I Am What You Say
Young Projects, Los Angeles
January 1–May 12, 2018
Proscenium—as pretty, fantastical, and metaphorical a word as it is—does not come close to describing even the most literal aspects of Kim Schoen’s The Hysteric’s Discourse. A head-spinning theater of the absurd for contemporary Hollywood, it more closely resembles a mirrored turntable at an auto show or a stripper stage with a light-up dance floor than the materially demure light-jet prints and videos that purport to be its content.
A discussion of The Hysteric’s Discourse could begin in the most convoluted of places: Gérard Wajcman’s theoretical text The Hysteric’s Discourse, an elaboration of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s idea of hysteria as a discourse (as opposed to a diagnosis), which is itself an elaboration on what Wajcman characterizes as Sigmund Freud’s “historical achievement not to have fabricated new knowledge to more adequately or more elegantly account for hysteria.”1 Those prone to enjoying and understanding such theoretical texts will be glad to read it as a supplement to the exhibition that borrows its title and likely to find a fulfilling articulation of the meaning and mystery specific to the hysteric, which is absent (at least explicitly) from the works in the show. What is not absent from the show is nearly everything else one could hope to find in an exhibition in which hysteric appears in the title: mirrors, foam heads, an empty acrylic box, pitch-dark dead-end hallways, a tipped-over pedestal, giant immobile screens with the illusion of gently swaying Hollywood backdrops, unintelligible women, bizarre laughter, JANUS et Cie sculptures (presumably for the garden), idioms, more women, and more mirrors.2 Beyond these mysterious descriptions, The Hysteric’s Discourse really is both a maze and a puzzle that hinges on not only its spatial design but also its physical, geographical, and psychological location: the narrow, windowless depths of a former trade furniture showroom in the Pacific Design Center, and what the space represents— a little-known sector of small-business capitalism that has been chewed up and nearly dissolved by a combination of cheap, stylish imports and a DIY ethos solidified by TV and magazines that no longer define interior decorator as a skilled profession. By the time you step inside the gallery, you’ve already tread over a multitude of histories made invisible over time: a tell-tale sign you’re in Los Angeles.
The exhibition is divided, via a black curtain, into two distinct spaces. The white-walled front gallery features five smallish photographic works mounted on the wall and a grouping of five pedestals displaying two mirrors, one photograph, and two blank spaces, respectively. The back gallery is almost completely darkened with black paint and theatrical blackout fabric,3 save for a long wall of floor-to-ceiling mirrors that distort its size and capacity, giving visitors pause before realizing that the figure approaching out of the darkness is their own reflection. This gallery, which in theatrical terms is either upstage or offstage (either way, distinctly behind the proscenium), presents us with ever more prosceniums: the double-channel video Tell Me Who I Am / I Am What You Say (2017); the single-channel video Is It the Opera Or Is It Something Political? (2009), and the three-channel video installation Now We Are Extinct (2010/2017). In the world of The Hysteric’s Discourse, these screens are not only illusory frames that deliver a spectacle; they also are something material, tying us to the physical world as much as promising to transcend it.
Returning to the front gallery, the first print encountered is New Tech I (2017), a vertical photograph of three white, headless, plastic mannequins with their backs to us, and one headless (albeit clothed) mannequin in the foreground, which is turned frontward, with hyper-extended up-stretched arms and open, vulnerable palms—an acutely non-human cross between reverence and the Y of the “Y.M.C.A.” song.4 Turn to your right, and International Jewelry II (2017) enters your sightline. In this conventionally hung image, blue cloth is reflected in what is likely a tri-fold mirror, which effectively appears as another stage and curtain but also looks some- what vaginal (another Y shape) and even falls into the territory of the abject: the mirror is dirty, the cloth is ripped. The other photos seem equally banal, though one is hung too low (on purpose), one is on a tipped-over pedestal, and the one titled Omega I (2017) enables the viewer to experience yet another double-staged theatrical allusion: the reflection of its subject, which is a close-up image of a group of Greek-style mannequins, perhaps props, in the oval frames of each mirror-cum-sculpture. We know from the title of the exhibition, which Schoen borrowed from Wajcman, who borrowed it from Lacan, that these mirrors stand in for Lacan’s oftcited “mirror stage,” which can be loosely understood as the stage in which infants recognize their own reflections, so that they see themselves as objects independent from their mothers. (They learn, necessarily, to objectify themselves.) This psychoanalytical reference might seem overwrought and the stage metaphor nearly fatigued in the context of this exhibition—if not for the particular mirrors that signify it: they are readymades (which carry signifiers all their own), on consignment from one of those nearly chewed-up furniture showrooms still open for business down the dim, cavernous hallways of the PDC. In this sense, Schoen’s mirrors destabilize even the fatigued idea of the readymade—they are portals to another very real realm, which is close by and, on the surface, doesn’t appear all that different.
