Now You See It, Now You Don't

David Frankel on Georgina Starr

Artforum, 1996


In the shabby England of the '50s and much of the '60s, World War II did not seem so far away. Even as Swinging London, when it came, was said to be thrilling the youth, people too old for it (they weren't so old, really) had vivid memories of food rationing; and there was a social conspiracy to make impoverishment look not just tolerable but jolly. These were the glory days of Butlin's holiday camps, Wimpy beef-burgers, and Bird's powdered custard. For me that era is necessarily evoked by a particular British vehicle: a caravan, the kind of car-towed, rounded, boxlike vacation-home-on-wheels that Georgina Starr made the centerpiece of her spring show at Barbara Gladstone in New York.

The Americans, planning for cross-continental highways rather than the narrow roads of a bounded island, were quite a lot better at this sort of leisure object: no Winnebago, Starr's caravan has a pathos to which she is fully alive. Inside, this found-object RV is a spectrum of Formica and vinyl browns, and the design - benches fitted to table, kitchenette, sofa/cot, shelves and cupboards all carpentered in, no inch wasted - is a triumph of both convenience and constriction. It's like an airline meal realized as domestic space. (Bet it was like that when she got it; bet she didn't have to change a thing; bet she saw it and said to herself. "Brilliant!" - assuming she's not already trying to escape that word. the generation-defining title of the show devoted to young British artists, herself among them, curated by Richard Flood at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center last year. Add to all this that Starr sets up her caravan not as the site of a cheap, hotelless holiday but as some poor chap's home and what we have here might seem to be an English "abjection" - a transatlantic cousin to those American productions that appear, at least on the surface, intended mainly to prove the inadequacy of the upcoming age group's creative, professional, and life options, and their own shortcomings in coping with their lot.

Though there's abject art much less wretched than that sounds, I'm glad Starr's installations are something completely different. For one thing, the caravan piece - it's called Magic - is only a part of a larger work, Hypnodreamdruff, 1996, that was shown at London's Tate Gallery earlier this year but hasn't come to New York in its entirety. As far as can be discerned from this coastline, British critics don't seem to have known quite what to make of Hypnodreamdruff, but they agree on the elaborateness of the conception. The piece involves a series of interlocking situations or narratives carried by videos and installations, their sites ranging from the caravan seen in Magic to a teenage girl's bedroom (in Frenchy, also shown in New York) to a nightclub (The Hungry Brain) to the kitchen of three London flatmates. An amalgam of dream, memory, reenactment, and something like TV sitcom, Hypnodreamdruff is the opposite of abject in its basic assumption: the imaginative self's ability to make something magically complex, layered, and densely referential out of virtually nothing but its own stuff.

This, anyway, is what Starr's art suggests, as does her text for The Nine Collections of the Seventh Museum, which hasn't yet been seen in New York, but is essential Starr. She began it in 1994 in The Hague - a place she describes in the Brilliant! catalogue as "the most boring city in the world." Parked in a pension, supposedly creating a project for a local arts group, she claims she hadn't a clue what to do. So she sewed a doll, Junior, and its costume out of fabric scraps in her landlady's closet, and videotaped herself doing so; she took photos when she went walking, or when she ate out, sometimes alone, sometimes in company she found through a personal ad; and she just lived, and did things, and then collected her photographs and videos and bits and pieces, together with clothes, letters from mum, writings, the extraterrestrial helmet of telepathy she wore in Visit to a Small Planet, 1994-95, and the general accumulation of her stay, and made them into an installation in her hotel room. Then she took a photograph of the installation; then she left town, presumably ASAP; and then she wrote a long dissertationlike exegesis of the photograph, reading its mundane and peculiar images as art objects and organizing them carefully into "collections" - The Nine Collections of the Seventh Museum.

The piece would be pointedly funny if it were simply a send-up of art's systems: the systems of museology and art history, say, evoked in the essay's detailed cross-references, its tracings of sources, its stabs at interpretation, its citations of local antecedents, and its efforts to reconstruct the ideas and actions of a mysterious "visitor," the creator - Starr - of all this stuff. Also on the receiving end is the contemporary art world's organizational habit of shipping artists to unfamiliar cities and asking them to produce, in a few weeks in situ, a work that will somehow contribute to residents' understanding of the place. (Residents might not be so flattered by Starr's videotaped conversations with Junior, through whom she ventriloquizes boredom and homesickness - "Well," replies Starr, "we've only been here a few days, we should give it a chance. We can't give up so easily can we. We're supposed to find something interesting about Den Haag.") The Nine Collections doesn't excoriate, though, in the way of satire proper - there's no hate in it. The creator of a system as intricate as this one, or as that of Hypnodreamdruff, is too involved in this kind of complexity to want to see it all leveled. Indeed, in one sense The Nine Collections aims as high as the art history it parodies: it proposes a model of artmaking.

