On January 21, 2010, a twenty-four year old named Fausto Cardenas walked onto the steps of the Texas Capitol Building, removed a handgun, and fired six shots into the air, hurting no one. Cardenas was immediately siezed by authorities and taken to jail, where he remains today. This incident, bizarrely, was witnessed by the artist Jill Magid, who was in Texas gathering research for another project. One of the few eyewitnesses to the occurrence, she spent the following year creating an exhibition interpreting its effects. The result, Closet Drama, curated by Elizabeth Thomas, is currently on view at the Matrix Gallery in the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. To explore the apparent randomness and poetic nature of the act — as violent as it was helpless — Magid uses vinyl wall text, live-feed and news video, silkscreen, audio, photography and found objects.
Magid is well known for engaging with systems of security and surveillance, as well as entering into their structures, and this exhibition is situated firmly within the scope of her interests. Magid not only inserts herself into her subject matter, she picks shady bedfellows. Before creating Closet Drama, Magid was an artist-in-residence at the Dutch Secret Service, where she crafted her well-known Spy Project, in which she worked with the agents to collect information on their fellow spies.
Jill Magid, “Closet Drama,” Installation. Photo: Sibila Savage.
For Closet Drama, Magid takes what appears to be a simplistic connection — the shooter, Fausto Cardenas, and Goethe’s Faust — to create a complex (though strikingly minimal) relationship between the two characters, both of whom appear to be negotiating a relationship between their inner desires and the world’s realities. In her research of the tragic play, Magid ultimately enters the drama herself, and pulls the viewer along with her. Stage directions (“enter Magid,” “exit Fausto,” etc.) are printed directly on the walls, and Magid’s own six-stanza mini-play, Fausto: A Tragedy is available to be taken away in printed pamphlets. As in the Spy Project, Magid is not satisfied with interrogating her subject, she seems set on making him a collaborator.
The work manages to be both bare and emotionally resonant. A vitrine carved into the base of the gallery’s dividing wall displays Six Empty Shells (the bullet shells read as stage props, but are perhaps real), and in several large silkscreen text pieces, Magid has removed the majority of the text from the play’s page altogether, leaving trace and ghostly words. Fiction or not, Magid makes it clear that she is the narrator of this strange and intimate production.
Jill Magid: Stage Direction: [Shots fired skyward.], 2011; vinyl on wall;courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Gallery, Paris, New York.
The last gallery room features a video entitled Six Shots Fired Skyward, a wall-sized live-feed projection of the sky above the Texas Capitol Building. Six voices concurrently read different translations of Faust from as many speakers (titled: The Deed). As the calm voices wash over one another, the projected clouds in the darkened room slowly shift, and an occasional bird flies across the screen. It’s the perfect stage, both loaded and empty, upon which the action occurs.
As is evidenced by the above description, Closet Drama is not an easy show to breeze through; it’s heavily conceptual and not immediately accessible to a passing viewer, which makes it feel a little cold at points. But Magid’s work is deeply ambitious, creative, stark, and brimming with intellectual curiosity. It deserves the energy it requires to sift through its meanings.
In the first act of Faust, Goethe wrote: “In the beginning was the Word.” He later concludes the section, amending: “In the beginning was the Act.” In this show, Magid contemplates the difference.
Closet Drama runs through June 12, 2011 at the Matrix Gallery in the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. For more information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.