Stepping through the black curtain, out of the white space and into a distinctly dark space made even darker by the purplish grey wall-to-wall carpeting and wall covering, the mood and its connotations are clear: we are surrounded by a theatrical darkness—not simply a dark room, but a room performing darkness. Inside this black synthetic cube, strange shapes and sounds abound: not only the visitor’s own ghostly image reflected in the massive mirror but also flying anagrams of the phrases Tell Me Who I am and I am What You Say, projected as part of the double-channel video of the same title. This flying text of many different typefaces resembles a Hollywood title sequence but also a fever-dream; much of it is only legible in its reflection. In a double-channel video, two videos play on top of each other; as a structural device, this is somewhat mind-bending. Add to that the reflections, the anagrams, and the projection that can be accessed and viewed from either side (as if you could see through it), and you’re left with a logical challenge almost beyond comprehension, which is further complicated by the incongruously formal austerity of the installation as a whole. But Tell Me Who I Am provides some narrative to ground us. During its 22 fascinating and disorienting minutes, we are privy to the surprisingly non-automated two-person job of changing theatrical backdrops. Many shots include only the long metal rig onto which the backdrops are clipped, and the sensation of the unweighted rig swaying as it waits to be tethered is vertigo-inducing, like lurching forward as a rollercoaster pitches away from its platform. As each backdrop rises, the fabric stretches up out of its shapeless pile into something beautiful, hand painted, and anachronistic looking—a tropical forest, or the universe, or a string of stars, or fireworks. It’s an utterly dissociative sensation to be unable to discern the screen from the backdrop. Stranger still, the backdrops implicate us as spectators in an invisible labor that produces and maintains theatricality, while simultaneously situating us as players ourselves. Schoen’s is a reluctant stage of perpetual semi-conscious performance— not unlike womaness itself.
It’s important to note that the theatrical screen of Tell Me Who I Am / I Am What You Say divides the gallery somewhat in half widthwise; to one side is complete darkness, into which you might stretch out your hands, unable to make out what’s ahead. Doing this, you will hit fabric walls on all sides, a dead end, and activate Stock Laughter (2017), a motion-triggered sound piece represented in the checklist simply by a solid black rectangle. Stock Laughter is the cue that the audience is having a directed experience—that we haven’t accidentally walked too far in the wrong direction and found something utilitarian and awkward, like a mini-fridge and a fleece vest. The sensation of being laughed at as you stand clueless in the dark is revelatory; there is no more audience, no more passive absorber of The Hysteric’s Discourse, only the butt of its joke told on an ever-evolving stage—we are, of course, the hysteric herself—laughing.
Down the opposite side of Tell Me Who I am/I am What You Say is the video Is It the Opera Or Is It Something Political? This video is presented in an unconventional way—the screen is on the floor, leaning back against the wall, and the projection is angled slightly off the screen, lighting a bare frame of two- by-fours. Beside the projection is an orchid on a small pedestal. This roughly eight-minute video begins with a non- descript middle-aged woman sitting on a couch in a room and telling a story. At first it seems the narrative is incomprehensible, because we have entered in the middle of the video loop. After a few minutes with the speaking subject, it’s clear that there is no legible narrative; she speaks in adage after adage, an accumulation of idiomatic phrases that amount to a grammatically recognizable sequence of words that hold no meaning—each phrase connected, presumably, through some unknowable process of free association.
