New York

Alex Bag

Whitney Museum of American Art

TV SHOW HOST IN FUGUE STATE. Like LINDSAY LOHAN ESCAPES REHAB, or similar headlines in the tabloid press, the sentence seems calculated to strike terror in the heart of our republic, media dependent as it is. Make that CHILDREN’S TV SHOW HOST IN FUGUE STATE and America is lost. Yet Alex Bag made that bloodcurdling image the premise of her latest video installation—her first solo, to tie the knot a little tighter, in a major museum, or actually in any museum at all. In going mainstream Bag hasn’t exactly cleaned up.

The work has Bag developing a TV show in which she will star. It’s one of those formats where a host stands at a lectern and chats, partly to an audience of children, partly to a crony in the form of a Muppet-like animated toy. Why Bag would be picked for this job is inexplicable, but perhaps we’re to think she inherited it: Her mother—her real mother—was the host of a pair of kids’ TV shows in the ’60s and ’70s, The Carol Corbett Show and The Patchwork Family, in the second of which Bag, as a child, made her first video appearance in public. So now she’s engaged in the psychologically fraught task of wearing her mother’s shoes.

She doesn’t get much help. Her stuffed-toy crony is a sort of inverted Kermit, a bright red, tusked, but otherwise unidentifiable animal, perhaps a pig, since Bag, clutching feebly for a joke, calls it a pigment of her imagination. Whatever it is, it’s clear-sighted; like Bill Paxton’s marine in Aliens—“Game over!” “We’re fucked!”—it knows a train wreck when it sees one. Except that here the train wreck is someone else’s, so it’s not “We’re fucked” but “You’re fucked,” or rather “You’re broken. It’s hopeless,” which is actually more painful to hear. Supportive sidekick becomes smug scold or sadistic superego. Meanwhile guests come and go: a Vietnam vet–type singer, banging through David Bowie songs, and other numbers appropriate for six-year-olds, from a wheelchair; an Australian animal handler, apparently high and deathly scared of snakes; and more such. One of the video’s nerviest gestures is its sporadic use of genuine children, apparently listening to this wildly inappropriate stuff. (I don’t believe any of them were harmed.)

The biggest problem Bag’s character has, though, is herself. “I’m off my meds,” she warns us dully, “ . . . clinically depressed . . . panic attacks . . . anxiety.” Twining her fingers neurotically and speaking very slowly, she’s in some kind of spaced-out distress. Her lostness is stressed by the comparison with other roles Bag plays—a Sartre-reading guest in downtown black; a dancing inner spirit, perhaps demonic, perhaps Stevie Nicks, who sometimes appears faintly in video overlay. Other double images include Boschian paintings and billowing flames. Clearly we’re in hell.

Bag is a sharp satirist and her best-known videos are riotous, but this one is oddly unfunny. An anatomy of disconnect, it is itself disconnected, rambling, long. Watching it, I began to feel disappointed—and then realized that I’d sat through the whole thing twice, morbidly fascinated, and less by the voyeuristic spectacle of personal disintegration than by the awful friction between the self and what it’s called on to do. Conceived and performed to foster play, children’s shows are essentially formulaic, in ways revealed clearly by Bag’s difficulty in reproducing the formula. And child’s play isn’t really the issue here; it’s simply useful for contrast, since we like to think of it as spontaneous, and as prior to the individual’s social absorption. In fact, in modern culture all experience may be packageable, instrumentalized, sellable. Perhaps particularly when doing those things is your job, collapse may be the only way to keep your sense of self.

David Frankel