New York

Tracey Rose

The Project

History is constantly scoured for anything sufficiently passé to import to the present as currency of contemporary cool. A likely candidate would be early feminist art, for a more neglected genre you're not likely to find—but things have definitely begun to change. A new generation is producing a feminist art that is expansive in its attention to fractious subject positions occurring under social regimes that impose essentialist views of gender and race. At the forefront is Tracey Rose, a young South African artist who grew up under apartheid classified as “colored” and whose personal experiences and anger motivate a politically grounded, performance-based practice.

Part of Rose's appeal is her fluid referencing of '60s and '70s performance art. When pushing herself beyond the point of physical exhaustion, parodying racial stereotypes, or overlaying sex with violence and pleasure with pain, Rose locates herself among women who have previously confronted themselves (and others) in their art. Valie Export, Marina Abramović, and Adrian Piper come to mind—all were inventing formal languages to “break through the frame” of gender and race around the time Rose was born.

Breaking through frames is a literal act in TKO, 2000, one of several DVD projections in Rose's second one-person show in New York. In the video, four cameras capture a nude Rose during a punishing workout. One camera was embedded in a boxing bag that spins under her punches; the other three were variously positioned inside the makeshift architectural structure in which the event occurs. The single-channel result is that Rose appears to box the camera and herself, while she also seems boxed in by the constantly shifting planes of the temporary walls that surround her. Although the work is projected onto a translucent scrim as a grainy black-and-white image—which creates a “vintage” look—editing technology sets Rose's art apart from anything predigital. Things are faster, more intricate, and way more self-consciously constructed. As a result, her feminine subject is flamboyant, fragmented, aggressively personal, and enormously desirous. It's her exhaustion, her agony, her appetite that's on display, amplified by a sound track that builds to an orgasmic crescendo.

The charm of Rose's style comes from her way with narrative abstraction. In Ciao Bella, 2001—a panoramic, three-channel color DVD projection produced for the most recent Venice Biennale—the chameleonlike artist plays each of a dozen or so characters convened along an enormous banquet table and introduced by the very prim and proper Mami. “All the world's a stage,” she tells us, and “in time one womb-man plays many parts.” Her words are a prelude to mayhem. At the table's center squats a blond Cicciolina, a sexy dominatrix who flagellates herself. She's flanked by Lola, a little girl in whiteface; and by MAQE II, another girlish character who dishes out chocolate-mousse cake. There's also a cute Bunny, who ends up blowing everyone away in a shotgun massacre—everyone except Mami, who's on hand for the mopping-up operation.

This finale is straight out of comic opera—huge, over-the-top, relentlessly exaggerated. Yet the babble and delirium that pervade Rose's dinner party provide an analogy for the absurd social conditions that shaped the artist's life and her art. The characters may be oblivious to one another, with each one so porous and partial as to be beyond narrative. But that's an interesting place to begin to tell something that resembles a true story.

Jan Avgikos