By Nadja Sayej
Folks in the Tarot field know “The Tower” is not a good card.
A tall, brick tower is blasted apart by a stroke of lightening. Two figures jump from the windows, soaked in the rivers below. This isn’t a work of art, though it very well could be.
As the card depicts, there’s a tower of ambition that all art stars climb – but few of them leap out the windows of ivory towers, screaming for their lives (unless it’s all part of a performance).
Suite42, a performance duo from Ohio, have done that exactly. In their stop-motion video “The Stairs That Do Not Care” (2011) shows the artists falling down a flight eerie, spiraling black iron stairs donning white pantyhose, cotton dresses, falling down backwards from the tip of the Technical Museum in the heart of cloudy Dresden, a small German town just two hours south of Berlin. They could very well be stunt actors – and they’ve got the bruises to prove it, not to mention their feet powdered with dirt and dust. But that’s not all.
Just like the Tower tarot card shows its two principalities tumbling to the water, the two artists float in Lake Champlain at Oakledge Park in Burlington, Vermont in the photo “No Matter Where You Are” (2010), donning the same nurse outfits, face down, dead, in the water like boat road kill.
True, in their artists’ statement they say precisely that “the struggle of the artist” becomes a part of the artwork itself (it makes sense, then, they’re drowning in some photos, but relaxing on the grass, in masks, in others). But they also inevitably investigate the fairytale career of the art world as all a part of the performance. They let go.
Their Fatal Strategies series continues this challenge – even if it means disappearing into the background like a white wallflower. In Fatal Strategies 1(2011), Julian-Norton covers herself in pigment for a chilly, chalky portrait posing in a white wig, gazing far off into space with a profile fit for a coin, a Kara Walker silhouette, or even a Cindy Sherman impersonation. In Fatal Strategies 2 (2011), she holds up a warm red light, casting a sunset glow across her perfect cheekbones – looking away. We only hope we could flip the print over to see the other side, winning heads over tails, even if tails is a plastic hairdo.
In their strongest work, Suite42 pose together, dance inside one another, limp around like dead dolls, lean on each other – and cling to each other by sheer framework of the beyond.
If the art star does struggle as they suggest, they don’t rush to curators, gallerists or critics – they get lost in each other. Or at least, that’s what is suggested in “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You,” (2010), a photo depicting the artists standing in a wholehearted, abstract embrace, locked together with nothing more than the Carvaggio creases of their dresses falling around them like tissues stuck in a vintage purse for decades. And faces obscured by wigs and masks that will never let us know if they were kissing or not.
They’ve paid their dues in the ivory towers of academicism, and to be perfectly honest, you’d think they’d be thick with more pompous jargon than they are.
Julian-Norton, a sculptor who (before co-founding Suite42) has built ropes from horse hair and crafted walls from Neutrogena soap bars, holds a teaching position at the Columbus College of Art and Design.
Krajnak, a photographer born in Peru and raised in the Midwest, who has photographed dozens of boys in bed a series about sadness, and collaborated with Wilka Roig, spent years at the University of Vermont as faculty. She notes on her website that an acclaimed New York art critic (left unnamed) once gave her a photography critique: “As with most women who turn the camera on themselves, the work is overburdened with emotion.”
Now they pose dead. Floating in the water, lying on top of each other in the grass – wearing red plastic wigs you’d find in the trash can after Halloween (or Gay Pride Parade), Suite42 are their best when they’re ambiguous, leaving out more than a few pieces of the puzzle. They leave us wanting to flip everything over; from coins to bodies, from prints to Tarot cards.
They’re letting go to see where it goes. Anywhere, but here.
Nadja Sayej is the host and producer of ArtStars*, a web-TV show about the art world. She writes for the New York Times and lives in Berlin. http://nadjasayej.tumblr.com
Suite42 is a collective founded in 2009 by Tarrah Krajnak and Danielle Julian-Norton. Their performance-based projects explore the struggle of the artist within a contemporary context and the process of collaboration itself. Their invented characters are mined from the history of conceptual performance art and popular film. They displace these characters within absurd narratives referencing the artist at work, the psychology of relationships, and the tension of meaning and meaninglessness as a central dilemma. Next up, Suite42 are doing a residency this fall at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, Nebraska. They are represented by Cynthia Reeves in New York City. http://www.bemiscenter.org/
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