Boston

“Possessed”

Western Bridge

The conceit of “Possessed”—the overlap between the things that we own and the things that own us—is a common-enough curatorial theme, but this exhibition had no particular ax to grind. Neither explicitly anticonsumerist nor especially hostile to the notion of a controlling influence, it was one of those rare shows that allow a theme to refocus itself from work to work, reveling in the sly linguistic shift from physical to ethereal. “Possessed,” which was curated from the collection of Bill and Ruth True, did not force work into interpretive contortions but gently and persuasively framed and reframed.

Shirin Neshat’s luminous black-and-white video Possessed, 2001, which lent the show its title, depicts—to the accompaniment of Sussan Deyhim’s soaring, mournful sound track—a lovely, wild-eyed woman muttering to herself, whispering into cracks in walls, and stirring up trouble in a town square. Here is a rather violent form of possession, the hysterical tone of which might be regarded as an exhortation to surrender. Zoe Leonard’s installation Mouth open, teeth showing (I), 2000, an array of dolls arranged on the floor of the main gallery, is a tabulation of the wages of ownership. The dolls have been loved to death, with their clothes torn or absent, their hair cut, their limbs oddly posed or missing. But there is also an uneasy sense of fun-house reanimation; they seem at least to be staring back at us, perhaps on the verge of coming slowly, and bitterly, to life.

Sam Taylor-Wood’s Hysteria, 1997, a silent video of a woman moving from laughter to tears until the difference between the two becomes indiscernible, has in other contexts seemed mainly to be about how closely aligned those strong emotions are. Seen among these other works, it has a more frantic and explicitly tragic air. Tony Oursler’s installation Below, 1996, is less like an oddball discovery from another world than an object inhabited by a potentially malevolent spirit, in this case a muttering head (projected, like most of Oursler’s works, onto a sphere that both gives the head body and distorts it).

The work that best speaks to both species of possession is Nicola Vruwink’s Living, 2001, a work based on a two-month period during which the artist executed every project on the television show Martha Stewart Living. Vruwink adopted Martha’s baggy, indistinct style of dress and filmed herself cooking, sewing, assembling project after arcane project: pink candles that look like sugary petits fours, ribbon-trimmed tote bags, and other objects of a more ambiguous function. The installation comprises the videos along with the results of those weeks of labor, spread out like evidence on makeshift tables. The sound track is provided by the deep, patrician tones of Stewart herself, her signature round vowels rolling around the installation like a spirit voice at a séance.

The idea of Stewart as a controlling influence is an inspired piece of nastiness, her current predicament adding a happy little stab of schadenfreude to Vruwink’s work and casting an interesting light on “Possessed” as a whole, tinting the obsessions of the past with a rosy nostalgia. So it is that we turn on things that once gripped us. In the thrall of possession we lack perspective; with the benefit of hindsight we are savage indeed.

Emily Hall