Thursday, March 3, 2011

Marnie Weber, The Spirit Girls and The Western Song, 2008

Marnie Weber: The Cinema Show (Edited clips) from Marc Jancou Contemporary on Vimeo.

          Marnie Weber is a Los Angeles based artist with a deep-rooted fascination with the macabre. Weber is a multi-disciplinary artist who is known for her works in costume, video, installation, performance, discography, sculpture, and collage. She studied at both UCLA and USC, the latter from which she obtained her MFA. Weber created a musical rock group called The Spirit Girls who have dominated the entirety of her oeuvre. The Spirit Girls are physical stand-ins for the spirits of five fictional girls who died too young to realize their dream of becoming a successful rock and roll band. Weber costumes her characters in kitschy attire—frumpy schoolgirl frocks, knee-high socks, penny loafers and white gloves. In themselves, those items might not be so jarring, but paired with eerie white masks and long, untamed hair these girls embody a spiritual realm of persona that has not often been explored in the contemporary art scene.
            Masks have been a part of rituals, ceremonies and performance for centuries. The use of a mask can be for disguise, embodiment of an idea or concept, for means of celebration, or acting (among many other uses). The etymology of the word mask has its roots in the romantic languages—in French the word masque, Spanish mascara, Italian maschera all derive from the Latin root mascus which means ghost. Their root suggests that a mask has more spiritual qualities than often realized. Interestingly, in Rome, the word persona actually meant what the English word mask connotes—the physical covering of the face. The line between persona and masks is blurred in this context and Weber showcases this in The Western Song video where The Spirit Girls embody the persona of their former physical selves in eerie, spirit bodies at a circus.
            Western thought typically classifies the use of a mask in performace to that of “primitive” practices—associating its use with that of the occult and primordial. Weber uses this, perhaps naïve, yet nonetheless present, assumption in the culture from which she works to overemphasize the ghoulish and primitive connotation of the mask in performance, which calls the audience to question their predispositions and asks them to reevaluate some of the preconceived notions inherent to our culture.
            According to Kristina Newhouse for X-TRA (a contemporary arts quarterly) the concept behind Weber’s Spirit Girls was inspired by a true set of sisters in nineteenth century New York. The Fox Sisters, who were preteen and teenage girls, realized that they could communicate with the dead through a series of knocks, clicks, and other tactile methods of communication. The sisters were part of a bizarre practice that came out of a Spiritualist movement and were mocked, ridiculed, and celebrated by the circus community—specifically Barnum and Bailey. A public performance in 1850 encouraged several similar acts to the Fox Sisters to take place shortly after.
            In A Western Song several references to literature and antiquity link the narrative of the piece to a thematically dark content. The image of the lead Spirit Girl lying face up in the water clearly evokes the image of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamelt. This female character was lead to her untimely death because she witnessed a gruesome murder and was deemed insane by the court in which she lived. Weber uses the image of the bear in her works as a link to the Greek goddess Artemis. Artemis, who escaped rape from her father, ran wild into the woods (much like Ophelia in Hamlet) and became the dominant huntress of the woods. She is the protectress of female chastity, which suggests that these spirits that Weber presents the audience with might not be malcontents, they may in fact be seen as protectors of virginity, something that when taken away can never be returned.
            Weber has showed this video in several institutions internationally. Sometimes she recreates a circus and Western-like atmosphere in the gallery space, providing haystacks for the audience to sit on while they view the video. The soundtrack to the video is pitch-perfect as it evokes a sense of paranoia, hysteria and confusion, which must have overwhelmed the spectators of such occult practices in a carnival community. The cartoonish caricatures Weber provides in this video suggest the hilarity and garishness of circus culture by overemphasizing their features and movements.
            Overall, there is an acute sadness over the work that is inescapable. The morose nature of the visage of the mask adds to the despair of the Spirit Girls who are bound and put on display for the sake of entertainment. Their dream of achieving stardom in the rock and roll scene was never realized due their untimely deaths, but they have achieved some sort of celebrity—but the question remains: would their living souls appreciate the attention?

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