Trisha Baga “the eye, the eye and the ear”
Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano
February 20, 2020 – January 10, 2021
“the eye, the eye and the ear”, curated by Lucia Aspesi and Fiammetta Griccioli, is the first institutional show of the artist in Italy. The exhibition brings together five video installations investigating the co-dependent evolution of the body with the constantly updating image technology. It covers fifteen years of production, from her first piece There’s No “I” in Trisha (2005-2007/2020), conceived as a TV sitcom that questions the gender stereotypes of all the various characters whose roles Trisha Baga plays; to the more recent work 1620 (2020) produced specifically for this show. Like a mise en abyme, the exhibition meanders through the various media which have characterized Baga’s career, ranging from VHS cassettes and DVDs to 3D devices, and is deeply rooted in her performative practice. Furthermore, the artist presents a rich selection of ceramic works produced since 2015 and six pieces from the series Seed Paintings (2017), composed of sesame seeds and foam mounted on wooden panels of varying sizes.
The show’s display hints at the aesthetics commonly found in natural history museums, not only in its style of presentation, but also by using an unusual classification system that intertwines the idea of the fossil with high-tech devices such as today’s virtual personal assistants, thus creating a sort of temporal short-circuit. Through her ironical and witty perspective Baga focuses on the excessive reliance and hopes we put on technology, staging in her work its most fragile and failing aspects. The show’s title “the eye, the eye and the ear”, individualizes and fragments the bodily senses that are active while experiencing the exhibition, in which the visual effects replicate and dialogue with the sounds in such a way that the narrative becomes a living organism.
Upon entering the exhibition space, visitors are greeted by large wall writing, ORLANDO (2015–2020). The text is an excerpt from the foreword of the book Half Mile Down (1934) written by the naturalist and scientist William Beebe, featuring a disclaimer of possible printing imperfections of the volume. However, Baga has replaced the word “book” with the word “man”, thereby generating a paradoxical swap of identities between man and object. The work acts as a declaration introducing the exhibition ahead, linking the human body to material and cultural artefacts and forming a central issue of Baga’s oeuvre. As opening and closing credits of the show, the same excerpt reappears in reverse on the exit wall of the Shed.
Situated at the entrance of the exhibition, “the geological corridor of evolution” of the manmade artefacts of civilisation – as defined by the artist – presents a collection of thirty ceramic artworks made from 2015 to the present day. They include such things as Sphinx-like poodles with flaming heads, popular cultural figures, that double as vessels for virtual assistants (such as the drag queen and television celebrity RuPaul), electronic devices and other assorted objects (projectors, slides, microscopes). Placed on plinths as if fossilized in ceramic, these are objects that feature in Baga’s daily life, alongside traces of present and past, that are wryly repurposed as if they were museum exhibits.
On the opposite side, Baga has set up the new work created especially for this exhibition at Pirelli HangarBicocca, 1620 (2020), a video installation inspired by the legendary object known as Plymouth Rock, which symbolically marks the origins of the United States of America. According to the artist, 1620 is an impressionistic work of science fiction, which reframes Plymouth Rock as a source of “narrative stem cells” in the hands of genetic scientists studying deep-seated flaws in The American Drama. By tracking the history of the Rock, and its repeated fracturing over several centuries, Baga employs the point of view of the cinematic composite as a source of cultural identification.
The centre of the exhibition space is devoted to two installations that have played a determining role in defining the artist’s oeuvre: her first video piece, entitled There’s No “I” in Trisha (2005-07); and Madonna y El Niño (2010). In the first work, visitors are welcomed by a living room – like a typical set from an American television show – while a nearby screen is showing a sitcom interpreted by the artist herself. The video harks back to some of the features typical of shows such as Friends or Frasier – complete with canned laughter, lightweight script, and stereotyped characters – in order to re-examine typecast gender roles and sexuality, the social norms that regulate them and how they are portrayed in the media.
The title of the second piece, Madonna y El Niño, recalls multiple imageries: from the Virgin Mary as well as the singer Madonna, along with the yearly climate phenomenon El Niño. The work introduces Baga’s fascination for natural phenomena and popular culture, comparing the linguistic evolution of Madonna’s cultural output to the water cycle. A disco ball is positioned before the projected film, reflecting and scattering its pixels to simultaneously mimic special effects of weather, and represent the transformations of a desirous image-body.
Concluding this immersive route through Baga’s video installations is one of her most recent works, Mollusca & The Pelvic Floor (2018). Adopting a visual language close to Hollywood science-fiction movies (such as Gravity and Contact), this work enters a dimension, where the dense plot continually shifts between the real and the virtual, the haptic and the optical. “Mollusca” is the homophonic pet name the artist has given Alexa and their relationship is the symbol of metamorphosis and contact between different species. As often arises in Baga’s work, what unfolds on the screen has no definite end but holds one’s attention through a synesthetic splicing of sensations and contrasting landscapes that transcends the universal forms of communication.