bunny rogers wants you to know she 'acknowledges your hurt'
In her intimate solo show at the Whitney Museum, the artist meditates on mourning, with help from an MTV cartoon character and the 'Cats' soundtrack.
Stepping into a Bunny Rogers exhibition has the effect of a teleportation device, though the realm you are transported to can feel equally visceral and enigmatic. It's not totally clear where you are, but it's certain you are now somewhere else. Over the past decade, the 27-year-old multimedia artist, poet, and performer has created immersive installations that are so thick with ambience you can practically pocket the aura. For instance, Columbine Cafeteria (2016) featured, among other things, a room filled apple-scented votive candles and faux snowfall as a character from the early-aughts MTV show Clone High performed a cover of a Elliott Smith song in a 3D-rendered video loop. Despite her ability to manifest a pungent vibe in each of her exhibitions, the environments she constructs are cryptic and intuitive. Her personal ties are purposefully blurred.
In Brig Und Ladder, Rogers's current exhibition on view at the Whitney and her first major museum show, she entwines shared cultural memories like the Columbine High School massacre with a "personal constellation" of pop culture references and hat-tips to private experiences that have informed her identity. The work, which includes sets of three "self-portrait" mops, three spotlit ladders, and three recreations of chairs from the Columbine Library sporting shotgun holes, is installed in both a model of Columbine's auditorium and a "backstage" area of her own imagining. Rogers was nine-years-old when Columbine happened, and while she was living in Texas at the time, the tragic event coincided with a formative phase of her childhood.
The avatar-like characters that appear throughout the first-floor gallery space function as stand-ins for her friends, family, and herself. They also serve as easter eggs, with certain objects and materials (Precious Moments plush toys, ribbons, Jelly Pen ink) nodding to personal history as well as past exhibitions. (In Brig Und Ladder, Joan from Clone High sings "Memories" from Cats in Russian in a new 3D-rendered video loop.) All together, the installation adds layers to Rogers's ever-expanding visual vernacular, while inspiring viewers — at least this one — to sub in their own avatars and meditate on loss, mourning, and ultimately connection.
You've explored Columbine and concepts related to mourning in many different works. What pushes to keep grappling with these same themes?
A lot of the time, I'm thinking about relationships with people in my life — relationships that are ongoing, or relationships that have failed, or have seemingly failed. I don't see an end to any relationship I've ever had. Similarly, I don't believe that it makes sense to ascribe mourning as having a beginning and an end. I've always carried this sensation of loss, and it took me a long time to realize that it was an affectation. That it was something I was imbuing in everything I was seeing, in every relationship I was entering.
You once said that you view the world through a sad lens, and as a result things reveal themselves in a way that's the most honest or beautiful. Do you still feel that way?
I don't want to say "most beautiful," but what I have found is that when I feel like I'm most reflecting the characteristics of my depression — slow, introverted, maybe more careful, maybe less optimistic or something — it makes me feel more connected to other people, even if on an interactive level it is alienating.
Why do you use Columbine, in particular, as a recurring lens to examine mourning and loss — especially when there have been many other school shootings in recent years?
This was a shooting that happened at a formative time for me. I was nine and living in Texas. The three years I spent there I remember vividly. It's where I started playing Neopets, and where I met my best friend of my childhood. I can't really explain why memories fit together for me in the way they have, but I guess in my artwork it's me trying to assemble them so I can create some kind of record, or departure point.
I read something [about how memory works] a long time ago and it really stuck with me. Each time you recall a memory, it changes or shifts. That's not taking into account how much we lie to ourselves and how skewed our perceptions are to begin with. We're all delusional, whether or not we want to be. And even if you work against it, you can't escape your blind spots; if anything, working against them might have different types of delusional consequences.
When you try to correct something you see as a character flaw, it's difficult not to overcompensate, and then again, and then again, and the process is like Tetris. The game ends and by that time people have been hurt and you've adjusted, but in what ways you're not exactly sure, though you tried your best, and you're stuck.... and the new game starts up and you feel better equipped but the pieces have changed and the problems are different. Anyway, I see my artwork like that — like a Tetris metaphor about stacking blocks and it getting harder to see the bottom. So I can't purely recall something.
Do you view Columbine as a pathway to revisit that formative time of your life in Texas?
Maybe. In the moment the Columbine massacre happened, I can recall the media on television, but I don't remember how I felt about it. I don't remember much more than confusion. It wasn't until later on (and after going through high school) when I began researching Columbine and revisiting its initial documentation, that the gravity of what had occurred actually resonated: A small-town tragedy so devastating it swallowed a nation whole and the complete (moral, political, ideological) destabilizing that inevitably followed, resulting in an open question regarding the immeasurable reach of loss — be it individual, collective, communal, or national.
[Columbine] was at an age when I felt alien. I didn't feel like a person. I definitely didn't feel like I was a girl. I felt perverse and that there wasn't a place for me.