As the video progresses, the camera reveals the speaker to be seated not in an ordinary room but rather within a window display—a room, but staged. Through this shift in filmic perspective, the nature of the speaker is not clarified, but further obscured. Can people passing by the window hear her speak? Is the speech improvised? What was the theatrical direction—that she must appear to be speaking? This work above all else embodies Wajcman’s view of The Hysteric’s Discourse: “Intending to talk about hysteria, we found that hysteria made us talk.”5 That the inexplicable female subject in this video sits on the stage of the theater of domesticity, which to some is a prison; in a gallery, which may be a theater; in a showroom, which may be a gallery; in the Pacific Design Center, which may soon be obsolete, as evidenced by the presence of said gallery, is where this artwork transcends the hysteria of analysis and becomes a sharp and suspicious critique of every representation in its tight, capitalist orbit, including the would-be buyer standing in front of it.
The last work in the gallery is also the furthest away. The sensation of moving blindly through the darkened space is another metaphor for navigating the depths of the unconscious—a blunt but effective device. The three-channel installation Now We Are Extinct plays a single video on three screens at different heights, all on a non-synced loop. Perhaps shot onsite in the PDC, the video moves between several scenes; among them are a pair of mirrors decorated ornately with wildly ornate seashells and an entryway staged with a pair of lamps on a console table flanking a sculpture of a bull’s head. A blonde ponytailed woman in a tank top appears out of sorts and stutters incomprehensibly. Noise bleeds from Is It the Opera or Is It Something Political?, layering the babbling of another illogical but alluring female speaker. Now We Are Extinct doesn’t do something discernibly different, or discernibly better, than some of the more legible works in the show, although its eccentric and frenetic formal qualities offer another kind of instability. Where it differs is in its situation— next to Pepo Vase, Sage Stoneware Vase by Janus et Cie (no date).6 It is difficult to describe the uncanny feeling that this object inspires. The green, sea-creature-y, organic looking vessel, both phallic and containing obvious central core imagery, takes the place of another female body. Equally importantly, this object offers another definition of art. Amongst the bizarre videos, multiple stages, and incomprehensible women stands a clearly defined object. It is a vase, produced by a person or people, peddled by a company, and sold for more than the combined value of its material and its labor. As an object, it is arguably completely unnecessary; but in the wilds of the JANUS et Cie showroom, it is a prize, bestowing cultural capital onto those that have the capitalist capital to purchase and possess it. It’s the opposite of hysterical—standing mute, it absorbs our definitions. A definitive, namable object, some might call it the perfect woman.
The Hysteric’s Discourse is a show of juxtapositions, even in the way we approach its…discourse. There is room for a heady, theoretical interpretation, but nothing that demands one as such. That this show reaches beyond the bounds of its potentially highly specific audience is a testament to its relevance, and to Schoen’s understanding and use of psychoanalysis as a quotidian, bodily, and political material.
With this in mind, even the most theory-averse viewer should acknowledge with pleasure that Schoen is drawing a parallel between the achievement of hysteria as a discourse and her own many-staged theater, which performs art as the same damn thing: a discourse, not an object—an endlessly maddening, looping conversation that by its nature can never be defined. It’s not a vase—that is, if a vase is an answer to a question and not instead the question itself. The Hysteric’s Discourse is almost more Shakespearean than Freudian. There is no neutral space for art—cubed, fabric, or otherwise—but have consumers of both art and capital truly acknowledged the level of performance involved in its making and in its spectatorship? Do its many stages, layered upon each other, prevent us from seeing which role we play? Is art the stage upon which we learn, necessarily, to objectify? As we exit the theater and enter the showroom, or as we exit backstage and walk through the proscenium, or as we leave the gallery and enter the showroom, again—all the previously banal objects become symbols, and we see things as they are: a mirror, a picture, a plinth; another hysterical object, of which nothing truer can be stated than, “It is a riddle.”
Georgia Lassner is an artist and writer in Los Angeles. She is a co-founder of and contributor to the art-centric blog unpublished.
- Gérard Wajcman, “The Hysteric’s Discourse,” The Symptom 4 (Spring 2003), http://www.lacan.com/ hystericdiscf.htm.↵
- JANUS et Cie is a luxury outdoor furniture company.↵
- Blackout fabric is used in theatrical productions to completely absorb light.↵
- The dance that accompanies the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” hit single of 1978 involves the audience throwing their arms into a Y shape when that lyric is repeated.↵
- Wajcman, “The Hysteric’s Discourse.”↵
- This title comes from the gallery checklist. The artist referred this work in a photograph as: “In the foreground is a Pepo Sage Stoneware vase consigned to the gallery from JANUS et Cie.” Correspondence with the author, April 2018.↵