Double – Take

Marek Ther at Galerie Eskort in Brno (Galerie Eskort, Orli 5, Brno, Czech Republic, 10 January – 25 February 2003)

Using an alias still has its advantages and disadvantages in the arts. It can assist in avoiding or emphasizing a direct personal affiliation with the artwork, while generating intrigue and mystery about the artist in question. It is also a means of rejecting a certain kind of sick stardom and success associated with the art world.

Yet despite the many assets, there is always an air of deceit that goes hand-in-hand with the use of an alias-along with questionable guile over the denial or covering of one’s born identity. Artist Marek Ther’s exhibition recently at Galerie Eskort in Brno (the second largest city in the Czech Republic), explores the benefits that accompany an alias or alter-identity, and the complications and tragedies that can result from it.

Behind a roped-off area of the gallery, hung like the Mona Lisa, is a photo headshot of Mabel (the title of the exhibition). It shows a mature woman dressed up in 1930’s garb, posing as a shy starlet for the camera.

The portrait is installed like a Minimalist altar where viewers may come up for a closer – but not too close look, as here the boundaries between object and subject are blatant and at the same time blurred. As with any museum or art institution containing roped-off or glass-fronted artworks of specific historical renown and/or monetary value, a certain level of intimacy with the artwork is denied to the viewer.

Yet in the alternative gallery space of Galerie Eskort in Brno, this gesture becomes both comical and overtly critical of the preciousness that is often placed on art. The portrait also becomes more of a reference to Marcel Duchamp‚s alias Rose Selavy or photos of actress Greta Garbo when positioned in connection with the short video played beside the portrait on a simple Television.

The video reveals the “private life” of Mabel. Done in pseudo-interview style, Mabel sits made-up in her humble home mumbling uneasily about herself. Yet, there is no interviewer heard nor no questions asked, just a series of bland responses from Mabel, such as “this is my home, where I spend most my time”.

The room looks poor, not that of a famous actress, and very little of it is visible, so that the viewer’s focus is directed to examine Mabel herself. She is uncomfortable in front of the camera exerting futile attempts to cover up her nervousness. She looks around the room vaguely as if she is alone and talking to herself.

There also comes the realization that the “Mabel” in the video is not the same as the woman in the portrait. Therefore an element of falseness and drollery presents itself, but combined with strong implications of isolation and loneliness portrayed by the video version of Mabel.

Instead of a look at the woman behind the altar we discover a man behind the mask of a woman, a man (in this case the artist) identifying himself as the fictionalized personality of Mabel.

As in most of Ther’s video works, he creates and takes on the identities of typically female or gender ambiguous personalities living in the world of the rich and famous. However, specifically in the Mabel video there is an aura of apprehension and uncertainty (maybe simply due to the artist’s young age).

The typical, generalized associations with transvestism and cross-dressing, such as drag queen shows and deviance, have been purposely left out of Ther’s exhibition. In comparison to other artists’ work that deal with the same topic, such as the series of photographs The Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin, Ther’s work instead reveals a powerfully tender and grievous view, refreshingly devoid of spectacle and voyeurism.

Transvestites are often forced to create aliases or alter-identities in order to live both as a woman and as a man in greater society. Most are unable to ever leave the confines of their own homes except under their born identity.

The questions Ther’s exhibition provokes become even more pertinent within the context of the Czech Republic, a country of very limited tolerance for difference. This exhibition is far from being a naïve look at “the other” but is rather a realistic study of the space transvestism still occupies, while also questioning the ultimate desire for fame, success, and power in a male-dominated society.