New York

Erika Rothenberg And Tracy Tynan

Art has often moved in and out of, or otherwise engaged with, the real world. Such work, by positioning itself outside the gallery or manipulating “nonart” material within conventional spaces, acquires an edge by threatening the admittedly fine line we draw between fiction and reality, art and life. Acting like scientists, anthropologists, private detectives, or journalists, artists like Hans Haacke haul in artifacts from the real world as “evidence,” which they analyze and interpret to argue specific points. Working in the same vein, Erika Rothenberg and Tracy Tynan created an installation based on 17 authentic suicide notes, acquired from an anonymous source at the Los Angeles Police Department.

The artists rewrote the letters to disguise the handwriting and changed the authors’ names; otherwise they remained unaltered. Once the shock and the undeniable fascination of reading the letters—which include a missive from a twelve-year-old boy who shot himself over bad grades, a septuagenarian couple who killed themselves so as not to be a burden, and a scorned lover who penned several, increasingly outraged letters to his ex—wear off, one realizes that Rothenberg and Tynan failed to advance beyond the initial, provocative gesture of collecting suicide notes. The artists’ attempt at an installation consisted of a ring of body bags, each framing a letter, hung around the room, suggesting both the scene of the crime and the morgue. In contrast to this vision of death, at the center of the room two ornately carved black benches and an imitation baroque fountain evoked the contrived sentimentality of funeral parlors and cemeteries, where those left behind go to contemplate the lives that led up to this final act. If anything, this curious effort to evoke two different scenarios in a single space distracted from the weight of the notes themselves. Rothenberg has more skillfully incorporated real-world material into previous works, including her recent series based on overly sentimental greeting cards.

More dubious still is the artists’ failure to justify acquiring the letters. The LAPD source apparently broke the law in turning them over, and the authors’ anonymity was hardly protected by changed names and handwriting. (The installation, when presented at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Los Angeles, broke all attendance records, and was covered in the popular press.) This breach of individual privacy—of the suicides, their families, and other survivors—shows profound disrespect for all involved. This is surprising, given Rothenberg’s earlier work. In the past, she has succinctly illustrated how sexist attitudes, reflected in language and imagery insensitive to women, denies women the right to, among other things, respect.

This century has proved that anything is potential material for art. We rely on the insight and sensibility of the artist to transform unwieldy matter, to defamiliarize it and filter it back to us through a new lens. As this installation revealed, merely to transport powerful material to the gallery and frame it with literalizing props is not enough.

Lois Nesbitt