by Lap Le
a review of
If I Die Young by Bunny Rogers and Filip Olszewski
If I Die Young, a collaboration by the artists Bunny Rogers and Filip Olszewski, is an exhibition curated by Gene McHugh at 319 Scholes. It exists in three parts. In the first room at the gallery, 12 speakers surround the space evenly. From each comes a different child's rendition of The Band Perry hit "If I Die Young"; which, obviously, is the source of the show's title. Given this, I'm inevitably going to run into the trap of giving the song more weight than it deserves, but I can't help myself (it's been on repeat the duration of writing this). The Band Perry's song clothes a discomforting, if not morbid, sentiment with rolling melodies and light imagery. Satin, flowers, and pearls for once living girls. Of course, this is all fantasy – “If” being the operative word in the title and lyrics. The entire song can be seen more as a neurosis or veiled threat than a girl's optimistic valediction, delivered in soft whites and Spring. It says, "You'll miss me when I'm gone," while at the same time adopting the attitude as if planning for a sweet sixteen. Disconcerting, only if you think about it.
Despite the implications it may or may not assert, the song is popular. So popular in fact that it has been covered again and again on YouTube, each cover getting tens of thousands of hits, if not hundreds of thousands. Olszewski and Rogers did two things with this. First, they only chose 12 out of the hundreds of covers on YouTube. The number is a nice quantity, it made it possible for individual attention to be placed on each voice while also having enough voices to create a larger effect. Second, they played all 12 without video. This effectively removes the image of the girls from the conversation while also isolating the strange proposition in the lyrics. The result is a chorus of young girls (I couldn't make out any boys) that emerged from beneath the gallery crowd's chatter, disembodied voices that came in and out of hearing depending on your place in the room. They were ghosts from the void, whose voices were cheerful and sincere by themselves, but awkward and almost hollow when heard together. Ghosts seldom know they're dead.
"A penny for my thoughts, oh, no, I'll sell 'em for a dollar / They're worth so much more after I'm a goner," sang a voice from the speaker next to me. That's it girl, make the most of a bad situation. Then, from another speaker, "And maybe then you'll hear the words I’ve been singing / Funny when you're dead how people start listening."
Phrases like these come across as optimistic, happy even, when you stand by a single speaker. Which is weird when you actually listen to the lyrics. The thing is, they were sung by kids who just love to sing and liked the song. From what I have seen, thoughts of death really aren't on the mind of Maddie Grace or little Avery. Not yet, anyway. They have their whole lives in front of them, one that they probably hope involved being a vocalist of some kind. They were just kids, doing what kids do in 2013. Right? They aren't reading too much into it and neither are their parents, right? An uploader, who I imagine is her mother, prefaces their video:
"Avery, 6, singing If I Die Young by The Band Perry. She messes up a couple times, but so what?? She's six - and this is adorable... especially her "high parts" @2:07 are the best!"
Adorable, I can't argue with that. Here, a commenter responds to Avery's video:
hcsu217: Does anyone else find it a little disturbing that a six yr old is singing about the fantasy if she was to die young?
The answer is yes, but not really, and for our purposes that's beside the point anyway. Olszewski and Rogers reframe the conversation when they strip everything down to just the audio. It isn't about any individual child, or their specific context. Rather, it is about a larger structure whereby the existence of these videos only serve to identify a tension between a larger question of context – whether it matters at all – and the affect inherent in the video. Or, the ratio of cuteness to literally what's going on. The artists isolate this sentiment and use it to produce a piece that is more about emotion than subjectivity. Questions like the one hcsu217 posed are rendered irrelevant, but remain present. That is to say, present, but needing to be felt rather than answered. This provides the tension that gives the work some legs.
