Los Angeles

Jennifer Bornstein

There is much to admire about Jennifer Bornstein’s Celestial Spectacular, 2002, a sequence, barely four minutes in length, of seven short silent films, each introduced by a descriptive title in cursive font. Her homemade effects and affect and her poetic deployment of the scientific and pseudoscientific (astronomy, cosmology, botany, parapsychology) refresh, particularly these days, when too many artists ape the lamest aspects of Hollywood (Spielbergian theatricalization) and MTV (ever more speedy editing). The first bit, Meteor Shower, shows the corner of a spare apartment with a large open window, through which three tinfoil “meteors,” each slightly larger than the last, whimsically float along a guyline into the room. Plant Communication opens in a white kitchen with a bushy potted fern and another plant in a window. After a few still seconds, one of the fern tendrils quietly waves to the window plant; there’s a pause and then the window plant gently bows in response. Sunset at the North Pole; Eclipse; The Oldest Star; View of Infinite Space; 14 Leaf Clover: It’s almost as if Bas Jan Ader had filmed Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room for an episode of Sesame Street.

Sadly, though, the entire affair seems to have been sponsored by the letter G (as in “gee”). Bornstein’s aesthetic has always been restrained, as in her uncanny photographic and filmic self-portraits with basketball-playing preteen boys, but in rigorously deliberating each element she was able to construct and explore winsome complexities (about gender, street fashion, age) while using Becher-school documentary to create destabilizing fictions. In Celestial Spectacular the restraint has been reduced to a disappointing combination of irresolution and evasiveness. The films are one-liners, and unlike the singular actions in Ader’s brief films, her gestures fail to resonate. However much he wanted to exchange irony for the miraculous, the Dutch conceptualist knew that irony could be the romantic’s greatest ally. In I’m Too Sad to Tell You (a photographic work and a film) and Farewell to Faraway Friends, for example, the possibility that the tears are crocodile, the sunset nothing but schmaltz, only deepens the intensity of the romanticism. Bornstein’s comic bits demonstrate no such ambiguity. What if instead of continuing the Nova-meets-Méliès notation of dim blue twinkle for The Oldest Star she had punned and showed some beautiful silent-film crone staring out into space? The press release for Bornstein’s show checks off Buster Keaton and the Keystone Kops while failing to invoke the equally apposite (if more critically intractable) Ed Wood, maestro of the botched sublime. What does it mean to present only low-tech special effects without loopy—Keatonesque or Woodsian—narratological consequence? Ignoring the winning, medium-crossing precedents of William Wegman collaborating with Fay Wray and John Baldessari discussing the meaning of photographs with Ed Henderson, Bornstein is too self-conscious, even in her sometimes arch unselfconsciousness, to embrace the stupid.

Bornstein’s titles are given almost as much screen time as the actions filmed. While it could be argued that she’s examining the relation of language to the visual, she subtracts so much that the actions become illustrative, raising the question of why anything is shown other than the poetic words themselves. Yet Bornstein is not an unambitious or naive artist. The introduction of one other element—a photograph or sculpture, perhaps?—might have allowed the investigation to blossom. Or, if she’s gone in search of quietism, did she consider paring away everything except a single action? Perhaps the fake sun making its rolling horizontal trek across the toy north pole’s horizon as a manifesto.

Bruce Hainley