I remember, but can no longer find, an art magazine rant in which the author demanded to know why artists, and art, couldn’t just grow up. Why, she wanted to know, was there such a preoccupation with childhood, or worse yet, hormone-charged adolescence? Wasn’t this just another capitulation to our culture’s media-induced preoccupation with eternal youth? Don’t adults have more sophisticated concerns?
At first glance, Alex Bag’s low-tech video skits might seem like so much more fuel for this kind of rant—in them, youth culture’s fascinations (pop music, fashion, irony) are a given. Bag’s almost constant presence in her own work is not an “adult” critique of the media, but an acknowledgement of her own unsanitary immersion in it. The videos are interspersed with teen-dream interludes of Bag fiercely lip-synching radio hits by overpumped boy rockers. Though full of mockery, Bag is willingly transformed, via Warholian tropes and blanched videography, from wannabe to pop star. The interludes represent Bag’s most basic materials: herself and her camera. Upon this foundation, she builds savage takes on her retail-driven universe: Ronald McDonald trying to pick up Hello Kitty at a party; two shop girls whose daily grind is almost as “Bohring Bohring Bohring” as their adenoidal self-pity; and a motiva-tional rock-n-roll show’s host who seeks the universal message in Mick Jagger’s biography.
Still, adolescence is not so much Bag’s subject as her modality. The work’s psychic location is signified by the video screen’s physical location in a retro-fit lovemobile whose every interior surface is plush, padded or shaggy. There is no more ideal teen hideaway than one with wheels (not to mention a pit bed), and customizing this van is just one more way of marking out territory, albeit a territory of style. The inviting environment also solves a chronic problem of video artists—how to make their audience stick around and watch. On this closed-circuit BagTV, we see the artist as ostracized Girl Scout, Thelma-and-Louise-style phone sex grrrl, mournful River Phoenix fan, or even just a silently enthused vehicle for product display. Bag’s powers of observance are ruthlessly acute. There is no more potent a secret than a girl alone in her room. Give the girl a video camera and she becomes an oracle.
As a modality, adolescence is not without redeeming qualities: fully actualized self-obsession, gawky grace and fervid powers of imagination. Adolescence is a space where theory is backed into corners, where minimalism is irrelevant, where elegance and restraint begin to seem stingy in comparison to full-blown bouts of indulgence, where narrative is crucial. The urgent seesaws with the flippant. And the flippant is important; instead of wringing her hands over the fact that art is often for other artists, Bag frequently takes advantage of her “converted” audience to skewer the art world. We don’t have to hear about her inadequacy, ambitions, or identity—rather, she satirizes such preoccupations. Bag’s manic changes of character, like her periodic changes of name, don’t explore issues of identity themselves. They respond to a horror vacui of identity in a world where so much is adjustable.
At the same time, Bag’s transparent subterfuge (wigs, makeup, hilarious accents) allows her to maintain two stances simultaneously. In the dead seconds between lines of dialogue—the video salvage that another editor might have trimmed—her characters’ faces are sometimes sideswiped by an utterly knowing look. It’s not as easy as an “I’m only kidding” or an “I’m trapped in this video” look; it’s more like a nanosecond outside the character, a reminder of how much energy it takes to hold it all together, to fill the void.
It’s a visitation from “the real” Alex Bag, if such a person exists. There is the absolute unknowingness of the characters, and the absolute knowingness of Bag, a duality which exaggerates our own experience of naïveté.
That’s why watching Bag’s lovably dense art student, a patron saint of growing pains whose story is presented in segments that correspond to each succeeding semester of school, is so painful. You don’t have to be an artist to recognize the mental rites of passage as the student goes from the wonders of shading and foreshortening to “like, ideas” to her inarticulate frustration with a blindered professor. Our voyeuristic superiority over this hapless girl is weakened by strong identification, by the realization that no matter how far past adolescence we think we have come, our wisdom is limited and the available guidance grossly inadequate.
Nestled down in Bag’s pleasure-mobile, one might be comfortably on autopilot by the time the video winds toward the end of its first segment, when Bag comes as close as she actually does to confession. I’m certain this is purposeful, that one is meant to be on the threshold of television sleep and adolescent dreams by the time Bag’s final pop interlude presents itself, shy but undeniably genuine. In it, the artist no longer lip-synchs, but as the melancholic song provides what all teens crave—an appropriate soundtrack in a room of one’s own—the artist holds a tulip to her face and silently cries, risking everything in a romantic display of loss. There is a sense of relief, of respite, from the quick parade of personas. Yet one gets the sense that here the supercharged moments of adolescence have not been outgrown—nor should they be.
Shaila Dewan is a writer and art critic in Houston, TX.