In the center of the room you really got the full effect of the installation. All the voices intertwine together, the youthful sincerity of one voice mixing with the gravity and seriousness of another's who really wanted to nail it, high notes and all. The combination of all 12 girls singing was an emotional blend that teetered on the edge of being pleasant, the other side of which would have been discomfort. Adorable removed from context all of a sudden takes on a stranger note. It was hollow and haunting in the way a placid lake is at night, or an empty hallway after school. Partly pleasant, partly sad, but mostly just lacking. Not lacking in any disparaging sense, but in the way that vibrates, as if you didn't know what or who to blame for the disconnected feeling you had – the situation or the people in it, the empty hallway or not having anywhere else to be.
"I've just had enough time…" said another speaker-voice, sounding all the world like a child's imitation of contentment. I moved on to the rest of the show.
The backroom adopted a similar pace as the first, each piece evenly spaced and every piece working together more so than not. Large twin-sized blankets with satin trim hung on the walls. Most were a single muddy shade, nothing too sexy or saturated, except for a standout red. I learned that they were the result of averaging the colors from single photographs. The lighting also lent to a somber mood, seeming to be a few shades lower than what I'd expect. It wasn't cheery, but, with the crowd assembled in-between the ten pieces, it felt venerable. Mike Kelley popped into my mind, but maybe that was the first room’s lingering effect. On each of the blankets were embroidered words or icons. I learned that they were watermarks from internet-based child modeling agencies, placed where they would have appeared had the blankets been actual photographs instead. With names like Ukrainian Nymphets, Dark Feeling, Oceane Dreams, and Preteen Pussy I could only imagine where this was headed.
Regardless, I googled them all. Luckily some of their sites seemed to have moved or were just endless redirects. Ukrainian Nymphets, however, did turn up some images. They were exactly what I expected – tame but very disconcerting. At the show, I could have guessed what was supposed to be there in place of the solid block of color, but that's not the point. While the logo on the actual images were obnoxious, the logos here were toxic. By reducing the image to the average of its colors, Rogers and Olszewski do something similar to what they did in their first piece. They remove the facade (or maybe victim?) from the equation and reframe the conversation around the structures. The logos, the URLs, and the materiality of the wool and satin tell a broader story. In this case it's about the industry itself and a fuzzy fetishization of youth, all within the scope of the internet. The blanket becomes the way they obfuscate the message into more visceral terms, like what the chorus achieved previously. It's a strategy of addressing things sideways, because, let's face it, there’s more vibration there, more complexity, more possibility. Also, it's just a more real way to talk about things. Topics like these are seldom so clear.
The third part of the exhibition exists as a website, vailmodel.com, that seems to be two parts research and one part further layering. A nice chiptune version of what I think is "If I Die Young" plays on the opening page. I won't go into the website though, because I think it overlaps nicely with the other two parts of the exhibition and doesn't need to be repeated.
Three things make this show really great for me. First, I think this is the work made by two people who understand poetry in a beautifully unsexy way. The conversation is clear, but complex. Paired with an curatorial and aesthetic confidence, they are able to crux their work around emotion without being sentimental or hyperbolic. That is hard to do.
Second, they frame the subject matter of their work in a sophisticated way. While ideas about youth, fetishization, exploitation, the internet, and notions of celebrity therein may be present in the work, they are all talked about through a second order. This work is more about revealing power structures than the implications of young girls singing a song they may or may not understand, or even how that makes us feel. More about the greater conversation of how these things exist than what is actually portrayed. In a post-Charlie Sheen, Occupy, Wikileaks world, where bullying finally is a part of daily conversation, where we are finally beginning to realize the victim isn't to blame, the approach of this work couldn't be more appropriate.
Which leads to the third thing, which is kind of a combination of the two. They then approach everything sideways. They maintain a tension, a deliberate fuzziness, that makes the whole thing emotional in-between moments where your mind connects the dots of what's being talked about. It is as if they want everything to be just a little disconcerting, from the subject matter to the formal qualities of the work. It's a style, and it works really really well for them*.
I think I'll end with a line from The Band Perry song. What it means, I have no idea, but that feels fine right now. It goes: "So put on your best boys, and I'll wear my pearls / What I never did is done."