New York

Michael Bell-Smith, Rabbit Season, Duck Season, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 5 minutes 18 seconds.

Michael Bell-Smith, Rabbit Season, Duck Season, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 5 minutes 18 seconds.

Michael Bell-Smith

Michael Bell-Smith, Rabbit Season, Duck Season, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 5 minutes 18 seconds.

Like a marriage vow or a death sentence, the announcement inaugurating “rabbit season” or “duck season” is a speech act that changes everything, particularly if you are a duck or a rabbit. Or, for that matter, a wabbit. Michael Bell-Smith’s “Rabbit Season, Duck Season,” his fourth solo exhibition at Foxy Production, took its title from the existential comedy set-pieces enacted by Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd in the 1951 Looney Tunes short Rabbit Fire, in which duck and rabbit attempt to outwit each other—and their hunter—by switching game seasons and thusly reasserting whose turn it is to die.

Bell-Smith’s new video (all works 2014) opens with alternating high-definition shots of glisteningly lush forest foliage and windblown white clouds on a blue sky, with a sound track consisting of the pastoral swells of Edvard Grieg’s 1876 “Morning Mood” suite from Peer Gynt. The sequence is a paradigmatic expression of soothing, kitsch-Romantic banality, while also recalling the kind of visual and aural wallpaper used to showcase high-end AV equipment. The video pings indecisively, and with increasing pace, between earth and sky before three animated words, I CAN EXPLAIN, fall, heavy as anvils, onto the screen. A Looney Tunes–style cartoon sequence follows, in which a poster stuck to a tree advertising “rabbit season” is ripped away to reveal another poster beneath it, this one advertising “duck season,” which is itself ripped away to reveal “rabbit season” again, and vice versa ad infinitum, while subtitles ruminate on the logic of this game until a shot is eventually fired. “But no one has to get shot,” the subtitles chide us, as we switch to a white backdrop, on which Ping-Pong balls circulate and bounce in explanatory diagrams, suggesting the interchangeability of terms such as “rabbit, duck”; “visible, invisible”; “cool, uncool.” Before long, we have fallen down a Wittgensteinian rabbit hole, as the screen cuts to a shot of the words WHAT IS REAL? being typed into a search-engine box. A computer desktop scrolls through images of Ping-Pong balls, as though in response. “I’m tired,” reads a text superimposed on one of the balls. “I don’t want to make any more decisions today.” A cascade of stock images follows.

The video depicts a landscape of vertiginous banality and equivalence in which this can always be traded for that, and, though it is beautifully edited into diverting entertainment, the piece suggests the terrifying flatness of the world as an endless series of images, from which one is expected, like a hunter, to select. More than this, it’s really a portrait of depression, of the sort described recently by Maurizio Lazzarato as our maladie du siècle: fatigue from the labor of producing subjectivities, the endless cultivation of signs of personal, singular exceptionalism at the expense of any collective concern. Bugs and Daffy are the manic expressions of such ingenuity—they can win a set or a match, but they can’t escape the larger structure of the violent game into which they are locked.

Accompanying the video were three series of aluminum panel “paintings” onto which customized cutout vinyl shapes are stuck; though they nod to Matisse’s cutouts, they depict the very absence of the euphoria for which those works are celebrated and instead speak the language of corporate signage or advertising. Standard and Life – Low, – Med, and – High are conglomerates of the type of bright visual fillers such as waves, banners, or confetti that might appear decoratively in a logo or brand identity. Another series resembles template layouts for documents or print ads, employing colorful rectangular boxes crossed through to signal missing images and squiggly horizontal marks denoting lines of text. Each is emblazoned with the declaration I REFUSE TO JOIN ANY CLUB THAT WOULD HAVE ME AS A MEMBER, which appears, variously, in different typefaces and attributed to different figures, from Oprah Winfrey to Thomas Jefferson to Morrissey. Each individual, regardless of the originality of his or her work, is here slotted into a template with an any-quote, blandly indicating an entrepreneurial economic system in which all your self-production will eventually be absorbed into a homogenizing whole. Are you a rabbit or a duck? Do you prefer this image of a Ping-Pong ball, or that one? The clouds or the forest? Who cares? The point is that you’ve taken your eye off the real ball, and you’re playing the wrong game.

Laura McLean-Ferris