All art does this implicitly, of course, just by being whatever it is, but Starr makes artmaking her subject. And the artmaking she enacts seems to be one of makeshift invention, "something out of nothing," as she has said, using whatever comes to hand, including her own moods and memories, and even, in earlier work, wind eddies, drafts, and whistled tunes - literally the air-light and immaterial. Combining the baroque and the apparently spontaneous, the method is also often pretty humorous; wily and shielded, it has the ability to make most efforts to discuss it seem self-important. Starr can certainly poke fun, and does so in videos like Gloriously Gifted, 1994, which jabs cheerfully at stardom of all kinds by showing the artist apparently performing athletic coups with a football: shot separately from each other, the moves of ball and player have been spliced together unnaturally, and are obviously utterly unconnected. Who, though, is this artist, smiling and bobbing? And who is the mysterious "visitor" artist of The Nine Collections? The piece does seem like some kind of record of a few lonely weeks, and unlike one possible antecedent - '60s and '70s process art's cool and self-reflexive documentation of its own making - Starr's mode here is expressly personal; titles like the "Seven Sorrows Collection," or the "Allegory of Happiness Collection," seem to name her own emotions and experience. On the other hand, though, the whole thing is framed as an art-history thesis topic - is framed as fiction. The emotions and experience recede. Who knows how true Starr's version of the work's making is anyway? Perhaps she knew pretty much what she wanted to do all along.

This mix of autobiography and distance is concisely stated in Crying, 1993, a five-minute video installation showing Starr standing in a corner of her studio, in tears. If expressionist art demands the simultaneous release and recording of deep feeling, then this might be expressionism's quintessence - but as the tape plays again, and again, emotion becomes performance. What may have been a problem for Jackson Pollock here appears as strategy: repeated, the gesture that carries emotion loses meaning. Yet enough of a trace of it remains that one would be ashamed to write it off as rote or fake; better to say that it becomes elusive and unreliable. And Starr, who seems to show us herself so openly, eludes us too. Thus in Frenchy, the second part of Hypnodreamdruff shown in New York, Starr again combines her own life - her memory of performing in a school production of Grease when she was 15 - with artifice: this time around she picks one scene from the musical and plays all the parts. There's a video, in which we watch her do this; and there's an installation, the bedroom in which the conversation seen on-screen takes place. Starr - we recognize her face by now - seems both a familiar presence and, as she plays the scene's different characters, an unknowable one, multifaceted, all of these people and none of them.

One effect of Starr's combinations of video and installation is a feeling of absence: where you sit and stand, on that bed, on that rug, Starr herself once played the parts you're watching on TV, but she's not there anymore. Similarly, The Nine Collections now exists as a poster, a text, a set of photographs, and a CD-ROM; the installation itself has dematerialized. This recurrent bodilessness - an extension in another key, I think, of the earlier pieces in wind and air - gives a haunting undertow to Starr's humor, but also supplies another metaphor for her work: magic. Now you see it, now you don't. The miraculous is attainable through sleight of hand. In the caravan with which we began, there's another video: scenes from the life of Dave, a soft-bodied man who works in a dry cleaner's and moonlights as a children's party conjurer. We watch him practice tricks with balloon animals and ping-pong balls (just as Starr entertains Junior with ping-pong balls in The Nine Collections, and makes balloon animals in The Party, 1995): he's awful, as awful as the caravan he lives in. But he's also . . . a happy guy. Dave may wear polyester pinks and purples, may fantasize that he's Lionel Ritchie, may be a terrifying cook (we see him squeeze dried spaghetti into a pot of hot water; in a sexual pun in reverse, it has to go flabby to fit). Yet Dave is allowed to be ridiculously pleased with himself. Like Starr - who, in The Party, also prepares an elaborate meal to which no one else shows up - he proposes some kind of model of artmaking. In a Starr-lit universe, in fact, Dave's something-out-of-nothing brand of magic makes him a pudgy orb of creativity.

David Frankel is an editor in the publications department of MoMA, New York, and a contributing editor of Artforum.