Easternsports: Narcissus’ Reflecting Pool

da_corte(IMAGE: Alex Da Corte & Jayson Musson: Easternsports, 2014, video still, color, sound. Courtesy of the Internet)

Walking into Alex da Corte and Jayson Musson’s Easternsports at ICA,  you find yourself surrounded by four walls each with a projected video, a psychedelically patterned plush carpet scattered with oranges, and a few candy-colored folding metal chairs.  A faint citrus smell hangs in the air to tempt you, but the oranges are plastic.  This is an exercise in illusion and disillusionment.

A skateboarder winds across all four screens in succession, on a series of striped half pipes inspired by Edna Andrade’s hard-edged abstract paintings.  They’re punctuated by shelves of different color schemes – orange/blue/purple, yellow/green/orange, etc – offering up fake fruits, cleaning supplies, 2 liter soda bottles, rubber balls, and other dollar store detritus.   As the skateboarders – now two of them – ride across the foreground, a woman shops, with the aid of a man dressed as a stagehand on stilts.  She points at things.  He retrieves them and laments about the stupidity of his profession and the uselessness of his Comparative Literature degree.  In French.

Throughout Easternsports, Da Corte uses the intensely beautiful stylization of Endrade’s abstractions as a foil to the existential vapidity of the characters’ repetitive movements.  Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town” is a repeated referent in the press materials, but the characters’ suspended realities may be more akin to Beckett’s ever persistent, never progressing protagonists in “Waiting for Godot.”  The characters in each sequence move at half speed, performing  gendered stereotypes of labor and leisure such as applying makeup, sweeping a floor, opening and closing doors, laying bricks, playing beer pong, and taking selfies.  After the scene’s main action is complete and the characters exit, the camera lingers as stagehands emerge to clean up the mess left behind.  By utilizing Da Corte’s actual studio assistants to parallel their real life roles, the stagehands are tools which break the illusion of the scene and push the viewer out of comfortable complacence.

Musson’s text positions the narrators to be relatable; a guy who hates his job; a girl who looks like all the other girls, but feels apart; a thirty-something guy trying (and failing) to pick up girls ten years his junior at a club; a lover seeing his relationship as a failing self-fulfilling prophecy.  An onlooker, describing, but not participating.  Existential angst is rife throughout, and played for self-deprecating laughs.  This series of narrators are by turns solipsistic and self-absorbed, by others empathetic shepherds leading you through the vast expanse of glossy, entrancingly vapid dreamscapes.

This is where video art finds itself post Ryan Trecartin – character sameness, critique by participation in consumer rituals, multiplicity, artifice and overstimulation.  Instead of Trecartin’s hyper-speed, Da Corte offers us a sludgy half-speed; information overload reduced to a generational apathy.  There are too many screens to watch all at once (your back is nearly always to a projected video), which conjures a feeling of things passing you by, a sense of infinite depth, and an acceptance of watching as much as you can, or choosing to focus on one screen.  At times you are barraged with a fever-pitch of text, running over the slowed images. Musson’s text often finds itself visibly discordant with much of the action.  The actors remain stoic, while the text verges into surrealist melodrama, giving the impression of watching a movie with the wrong subtitles.  Or watching a television show while sitting next to someone who is too self absorbed to stop talking.  This provides a timely pretense of millenial over sharing. It is a gently chiding critique, that perhaps the work is actually a mirror which reflects the chatter of your own social-media-ready-perfectly-formed-140-character-thoughts.

A standout moment is the witch scene.  All four channels of the video show an overflowing serving fountain, filled with fruit and water, gushing out onto the floor. One is occupied by the Wicked Witch of the West from the “Wizard of Oz,” played by Da Corte in warty drag.  She stands in the growing pool of water, now somehow impervious to its melting properties, next to a table with a vase of flowers. She plays bishop, stabbing a knife between her fingers onto her own reflection in an Ikea mirror as she stares the viewer down.  A broom stands erect, Fantasia-like, in the pool of water.  Doors open and close as figures in gold emerge and disappear.  Over this, subtitles without narration appear, and a man explains to his comically unsympathetic shrink his inability to commit to a woman he may have loved, only to watch his distance become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The narration feels familiar; it’s a confession many of us have suspected of those eternal bachelors you may have shared a bed and a little piece of your life with.  Is the pursuit of love through emotionally detached sex so different from the immune witch playing a self-harming game because she knows she’ll no longer melt? Or perhaps these are simply outtakes from a therapy session that have been dormant in a journal for years.

The sets are beautiful to a point of slickness but are afforded a more critical content by Musson’s text.   One character echos Barthes’ “Death of the Author”. She opines about the lack of “Authorial Authority,” stating that “we live in an era of Sports Authority, but no Actual Authority.” You doubt your narrator, you doubt the context of the meticulously constructed tableaux, you doubt yourself. At points the pace drags, the quips feel a little redundant, or perhaps a little too cute, and the images are in danger of feeling overly superficial or arbitrary. But the sublime slowness of the characters’ generally vapid actions lends Da Corte’s visuals a feeling of ritual importance, a sense of a mystical understanding of the characters’ own basicness.  Musson’s subtitles perch precariously on top of this reflecting pool, testing the depth of its waters, goading the denizen characters who populate the screens, and in turn the viewer, making pedestrian and utterly familiar unspoken longings and uncertainties.

If the artists’ two egos seem to be at occasional odds their discordance seems to serve a larger purpose, an idea of multiplicities of meaning, of cultural contradictions.  Da Corte’s suave images need Musson’s hyperaware text to disrupt them, and Musson’s paranoia floats gently along Da Corte’s beautifully constructed mirror.  All it needed was Kate Kraczon’s gentle curatorial push to dive in.

Meredith Sellers is an artist, educator, and recent graduate of UPenn’s MFA program.

Alex Da Corte & Jayson Musson: Easternsports

December 28, 2014

Institute of Contemporary Art: Philadelphia

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