Did that friendship make you feel like there was a place for you?
The way I think about this relationship with my friend [from Texas] is relatively unusual. When I was 10, my family moved to New York, and it decapitated this relationship, but also encapsulated it in this idyllic way. My moving kept it in this vacuum of youth. As I got older and started participating in new relationships, I was constantly comparing those relationships to this one best friend I had, and I struggled with issues of loyalty. Why can't people just have one person, and why aren't they satisfied with one person?
I remember talking with this same friend from Texas a few years later, and she had made new friends with me having gone. And I had not made any new friends in my new school. I felt betrayed. When I think of [the Columbine shooters] Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, I can't help but see them memorialized with each other, as a relationship between two people. You can't think of Dylan's death without Eric's death. I think that's a fantasy for a lot of people, especially a lot of young people: to remove the fear of being alone in life and in death. We go to extreme lengths to ensure that we don't face death by ourselves.
Is there a parallel between struggling to move past that time in your life and the exhibition's looping video, which is like a static memory repeating itself?
In short, yes. The animation is a looping performance, and the sculptures are static. The chairs [in the back room of the installation] are damaged, but there's no indication of what they looked like before, or if they were meant to be fixed or replaced. For instance, Columbine Library was completely redone after the massacre.
You watch a memory like a movie, or a clip from a movie, but you're outside it. Maybe it's fuzzy and whole, or clear and segmented. You go behind it, "backstage," and all the pieces — these affected sculptures — are isolated and suspended. They are suspended in shadow. And you can still hear the audio starting over, but it's quieter. It's repeating itself, and a song stuck in your head is menacing, not pacifying — even if it's "Memory" from Cats, even if it's in an unfamiliar language, even if it's your favorite character's theme song. You love that character for weird reasons and you connect to her theme about surrendering to death, even though you are eight-years-old.
I watched Cats on VHS at least 100 times. I knew all the lyrics and choreography to all the songs. It would end and I would rewind it and watch it again. But I had this process of consumption with everything. I still practice it. It's a part of me. It used to clearly happen with things I knew I loved or obsessed over. But I tried making a list when I was 17 — "Everything I've Ever Been Addicted To" — and it never ended. I couldn't draw a line between compulsive and non-compulsive behavior. The nature of addiction kept broadening, in my life and in my head.
Making artwork helps me organize thoughts and feelings that would otherwise repeat endlessly if left internal. I'm so afraid of forgetting. If my thoughts and feelings, and especially memories, are erratic and untrustworthy, in artworks they can, by my logic, be pinned down. And if I succeed in that transference, momentarily I feel a resolve.
You've described your mop works as "self-portraits" in the past. Do you view the ladders similarly?
The ladders are portraits, and one of them represents me. Also, there's ladders, bridges, and trains in the exhibition. Bridges and ladders are means of connecting to separate places. The train is a means of getting to a place, but it's not on tracks, it's not moving around the exhibition. It's something that's non-functioning and static, too.
I left the exhibition with the feeling that it was simultaneously extremely personal and also very cryptic — and you seem intent on keeping it that way. I'm curious about how that tension makes you feel.
It makes me think about how certain people who exist for me in this installation have been present in many artworks I've made. It's objectifying to make work about someone you care about but can't communicate with anymore — it kind of makes me feel like it's an unwanted gift to these people. I think it makes sense that the people are represented with objects and avatars [in my work]. And there are also characters I attach to, so that's why they reappear, but with them it's more like displacing feelings.
It's complicated to make absence into artwork that's not objectifying. You're creating things to fill these spaces. Is it really empty, is it really absence? There is so much left behind. Presence is the slowest dissipating substance. When someone leaves your life, someone you've had an intimate relationship with... even if they stop talking to you cold and you never talk again and never see them again, that doesn't mean it's resolved. I feel like those remnants were the basis for making these works.
Can you elaborate on that more?
I think all my artwork is me trying to connect with at least someone. Regarding being somewhat cryptic, I mentioned that I have this idea of the perfect audience — someone who sees the work and understands everything, immediately. Without explanation, this person sees it and is left with this feeling that they understand: I see you, you see me.
I once wrote this one poem that was like, "Special recognises special / hurt recognises hurt."
A lot of my life, I've felt invisible. And also, when I'm struggling with something or I'm hurting, my first thought is, I want to disappear; I want to go away. It's a feeling that even if you're there, physically present, someone could put their hand through you. It's different than being a ghost. I have this other poem: "It means so much to have your words remembered / It means so much to have your pain acknowledged," and I guess that's what it's about — someone acknowledging your hurt. And, from my perspective, wanting to say it to other people that are hurting: I acknowledge you.
'Bunny Rogers: Brig Und Ladder' is on view at the Whitney Museum through October 9. More information here.