Arts exhibit review

Ann Hirsch: “Sexy” (Un)Sublimated

Hirsch’s satire is a little too poignant, a little too convincing, and a little too close to home


Ann Hirsch

Curated by Henriette Huldisch

MIT LIST Visual Arts Center

On display until February 21

I had never been in MIT LIST’s project exhibition room before. It was smaller than I expected, and yet somehow this almost claustrophobic quality lent itself to Ann Hirsch’s work. The darkened room was illuminated by the screens dotted about the walls, and the tiny crackles from the adjacent headphones were sporadically drowned out by the main speakers. With white fur rugs and black bean bags on the floor, it was easy to attach oneself to a screen and become immersed. This learned transportational quality of screens — our ability to willfully submit to their immaterial reality and allow it to transcend our surroundings — became more visible and reflexive as I explored each piece.

I was initially drawn to the stencil of a TV screen on the wall, and settled in for the video. The piece Here for You (Or My Brief Love Affair with Frank Maresca) (2010), begins with Ann’s (playing “Annie”) audition tape for a reality TV show, in which she competes with other women for Frank’s affection, in his parents’ house. A montage of Ann’s experiences in the house shows the other girls dolling her up for her date with Frank, and culminates in her performing an explicit rap song that gets her cut from the show. What is perhaps most striking is the aspect of performativity that Ann’s presence in the show unravels. At times, the footage will cut to a shot of Ann that carefully underpins this image of Annie as a sweet and hopeless girl. The viewers oscillate between their knowledge of Ann’s performative role as Annie, and the TV program’s formal construction of reality through different tropes and techniques, and this awareness creates a strange alienation from both.

This jarring dislocation works alongside our ability to self-immerse, forcing us to question our position as audience member and consumer. This rendering of the absurd is even more evident in Hirsch’s The Scandalishious Project (2008-2009). In this compilation, as you plug into the top left screen with your headphones, you are greeted by a series of videos by “Caroline” — Hirsch’s alter-ego. When I got to the screen, the video playing showed Caroline dancing in her bathroom in a zebra onesie. Her awkward fumblings are stark, and she seems oblivious and simultaneously hyperaware of the sexuality her hip gyrations connote, falling somewhere between the simulacra of sexy and dad-dancing. This camp mockery of sensuality is somehow liberating — it is an embodiment that goes beyond the sexuality portrayed in music videos even as while seeking to attain it.

The next video is entitled “Letters to an Internet Whore” and features Caroline, with her quintessential vocal fry, reading fan mail. Ranging from Kevin’s very specific request for skin-tight jeans, to 14 year old Emily’s appreciative reverence, to Cilia’s hate mail, this video alludes to the incitement of the audience Hirsch’s work calls for. Like the screen of scrolling YouTube comments beneath it, reactions range from admiration to death threats. As the comments pass in an endless stream, ranging from accusations of attention-seeking, to body shaming, to sexual harassment, you get an overwhelming sense of what an ugly place the internet can be at times.

The text introducing the exhibition states that Hirsch’s aim with this piece was to “undermine stereotypes of the young women on the web by combining the geek, the needy oversharer, and the provocative dancer.” She achieves this through an unsubtle over-identification with each of these stereotypes. Her dancing to Nelly Furtado’s “Man Eater” or her video blog about “How to dress like a hipster without wearing brands” are a little too convincing, too recognizable.

Two screens to the right take this even further by screening video responses to Caroline’s online oeuvre. Some of them are hilarious, including a guy dancing topless (and badly) to “Message in a Bottle” by The Police, and a guy in a full yellow skin-tight bodysuit and mask dancing to Marilyn Manson’s “Personal Jesus.” Where before we allowed ourselves unmediated immersion with the screen, these videos force us to withdraw and resituate ourselves. How far do we let ourselves go? A video of three young girls copying Caroline’s gawky, hyper-sexualised dancing say, “This is one we learned from you!” as they mimic a bend and snap. Worse than this explicit example of how quickly ideas of femininity and sexuality are shared and internalised are the videos which show a man masturbating to Ann’s videos. The self-delusion involved in this man’s commitment to his fantasy of Caroline forces us to step back, not only to review the hideous sexualisation and misogyny that leaks onto the internet — but our own investment in our immaterial worlds.

Twelve (2013) was the final piece on display and continues to unravel and question this distinction between on-screen and off-screen experiences. The piece simulates AOL dial-up and a chat room experience in the pre-broadband days. For the generation to whom iPads and instant wireless are a given, the use of iPads in this instance doesn’t fully capture the embodied experience of those lumpy desktop computers. The chatroom experience itself, however, captures the moment perfectly. After the static squeaking of the dial-up, we land straight in a chat room. Navigating the different message windows, we navigate through the conversations of a bunch of tweens.

As someone who was once a 12 year old girl left to venture through the web from a boxy white desktop in my family living room, I find Hirsch’s piece to be remarkably on point. Utilizing the idioms and half-innocence of the age group and technology, the IM conversation carefully conveys the balance between the excitement of acknowledgement and acceptance on the one hand, and the pervasion of flirtatiousness and sexuality on the other. As private messages pop up in and around the group chat, we explore more of this little-spoken-about experience. We stand witness to the insecurity, the vulnerability, and, most importantly, the definitive agency of the pre-teen girl. It’s that combination which Hirsch has done well to capture and is important to recognize.

Like the rest of the pieces in the exhibition, Twelve lays bare inconvenient and awkward truths. Only in this piece, the viewer is taken with Ann, we are not asked to step outside and survey. It is only here in front of the iPad simulating dial-up that I paused to consider the mediums themselves: the stencil of the TV that first struck me, the four screens like windows on a computer, the chat room now gracing the iPad in front of me with retro-AOL aesthetics. Hirsch’s work is a unique insight into the agency of young girls navigating these spaces. The pieces call into question the forces that sublimate sexuality, challenging the social forces that are enacted through these mediums and making them visible.