dying, some becoming violent, some flying away, some writing in ecstasy.
In the right corner, a solid black silhouette, as if from a Kara Walker drawing, morphs from a nun into an Indian in a feathered headdress into Josephine Baker into a cowgirl with a guitar. Rose’s dinner party is a decidedly post-postmodern affair: a pastiche not only of these stereotypes, but of artists like Sherman whose strategies of appropriation have become trite. Rose’s carefully orchestrated but gritty aesthetic moves towards achieving a formally rigorous yet conceptually flexible practice that allows her simultaneously to depict the violence and the pleasure of this selection of gendered, sexualized roles.