Through March 4
by Kate Green
Since at least the 1960s when painting lost its grip on the western art world and conceptual practices gained currency, the field of visual art has opened its borders to those who engage with various disciplines. Jill Magid (born 1973, lives in New York and Amsterdam) is one of the more compelling artists capitalizing upon this flexibility today. Magid is perhaps best known for a project commissioned by and about the Dutch secret service (AIVD), which ultimately censored her results. While the artist’s first US solo museum show (A Reasonable Man In A Box, 2010, Whitney Museum of American Art) left some feeling that the work (a video of a scorpion, redacted text) did not successfully muster the government torture memo upon which it was based, Magid’s new project at Arthouse demonstrates her aptitude for using art to probe conventions of institutional power, literature, theater and more.
Many of the works on view in Failed States—two videos, wall texts, three works on paper, and two sculptural pieces— summon the performative efforts behind them. The project began with Magid’s interest in the case of Fausto Cardenas, whom she witnessed firing shots into the air near the Texas State Capitol in January 2010. In the aftermath, the twenty-four-year-old Cardenas, who never explained his actions, was charged with terrorism and the state used the incident to justify increased security. Like works by Sophie Calle, with whom Magid shares a first-person approach and an interest in language, Failed States effectively dramatizes the artist’s relationship to her subject.
For Magid, Cardenas calls to mind the title character in Goethe’s tragedy Faust, a play that lays bare the potential conflict between knowledge and experience. Using the tenuous connections between Fausto and Faust as a point of departure, Magid has woven bits of both into an installation that at its most satisfying reveals the artist as the dramaturgical glue. For example, one of the more arresting elements in the project is a series of wall texts that function like stage directions—[Shots fired skyward], Exit FAUSTO, Enter MAGID—locating Magid’s role in the elliptical narrative she has generated (Stage Directions series, 2011-2012). Nearby, a slide show of the Texas sky and a handful of spent bullets poetically gesture toward the artist’s experience of the event (Six Shots from the Capitol Steps, 2012). Elsewhere in the gallery is a silkscreened print of a passage from Faust; because Magid has layered several translations on top of one another, traces of a reader’s relationship to the text—underlines, an asterisk, circles—are what become most legible (The Deed, 2011).
Two off-site projects bridge disparate elements in a more straightforward and perhaps less compelling manner. Both are titled Failed States and weave the current project together with the artist’s initial reason for coming to Texas: she was training to embed with troops in Afghanistan. As part of one of the works, Magid has armored her car, which happens to be same kind of Mercedes station wagon often found in the war zone. The fortified vehicle is occasionally being parked in the spot that Cardenas used before he approached the capitol. The other work is a book in which Magid chronicles her experiences and concerns about the case and embedding (excerpts have recently been printed in the Texas Observer). For me, these pieces illuminate rather than complicate Magid’s relationship to the material and issues of institutional power.
More provocative are two absorbing works that bookend the show in the gallery. Playing on a monitor near the gallery’s entrance is The Capitol Shooter: Breaking News (2011), a looped video of local television news coverage of the Cardenas incident and case. In the edited clips, which feature interviews with Magid, the artist comes off as a concerned and curious citizen. Seen in the context of the gallery, she also appears to be performing. This kind of irresolvable tension is evident in a work at the other end of the gallery. Here, a vitrine holds a copy of a letter Magid penned to Cardenas in which she asks if she can record him reading parts of Faust (Letter to Fausto, 2011). Based on the letter, Magid’s motives are difficult to discern: she introduces herself as an artist and a writer, mentions the incident and Cardenas’ situation (he cannot leave the state), offers to pay for the recordings, but never refers to her developing art project. The ambiguous letter, which is signed “your witness,” seems to be a fitting conclusion to Failed States. Through such intimate, performative work, Magid manages to use art to explore systems, circumstances and people without seeming to exploit them.
Kate Green is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in art history from the University of Texas at Austin, with a dissertation focusing on Vito Acconci’s performative work from the early 1970s. She has written art criticism for publications such as Artforum.com, ArtPapers and Modern Painters.