New York

View of “Marni Kotak,” 2014.

View of “Marni Kotak,” 2014.

Marni Kotak

Microscope Gallery

View of “Marni Kotak,” 2014.

This summer, Microscope Gallery presented Mad Meds, 2014, a work by Marni Kotak, who is perhaps best known for her infamous 2011 piece The Birth of Baby X, in which she gave birth to her son in this very same gallery before a live audience. As she did for that earlier work, Kotak here exposed the public to something that usually takes place in private, in this case the process of weaning herself from postpartum-depression medications—a strong cocktail of antidepressants, antipsychotics, and antianxiety drugs. During the run of the exhibition, Kotak made herself readily available to those present, talking with visitors, writing (in gold pen and, as recommended by her psychiatrist, using her nondominant hand), and exercising, inviting her audience to join her. She admitted that she didn’t always feel up to conversation. Even the slow, supervised reduction of medication dosages left her vulnerable to mood swings, during which she drew the curtains around her bed and retreated. But when she did feel up to it, she would chat in her open, forthright, and disarming manner with visitors about anything they liked. She described her encounters with the medical system, including the rather Kafkaesque experience of being admitted to a psych ward after visiting the hospital to pick up a prescription.

Overall, the atmosphere in the gallery was serene, with natural light and ambient nature sounds murmuring from a video sound track. Almost everything was the color gold: a hospital bed fitted with satin sheets, the artist’s hospital gown, a hospital tray table, walls, outlets, and an elliptical machine. The gold was complemented by a touchingly tranquil image, a shot of a verdant landscape in which Kotak and her toddler son both wear regal velvet robes; it appeared, among other places, in a video playing at the foot of the bed and printed onto a blanket and hospital curtains. Yet plenty of details also offset this serenity: a medicine cabinet in a gold frame crammed with empty pill bottles, all prescribed to the artist; a stained and splattered hospital shirt, also in a gold frame; and a plaque on the wall engraved with the text SURVIVING 6 KARPAS (BETH ISRAEL PSYCH WARD).

In the end, Kotak’s installation was a safe, inviting space: the very opposite, one imagines, of a hospital room. Although Kotak has framed this and other work in inspirational and even self-help terms—The Birth of Baby X placed childbirth among the great creative acts; “Mad Meds” brought awareness to how we treat and talk about mental illness—her work also directs our uneasy attention to the ways in which life is digested and transmitted to us via artworks. (The safe, personal space she created was, after all, a public space.) That Kotak has progressed from reenactments of the significant events of her past (her grandfather’s funeral, her first sexual experience) to partially staged real ones suggests a more urgent need to connect and communicate, to find and confirm commonality rather than merely represent it, and, further, to find an art form that can do so. Her performance seems a kind of live-action Facebook feed. And in its collapse of the distance between art and life, it raises important questions: Can we say an event is staged if it really takes place? Is it no longer possible to cleave performance from the real? In any case, what is real enough are the meds she increasingly didn’t take—and placed in a gilded egg-shaped reliquary, also on display.

Emily Hall