It is not easy not to be sentimental: Bunny Rogers’ show sees the artist looking at herself as »Ms Agony« – before the curtains are drawn – with romantic irony.
Purple. Lavender. Mauve? Depending on the angle you approach them from, the silver-plated frames Bunny Rogers uses for her prints can appear anything from light lilac to dark blue, almost black. In the continuation of her two-part show at Thaddaeus Ropac (Salzburg) this confusion is enhanced by the limited lighting shining on the works, keeping the viewer in the center of the space in the dark – looking for the right amount of distance and closeness to keep. Started at Société (Berlin) last year and originally intended to overlap this January, the two exhibitions expand upon each other. For the second iteration of »Ms Agony« at Thaddaeus Ropac, the checkerboard purple-and-blue floor in Berlin has been exchanged for precisely painted lavender walls, stopping at the edges with a thin white fringe, about one centimeter from the floor and ceiling of the gallery spaces, as if frames themselves.
Inside, in the Thaddaeus Ropac’s project space and the left wing of the Villa Kast, four prints from Rogers’ »Tom Ford sequin dresses« series; a much larger print of a barb-wired Hollywood star dedicated to »Primordial Maud« (TBT); two stacks of her »Minecraft« cubes, a pastel purple with dark red roses cemented into them that were the protagonists of the ›winter‹ floor in her show in Bregenz last year; as well as one of the recently grown oversize, still signature mops; and the smallest piece, a fluffy, fake bunny’s self-consciously tail stuck onto a trophy sign, »Caught live at the playboy club«.
The question of what frames Bunny Rogers – of what would have happened in the work had she been born say a decade earlier. The Tom Ford dresses would conjure up the Jessica, Roger Rabbit’s toon model wife in the 1988 namesake »Who Framed Roger Rabbit?« forced to play a game of ›patty cake‹ to blackmail the owner of Toontown. Those caught and framed in the case of Bunny Rogers’ playboy club, however, are more likely its visitors. Only seemingly exposing herself, the main performer in the Tom Ford dress is a clone, maybe looking into the mirror of a dressing room or on stage before the curtains are drawn, looking for a way to assert herself in a new and maybe uncomfortable place, striking poses, making a stand, alone, and negotiating herself sexually, digitally, comically. Together, the individual renderings, with different faceless postures and four-fingered hands in slightly different positions, are the stages of a contemporary portrait, their title a designer piece and not the person wearing it.
More nakedly, what appears to be at stake is the question what symbols last, which are handed over and which are not. So that the »clone« of Joan of Arc from the MTV series »Clone High« (2002-2003) which the mannequin is modelled after, and the purple-haired Maud Pie from »My Little Pony«, pick up the pieces of the clichés we know so well and reject them ambiguously, a dress, a tail, maybe looking the same: but the way we look at them changed. From there it makes sense to assign a double role to the mourning Bunny Rogers’ work is poised to address: the question of »what will not do anymore« as part and parcel of ›what will‹. Rogers’ works, like she has said of her mops, are about the spilling over of meanings, emotions, liquids: containers with limited hold.
It was significant and shocking to see one of the older, well-suited visitors at the opening in Salzburg taking a moment to stick out his shoe toward the Mourning Mop in the corner of the left room, not even gently touching the black fabric, retracting from it as if from something dirty. I wondered, how can it be that just because something ›looks‹ like a broom and stands on the floor, it seems abject – when in their reality the stains are dyes, might be red wine, and the yarn could be silk, mohair? Rogers plays with this tension of course, as with the »Swans Filth Mop (Zombie)« that is included in the »Natures Mortes« show assembled by Anne Imhof at the Palais de Tokyo, where it leans against one of its basement pillars, a small tile pedestal under it however signifying it might be too delicate and valuable for this collector’s discomfort, his foot between horror and fascination.
If the lavender »Minecraft« cubes with the roses and rose leaves fading inside and on all the sides of them come from the icebox of sculptural tradition –freezing moments to memorialize them– the mops leaning against the wall are a reminder that these structures themselves are unclean, yet sincerely unshakeable. The images of the clone without a face looking at herself, looking away, at the audience (each a different kind of mirror altogether; an audience of one if the figure is standing ‘behind’ the curtain, but the prints leave unclear if she might be standing ‘in front of it’) capture the contradictions of the self-aware artist persona: courageously vulnerable. The ribboned ladder in the Berlin installation, its silky black and purple fabric pouring out onto the floor, portrays a similarly honest romantic irony: it leads nowhere, but it shines. Like a song will help cope with what is hard to talk about, the exaggeration of comedy and animation can make things we are going through graphic and graspable; and the exhibition’s title »Ms Agony« is a reference to Elliott Smith’s 1997 »Miss Misery«, and the husband-like nickname the singer-songwriter who committed suicide in 2003 was subsequently known by.
Bunny Rogers’ »Ms Agony« is not a light show, coming from a place somewhere in between confident and sad, of unmistakably mixed feelings that we know from Mike Kelley’s, »Ahh…Youth!«(1991), the series of photographs of stuffed animals combined with a snapshot of a young ‘un-photoshopped’ Kelley in his high school years, that Anne Imhof has also featured in her Paris show, that, for me, brought to mind Rogers’ »Clone State Bookcase« (2014) with its 84 custom-made Elliott Smith plush dolls.
It is not easy not to be sentimental. We’re not free to choose what and who we mourn, is what »Ms Agony« seems to be saying, not just, maybe, because we do not choose what will happen to us, what TV series were aired when we were kids and which queens and rock stars die young, because you are born in a specific time, of specific tokens and examples of the culture you happen to inherit. Bunny Rogers’ purple palette is not a sweet Easter-Pastel, »My Little Pony« pink, not the catholic color for mourning, also used by suffragists, progressives, decadents of the fin-de-siècle and from there a stand-in for queerness, or, as in the ongoing work of Martine Syms, to refer to Alice Walker’s »The Color Purple« and the oppressive racial structures in the United States1 – but a composite color, somewhere between the blue of bruises and dark regret on the one hand, of red roses, red wine, ruefulness on the other, but as Rogers writes in one of the poems in between the purple covers and fly leaves of her Bregenz catalogue, a »lavender marriage«.