Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin’s new commission at Fondazione Prada is a trip in hyper-reality through means of immersive installations and role-play video performances. The multimedia exhibition unfolds as a journey into different physical and psychosocial spaces - from Milan to the core of contemporary (American) culture, via Ohio’s countryside.
Upon entering the room, the installation ‘Neighbour Dub’ (2018) sets the scene. A maze of stanchions strings a pathway inside a green, iron cage, while the chattering of electronic, fairy-like voices greets the visitor from overhead speakers: “welcome to new Ohio, my friend!”. Multiple vocal and instrumental snippets overlap in a 15-channel sound piece, forming an enveloping echo chamber. One has to stop to hear each sentence as if moving in a queue at border control.
The boundary, however, is more linguistic than geopolitical. Exhibited in a non-English speaking country like Italy, the work raises a language barrier, becoming partly inaccessible. This, in turn, exposes the power that language has to constrict knowledge. By limiting the understanding and twisting the meaning of idioms like “all sorts of folks get strokes, let’s keep it different”, language is abstracted from a set narrative and has the freedom to reinvent itself, open up to the imagination and connect to other scenarios. As the voices say: “I’m not gonna live in this moment, I’m gonna live outside”, the grid aesthetic of the cube-cage suddenly recalls a time machine that opens into another sphere: a fourth dimension of language, a continuum where words are both cages and vehicles.
Space-time contortions continue through a cage-tunnel: a mandatory one-way route filled with sounds and platitudes like “when you love something, you’ve gotta let it go”. Emotionally charged sentences, woven into the grid-fence architecture, simultaneously evoke the channel of feelings shared online, and extend the sense of constrictive freedom of digital systems into the physical space. Visitors can see and be seen from the outside but can’t get out, finding themselves in a perceptive reversal: from viewers to actors in the spotlight.
At the end of the tunnel lies the soul of the exhibition, ‘Plot Front’ (2019): a delirious movie installed inside a ghostly barn made with prefabricated materials. The oscillatory movement of the rocking chairs on which visitors sit partly helps to alleviate the syncopated rhythm of the montage and the frenzy of images that follow. A series of brassy characters in wigs and thick make-up map the various locations of the film: a lazy river, a hobby barn, and forest watchtower. These sets have been permanently built in the countryside near Athens, Ohio – the area where both artists grew up. The last two spaces have been reconstructed in the museum so that reality keeps re-framing itself between moving images and concrete walls.
‘Neighbor Girl’ - the protagonist played by Trecartin - looks somewhere between a rapper and a scruffy, living-dead-version of Alice in Wonderland, styled in a thrift store. They are excited to openly carry firearms in public on open-carry day and wear a clear backpack like the ones introduced in high schools after the Florida shootings. ‘Neighbor Girl’, together with other characters who cheerfully use guns like accessories and shout ‘hi sexy!’ like Paris Hilton in the ‘Simple Life’, root the film in American entertainment culture, from stars to stables.
Awkwardly amusing runs and raving mud fights recall the grotesque familiarity of comedy shows and reality TV. Other performances, imbued with playfulness, tap into deeper meanings and archetypes, such as Neighbor Girl wiping the floor of a roofless-house-in-the-making and attempting a sexy cleaning dance among the labyrinth of ladders. There is a lot to unpack, to the point of no return. Characters predominantly speak into the camera, making a theatricalisation of themselves. They become images, living memes that carry ideas and behaviours to reshuffle cultural beliefs and gender conventions.
Dazed and confused from the movie, one can travel upstairs to discover the architecture. On the way down, characters from the previous film reappear as their digital avatars in the four-channel installation ‘Property Bath’ (2019). Back in the countryside, trees move gently and fields are covered with snow.
The camera fluctuates. A fan in the exhibition space blows cold air in the room, changing the atmosphere. A golden rope closes the show.
Role-play performances of both filmed characters and visitors expose the blurry structures of queer culture, power and control systems. Whether the work remains disruptive entertainment for an English-speaking intellectual crowd – it seems to build boundaries not to break them, but to powerfully expose them and show that they are still there.