New York

Beth B

P.P.O.W. / Crosby Street Project / Anthology Film Archives

If only because of their intrepid advent in the wake of last year’s demonizing of “victim art,” Beth B’s simultaneous film retrospective and exhibitions struck bracing poses this winter. At the same time, they also suggested some of the problems with the genre.

B’s film work shows her to be a virtuoso of the talking head. In Stigmata, 1991, a half dozen men and women, each addressing the camera directly and alone, speak of their involvement with drugs. Cutting regularly among these hurt but articulate people, and occasionally interspersing shots of sunlit countryside, B brings out relationships among their stories, and sets a subtly absorbing pace. The one-minute Amnesia addresses the mechanisms of racism: here the speakers run through a series of slurs on “them”—comments that all sound current, but that the credits tell us date from 1992, when the film was made, to as far back as 1860.

Amnesia also features a seductively musical edit, with rhythmic visual and aural progressions, repetitions, and overlaps. Belladonna, 1989, which B made with her mother, the artist Ida Applebroog, pushes that musicality further, again with talking-head performers whose speeches are cut up, interwoven, and repeated, so that we gradually piece them together over the film’s 11 minutes. As in Amnesia, the credits ask us to reimagine what we’ve just heard: the script, we learn, consists of quotations from Freud’s essay “A Child Is Being Beaten”; from Joel Steinberg, the New Yorker who abused his adopted daughter until she died in a notorious ’80s case; and from survivors of Josef Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz doctor.

Does there seem to be a theme here? B’s works eternally return to trauma, violence, and suffering. A feature film, Two Small Bodies, 1993, is a Dostoevsky-meets–Doris Lessing sparring match between a detective and a woman he suspects of murdering her children. And “Trophies,” 1995, the P.P.O.W. show, is a kind of sculptural documentation of man’s inhumanity to woman—of the social reshaping of the female body, whether imposed, as in foot-binding and clitoridectomy, or partially self-willed, as in anorexia and cosmetic surgery. B will make, say, a beeswax cast of a woman’s torso—which shows that her silicone breast implants have ruptured—or of a rib cage (now in a medical museum) distorted by lifelong corseting. She’ll set these objects in carefully lit Victorian-esque boxes and vitrines of various sizes and shapes. The presentation is somewhat exquisite for things so painful to view, generating for some viewers a powerful tension—between the exhibits’ horrible anatomical specificity and the space’s churchy atmosphere, with shrinelike pools of light honoring B’s records of sacrifice—and for others, probably, an irony that’s rather too heavy.

Out of Sight/Out of Mind, the installation at the Crosby Street Project, highlighted a working reconstruction of an instrument used to pacify the insane in the 1820s: a hanging chair, rigged to spin at up to 100 rpm. By sitting and pushing a button, gallery visitors could try this treatment out, stopping, ideally, before they got sick. Next came a row of padded isolation cells, with piped-in sound: recordings of or derived from the famously fucked up—Vincent van Gogh, Antonin Artaud, Marilyn Monroe, and so on. You passed through these chambers, spending as long in them as you chose, and left by a farther door to find yourself watching a true-story film about a 13-year-old boy’s rape and murder of a 4-year-old. Then, perhaps, you tottered out for a stiff drink.

To describe Out of Sight/Out of Mind this way is to slip into gallows humor, which misses the real somber creepiness of the massive chair, the inventively directed movie, and those unnervingly comfortable padded cells. Still, I suspect a flip shrug and a murmured “bummer” were something more than occasional responses to these shows. Another impulse, judging from one or two of the reviews, was annoyance—a predictable reaction to Ancient Mariner–type art like B’s, which buttonholes you on your way to the wedding with urgent messages of conscience that you’d prefer to ignore. Resting on a defensive refusal of a claim on one’s attention, this kind of response is unattractive in that it finds its way out in attacking the claimant, which it labels bad art. If the art were so weak, would it have gotten under the reviewer’s skin?

Granted, one of the complaints about “victim art” is that it doesn’t have to be “good” to get under your skin, since its foundation in human suffering gives it a claim on you irrespective of whether it’s intelligent or formally imaginative. There is a necessity to catalogue the ways shit happens, but no good is done if they’re rendered banal. The paradox here is that B’s work is sometimes more convincing when her means are less visible—in Stigmata, for example, which appears to be simply a series of people talking about their lives. That simplicity is deceptive—it masks B’s role in these interviews, which may or may not be as unscripted and unrehearsed as they seem, and are in any case edited into compelling narratives. Still, it’s as B’s work, particularly in three dimensions, becomes more elaborate that an opportunity arises either to take or leave her worldview.

David Frankel