Critics’ Picks

Zoe Beloff, History of a Fixed Idea, 2008, stereoscopic HD video in color with sound, 11 minutes. Installation view.

New York

Zoe Beloff

Bellwether
134 Tenth Avenue
September 2 - October 4

Call it a paranoid period piece, of the Pynchonesque variety: At the turn of the last century, hysteria seizes Paris, not as a condition but as a craze. Psychiatrists at the renowned Salpêtrière hospital diagnose the maladjusted (and fetching) young ladies in their charge as hysterics; in an apparent conflation of professional and prurient interests, they devote greater resources to recording their patients’ wild gesticulations with the newfangled technologies of photography and film than to devising effective treatments. Dissemination of these records outside scientific channels ushers in a vogue among Parisian entertainers for exaggerated wriggling and flailing, a veritable neurasthenic pantomime. Years later, a cabal of so-called Surrealists celebrate hysteria as a “supreme means of expression” and make a poster child of Augustine, a Salpêtrière patient whose violent yet seductive spasms beguiled her caretakers. Surrealists also champion a male patient, Raymond Roussel, who suffers from delusions of grandeur as he writes compulsively; various avant-gardists help turn his Locus Solus into a theatrical production, though the piece’s ardent paean to musically inclined earthworms ensures a fitfully short run.

For “The Somnambulists,” Zoe Beloff engages this off-kilter confluence of fin de siècle psychiatry, popular entertainment, and emerging media. Research-based practices steeped in such interesting material risk dissolving into their own archives, but Beloff cannily turns the theatrical and technological tropes she investigates into a working visual language. Four dollhouse-size dioramas, resembling theaters or institutional settings, contain latter-day re-creations of Dr. Pepper’s Ghost, an early special effect that, by means of mirrors, created the illusion of ghostly figures onstage. Diagnosed hysterics and cabaret acts that mimicked their gestures—digitally culled from archival footage—appear as black-and-white hallucinations, caught in an endless loop of sharp twitches and gyrations. Head to the back for the show’s main attraction: two case histories by the Salpêtrière’s Dr. Pierre Janet, transposed into short threepenny musicals. The production, which casts Janet as the drama’s narrator-protagonist and other actors as suffering patients or villainous mental maladies, is presented as a candy-colored stereoscopic projection. The obligatory 3-D eyeglasses lend to the viewing experience the distinct feel of a clunky antique technology still burdened with future promise—an artifact without an era.