Pop Eats Itself

Ryan Trecartin makes art for hyper-modern times

Text by Ajay RS Hothi & Christabel Stewart

Tank _vol 7issue 160

Top and middle: stills from The Re’Search (Re’Search Wait’S) (2009-10). Bottom: Still from P.opular S.ky (2009). All images courtesy Elizabeth Dee Gallery 


Ryan Trecartin makes movies: loud, colourful and crude, they barrel past at breakneck pace. They are an assault not just on the eyes and the ears but on the entire central nervous system. In 2004, when Trecartin was a recent graduate from the rhode Island School of Design – whose alumni include Gus Van Sant, Roni Horn and its most famous dropout, David Byrne – the artist Sue de Beer saw a short online clip of his 41-minute video A Family Finds Entertainment. She tracked Trecartin down and began introducing his work to New York gallerists. When A Family Finds Entertainment was screened at New York’s Planaria Gallery in 2005, as part of the exhibition Sympathetic Magic, word started to spread, and Trecartin was selected for participation in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Solo shows, screenings and group exhibitions at ZKM Karlsruhe, the Deutsche Guggenheim, New York’s New Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art soon followed.

This year, Trecartin will take his video installation Any Ever to Istanbul Modern, MoMA PS1, New York, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Miami, after hitting the Museum of contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Power Plant, Toronto, last year. The sheer scale of the installation is mind-boggling. At MoCA LA, four hours of video were presented as part of a minutely detailed installation over two floors: upstairs, suburban interiors had been left to decay, with space heaters and suitcases cluttering the floor, and broken ceiling fans hanging dangerously low over bunk beds piled high with pillows. Downstairs, ripped-out airline seats and bleachers rested against walls that had been painted a vibrant red. It was the sort of once-aspirational, now-abject non-space his characters would inhabit with perfect ease.

Trecartin’s films tread a fine line between comedy and horror. They are simultaneously scything satirical parodies and near-straight-faced documentaries of contemporary culture. A cast of dozens acts out the personal lives of groups of friends who party together, fall in and out love, fight, play and fuck. Like a garish reimagining of Elizabethan drama, grotesquely made-up men play the female characters, who make up the majority of the cast. Dressed in cheap nylon wigs, barely-there minidresses and heels, they play direct to camera, teasing the viewer with self-involved ramblings, and constantly hold up their mobile phones to the camera. Ancient desktop computers fill the background. Trecartin layers on a pounding techno soundtrack and cuts frantically between split screens, picture-in-picture framing and computer-generated imagery – or piles on multiple effects simultaneously – to smother the viewer in an apocalyptic vision of endlessly self-referential communication.

The result is a fierce skewering of the edifices of the modern, International School-accented world of contemporary culture: the reality talk shows; the reality-based scripted dramas, whose characters assume an unholy celebrity status; the unavoidable legacy of MTV; and the technologies that make vast quantities of such imagery so easy to consume and disseminate indiscriminately. His critique is refracted through a unique language that he and long-term collaborator Lizzie fitch have developed to represent, explain and emulate the common celebrity. The words may not always make literal sense: K-CorealNC.K (section a), for example, begins, “Dear heyK, please Don’t Accept your Progressaphobias in work flow by Brand Washing my Global Blanky with SAmE PAGE.” But by appropriating words and phrases from a variety of ultra- modern subcultures, and adding it to his own fragmented vocabulary, Trecartin creates an absurdist map of the way language appears to be evolving in the hyper-technologically and -culturally literate modern world. he may not love the celebrity objects of his lens, nor the means of distribution that make them so ubiquitous, but Trecartin seems to feel some affection for the environment they have inadvertently created. As his characters move ever further towards self- parodying self-destruction, he offers a vision of a dazzling, ominous future that may consume us before it even arrives, even as he reminds us to have some fun before it gets here. §