New York

T. J. Wilcox

Metro Pictures

ACCORDING TO THE SWANS, DECEMBER 16, 2012, IS A DATE TO REMEMBER. So closes one segment of T. J. Wilcox’s Garland #6, 2005, a nine-minute-thirteen-second reel of three silent 16 mm films. Projected from a noisy Eiki Slim Line (the quintessential home-movie model) onto a standard portable screen, the subtitled film is suffused with an enthusiast’s total immersion in his subject. Were it not for the subtitles’ insistence on narrative accompaniment, one might easily read this slow documentation of swans floating on cerulean water as the loving endeavor of a lifelong Audubon Society member. But supplementing the images, like the captions to illustrations in a book, single lines of text unravel the story of a recently deceased woman named Jean, whose unusual ability to communicate with swans results in a prediction. The birds, it is revealed, have forecast the end of the world, even offering up an exact day and year (one, it bears mentioning, remarkably close to that predicted on the ancient Mayan calendar).

Strung together like celluloid jewels, the two or three films in each of the six “Garlands” in Wilcox’s eponymous exhibition share a loose thematic link (Garland #6 also contains footage of flocks of swallows and a tale concerning the origin of angora cats). In further “Garlands” we are introduced to, among other things, the bizarre details of the Russian royal family’s execution in 1918; some tragic residents of the Place Vendôme in Paris; the burial wishes of one of the artist’s parents; possible traditions underlying the Japanese wooden dolls called Kokeshi; the transsexual Ara Tripp, who scaled a Seattle electrical tower topless in the name of equal gender rights; and Humpty Dumpty’s use-value in explaining the awfulness of the world to young children.

While each of the sixteen films in the series retains its own delicious specificity, they are united by Wilcox’s palpable affection for his subjects, made manifest in his distinctive handling of the medium. The filmicity of “Garlands” is performed consciously—played up and played to through an insistence on the materiality of film. Here, as in the past, Wilcox utilizes a variety of source images, pilfering television, cinema, and still photography as well as staging elaborate reenactments and shooting off the cuff. First collected on film, this footage is transferred to video and digitally edited before being returned to 16 mm. Having thus prodded his celluloid into a kind of premature aging (and adding the familiar flourish of a subtitled THE END at the close of each film), Wilcox, however, does more than remind his viewers of a kinder, gentler aesthetic. He calls on conventions—not only of film but of shared stories and memories—in order to ever-so-slightly expose their seams.

Writing of the hypnotic, pacifying potential of film, Roland Barthes, in his 1975 essay “Leaving the Movie Theater,” ruminated on the possibility of turning spectatorship into a critical enterprise. Rather than arm oneself theoretically, he wrote, perhaps a viewer could allow him- or herself to “be fascinated twice over, by the image and by its surroundings as if I had two bodies at the same time: a narcissistic body which gazes, lost, into the engulfing mirror, and a perverse body, ready to fetishize not the image but precisely what exceeds it.” Barthes imagined such a counterintuitive method of distancing through doubling as Brechtian, if not immediately recognizable as such. Indeed, he describes this alternate mode of the alienation effect as producing “an amorous distance.” How better to characterize what Wilcox delivers his viewers—and himself—in “Garlands”?

Johanna Burton