Cecelia Condit, Beneath the Skin,1981, Still from video
I have been following the work of Cecelia Condit since her very first video piece in 1981. I happened to be doing a short teaching stint at the Cleveland Art Institute where Condit was teaching full-time. She had been hired as a photographer but was just beginning to take a big step into moving image media which would come to preoccupy her completely until around 2016 when she started to make photographs again–large, photoshopped surreal landscapes as enigmatic in their own ways as some of her video works. The first video piece I saw was also her first, Beneath the Skin, in which a quirky female voice recounts the macabre story of a man she dated who turned out to have murdered his previous girlfriend and hidden her body in a trunk in their bedroom. The narrative is accompanied by slightly creepy imagery–a beautiful young girl having an epileptic seizure on the lawn, a skull, faces projected on real faces, but it is the narrative itself that propels the story and sets the tone in the artist’s signature accent and intonation. Essentially it is a tale of mystery and cruelty recounted in such a tone as to make the viewer wonder, “Did this really happen? Is it really true?” That question stayed with me for many years and was not resolved until sometime in the 1990’s — a resolution I won’t reveal. As the narrator says, “But that’s another story.”
Cecelia Condit, Pizzly Bear, 2017, Still from video
All the incongruities in her latest, short work, Pizzly Bear (a combination of Polar and Grizzly), carry the strangeness forward from that first piece into the present. The pathetic specter of this tiny creature contrasts the sheer cruelty of his treatment. The little bear on wheels– such an adorable stuffed toy animal– is subjected to constant abuse by the artist, whom you never see. She drags him through the snow and ice, over rocky terrain, dunks him into deep, ferocious water, hauls him up by his pulley, while her voice expresses sorrow and outrage over his existential condition and commiserates with his real-life counterpart, who is in danger of extinction. The artist’s acts of debasement of the little bear stand in for the larger acts of environmental depredation perpetrated by governments and corporations worldwide.
Cecelia Condit, Pizzly Bear, 2017, Still from video
Probably the cruelest (and funniest) of all Condit’s single-channel videos is the most famous, from 1983, called Possibly in Michigan. It is a fan favorite, adored by students and young women around the country, if not the world. It is, ostensibly, about female empowerment. In it, two stylish and world-wise young women roam a Midwestern mall, pursued by a man (named Arthur) in formal dress, wearing a mask of a very pale rubber face with perpetually gaping mouth. “The three of them,” says the artist’s voice, “had two things in common: violence and perfume.” An accompanying home-made music track is synthetic and bouncy in contrast to the menacing quality of the video imagery, and the girls often sing-speak in a kind of “sprechtstimme,” lending an operatic flare to this feminist tale of cannibalism. Eventually the two girls lure Arthur to their home and appear to chop him to bits and cook the parts in a stew. But, as I recall, at the very end, as the girls are finishing their meal, Arthur briefly appears outside their window. Is this a ghost haunting them? Is he Everyman continuing to pursue them? Or is it really Arthur, and the stew merely symbolic of what they would like to do, if they could?
Cecelia Condit, Possibly in Michigan, 1983, Still from video
There are other instances of pitiless behavior in Condit’s work—behavior with elements of fantasy, macabre playfulness, even moral righteousness. In Not a Jealous Bone, a young woman and a very old one fight over the magic bone of eternal youth; Little Spirits deals with the ultimate meanness and betrayal of one young girl of her friend, and All About a Girl shows a young girl playing with her dead pet rat, dressed as a doll, with the projection of a human child on its face.
Cecelia Condit, All About a Girl, 2004, Still from video
Archetypal themes of man vs woman, youthful beauty vs old age, deceitful friendship, and bizarre childhood fantasy are given a bitter twist in Condit’s work without the accompanying violence of more popular media (like Game of Thrones.) Rather, they depict a psychological violence resulting from a basic cold-heartedness in human nature. They expose our tendency to turn others’ misfortunes to our own advantage, indeed, to cause those misfortunes out of jealousy or anger or, worse, an instinct for cruelty towards our fellow man and other “inferior” creatures. Without preaching, the artist invokes our own fears and anxieties, both about our species and ourselves.
Mary Lucier, UNTITLED (POW-WOW), 2017. Color. Sound. 9:30 minutes, continuous.
Mary Lucier has been celebrated for her contributions to the form of multi-monitor, multi-channel video installation since the early 1970’s. Her work has been shown in museums and galleries around the world, where it now resides in numerous important collections. She lives and works in New York City and Cochecton.