New York

Amy O’Neill, The Zoo Revolution, 2006–19, 16 mm transferred to HD video, color, sound, 4 minutes 42 seconds.

Amy O’Neill, The Zoo Revolution, 2006–19, 16 mm transferred to HD video, color, sound, 4 minutes 42 seconds.

Amy O’Neill

Paula Cooper Gallery | 521 West 21st Street

To behold a ruin is to bask in melancholia. Add misty, early-childhood memories and a primal, punk-metal soundtrack, and one sinks deep into the affective murk. Amy O’Neill concocted just such a heady brew of emotive stimuli for her first solo exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery—a single four-and-a-half-minute video projection immingling original, observational footage; a chopped-up antique animation; and a pounding, growling, death-stalking lament by the now-defunct Brooklyn band Orphan, with whom the artist had previously collaborated.

The bedrock of the video—and the ruin running through its brief duration—is a rough-cut montage composed mostly of shaky-cam sweeps of an abandoned and somewhat hokey zoo and fantasy park (built 1962, closed 1995) located in rural Pennsylvania, intercut with slo-mo drive-bys through ragtag Rust Belt hamlets, presumably nearby. Shot in winter, the bleak scenario clocks a rotting spectacle of cruel dominion nestled into a postindustrial landscape well past its prime. Intensely poignant in its evocation of sorrow and loss, much of the imagery registers as faded, generic Americana—a field well tilled by modernist photography and now an established category on picture-sharing apps (similar images of this very location can be viewed via Flickr and Pinterest). Yet the camerawork’s searching spontaneity (as though fossicking for gems in the rubble of the past) and low-tech expressivity (e.g., crude zooming and shuddering) tip the piece’s aesthetic more toward that of a DIY music video, an impression cemented by the imagery’s considered relationship to its anti-glam soundtrack.

Interspersed, via dissolves and superimpositions, across this plaintive ground of quasi-documentary meanderings are portions of an obscure vintage cartoon, The Zoo Revolution, from which O’Neill has cribbed her video’s title. Originally called Ein verboteher Ausflag (A Forbidden Excursion, 1952), with direction credited to Gerhard Fieber, this charming, if curiously defeatist, piece of children’s entertainment owes its truncated American presence to Fima Noveck, a Russian immigrant film editor who, before eventually breaking into Hollywood features, scratched up a living retrofitting European animated shorts, overdubbing their audio tracks with music and American-English voice-overs, then bundling and packaging them for television. The fuzzy, old-school animation of complicated origins lends O’Neill’s video not only another layer of distant nostalgia, but also a narrative arc: A naughty monkey liberates his zoo-imprisoned comrades from their cages, then enlists the help of a ferocious lion in hijacking a train to facilitate their getaway. But the powers that be twig the caper and reroute the runaway train back to the zoo, where the head keeper chastises the monkey and leads the crestfallen but compliant animals back to their pens. It seems there’s no escaping the grand hegemony, a cheerless prognosis hammered home by the grievous negativity of the satanic soundtrack. The upshot here is all doom and gloom despite, but also because of, the focus on (long-lost) recreational innocence and fantastic (but failed) anthropomorphic mischief. This work evinces a deeply gothic sensibility that chooses the sad truth over palliative falsity, unvarnished resignation over mollifying self-deception. And the message hits home. The video’s carefully crafted but loosely synced construction achieves a sufficiently energetic synthesis of the piece’s core elements to ignite the sense of longing and regret that dwells within the work’s inherently maudlin romanticism. 

We learned from the show’s press release that the artist was herself raised in the Pennsylvania Rust Belt (in the ’70s and ’80s), that she visited the featured zoo and fantasy park as a child, and that she hazily recalls seeing the titular animation in elementary school. This is obviously a very personal work, a subjective rearview reflection on a decaying culture. But of course, in these ruinous times, the video’s preoccupation with entropic decline also serves to elucidate a near-universal condition. To the murky depths!