Ryan Trecartin: Site Visit

14 September 2014 – 11 January 2015, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin

By Karen Archey

Animation Companion (detail), 2014. Courtesy the artist; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; and Sprüth Magers, Berlin & London

Ryan Trecartin’s Site Visit at KW, his first solo exhibition in Germany, consists of a video installation and what he terms a ‘sculptural theatre’. The sculptural theatre is essentially rows of souped-up La-Z-Boy armchairs that a viewer can sit in while listening to a sound installation. These chairs overlook a recessed theatre comprising another seating installation – a mixture of cinema seating and portable camping chairs – which is surrounded by projections of Trecartin’s newest film, Site Visit. (In actuality, everything is subsumed under that title, though it appears there are discrete works that make up the larger exhibition.)

Made in collaboration with Lizzie Fitch and Rhett LaRue, Trecartin’s video parodies the well-worn scary Hollywood movie (The Blair Witch Project, 1999, the Scream franchise, 1996–, even the lampooning Scary Movie, 2000–), this genre itself comfortably out of vogue with mainstream audiences for at least ten years. It follows a band of characters inside a haunted Masonic temple in Los Angeles, who attempt to spend the night in a colony of tents inside the building while putting up with the hijinks of perturbed (potentially imaginary) ghosts. Spliced between rapid montages of footage from the Masonic temple (sets designed by Fitch) are 3D animations by artist LaRue. The video, frantic in pace, with rapidly changing camera angles, is amusing but nothing to write home about, and dangerously plays into the platitude that such frenetic camerawork somehow sheds light upon our goldfishlike attention spans, supposedly fractured by the new omnipresence of advanced technology.

What exactly is new or radical about a young male artist fetching millions of dollars for his work?

KW’s press release for Site Visit touts the fact that Trecartin was heralded by Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker as ‘the most consequential artist to have emerged since the nineteen-eighties’. But what exactly is so new about Trecartin’s work? Upon closer inspection, not that much. In a September 2014 New York Times article, embarrassingly titled ‘Post-Internet Art Waits Its Turn’, author Scott Reyburn writes that Trecartin’s video installations fetch anywhere from $1 million to $2 million. What exactly is new or radical about a young male artist fetching millions of dollars for his work? And from an art-historical perspective, Trecartin’s work comes from an obvious lineage of video installation – Pipilotti Rist, Dara Birnbaum, Ant Farm, Michael Smith, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Matthew Barney, etc.

I’ll give Trecartin one thing – his longstanding visibility of queerness is something to be lauded. But Site Visit also retreads some familiar problems. First, how can this be considered Trecartin’s first solo show in Germany if, well, it’s not really a solo show? Even the title of the piece (which, as previously mentioned, is the entire show), is captioned as such: ‘Site Visit is an artwork by Lizzie Fitch / Ryan Trecartin, 3D animations made with Rhett LaRue’. While Trecartin’s collaborative working method is certainly unique, it’s difficult to ascertain how it represents anything other than the age-old problem of a well-known artist’s brand subsuming the efforts of their lesser-known counterparts. Given that Fitch and Trecartin are currently showing a similar exhibition at the Zabludowicz Collection in London and an almost identical one at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, each of which credit both artists, it may be that this accreditation problem lies with KW. 

Further, in terms of gender representation in Trecartin’s work, it must be stated that cisgendered (nontransgendered) actors parodying the stereotype of another gender (eg, men wearing pink clothes and blonde wigs, women wearing flannel shirts and fake beards) do little to further our understanding of the fluidity of gender. That a ‘male’ acts ‘female’ and vice versa simply upholds, rather than challenges, the problematic binary understanding of gender. What would’ve been really new is if Trecartin made transparent how conventional his practice really is. 

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue.