Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Alexis Rausch Explores Memory, Identity and Travel Embargoes in UMOCA Exhibit

Installation photograph, Alexis Rausch: Nobody likes it here, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Jun 23–Aug 5, 2023, photo by Zachary Norman, © UMOCA

At the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, response to Nobody Likes It Here, the installation by Alexis Rausch in the Projects Gallery (near the entrance), has been spilling over into the adjacent Street Gallery, where the Utah Division of Arts and Museum’s Statewide Annual is on display. It’s not unheard of for thoughts and feelings generated by one exhibition to carry over into the new and as yet unknown space of another, but the sense here is that Rausch’s perplexing work is disturbing the equanimity of its viewers and the relatively familiar gallery next door gives them room to talk about it.

Artists often describe their work as “exploring” something, which suggests they might not have known what they would find. In fact, that’s one essential difference between a work of art and a performance, which we usually hope knows where it’s going. Nobody Likes It Here has its origins in the Covid-19 Pandemic, which left its mark on so much recent art. In response to the impossibility of international travel, Rausch fixed on the idea of sending a mask of her face to fellow artists in countries she might otherwise have visited, having them wear the mask and have their photograph taken while visiting tourist sights in their vicinities, and presumably showing the results as a commentary on identity and memory. How many of our experiences, she might have asked, have more to do with what’s in our photographs? This is cutting edge psychological stuff, of course, as neurobiologists explore and argue about concepts like holographic memory and asking how much, each time something is remembered, the act of recollecting changes the memory.

Alexis Rausch’s mask, wrapped in plastic. Image credit: Geoff Wichert

Going out on a limb, then, it seems likely that as a work of art, Rausch’s original idea didn’t pan out. We’re already saturated with the sites and sights her doppelgängers were seen to visit. More to the point, as she assembled and contemplated the images sent back to her, embargoes on travel were being lifted and record numbers of survivors were taking to the road — so many, in fact, that new limits and fees are now being imposed not to prevent contamination, but to protect the sites from those seeking to encounter them.

In any event, the artist’s decision not to show the bulk of her results led to an arguably better, richer idea. What we see instead of that curse of the pre-digital age, the Dreaded Slide Show, is a set of tableaux, each consisting of a stack of media and a travel poster, both under protective plastic sheets that recall vacant homes in which each piece of furniture is covered with a sheet to keep off dust. Only here the sheets are transparent, revealing hints of what is being withheld. Deutschland (Germany), France (featuring the unburnt Notre Dame cathedral), New York (Statue of Liberty), and Los Angeles (the beach and its companion, the sun) are seen through the medium of their clichés and a sheet of plastic recalling the isolation that lasted almost three years.

In the center of the room, an easy chair with a colorful, woven comforter presumably brought back from a previous trip sit before a table of refreshments, a projector stand with 35mm slide projector automatically showing some of the originally planned photos, and a screen around which various boxes of pictures lie scattered. Each of these, with the exception of the projector, is also covered by an isolating plastic sheet. The projector may be left in the open to provide ventilation and because the plastic would spoil the show, but that also calls attention to its role in transplanting the images, which are embargoed, into the equally quarantined space where they are viewed. Lest this all appear too mundane, under the sheet covering the refreshments, a copy of the Alexis Rausch mask can be seen, so inviting the viewer to follow the lead of those in the photos and assume her identity while “she” relives her travels.

Rausch’s slideshow viewing space. Image credit: Geoff Wichert

One way of describing the art of Alexis Rausch might be to say she explores the space between scopophilia, the relatively pure aesthetic pleasure gained from looking, and voyeurism, often defined as the complications arising when the gazed-upon know or realize they are being watched. For comparison, recall that in Ecology, the branch of Biology that deals with the whole community and the relations between its member species, the littoral is the space on the shore of a sea between high and low tides. In today’s America this range has taken on new meaning as climate change has expanded it by alternately inundating and disappearing under water parts of the East even while drying up whole bodies of water in the West. In essence, the littoral has grown to encompass the entire country. Alexis Rausch explores a parallel, visual littoral: the area where curiosity and discomfort compete for control of the senses. Contemplating her original, clever-bordering-on-brilliant vision for Nobody Likes It Here, the possibility comes to mind that she’s not done with her surreal visual accounts of the travels she didn’t take between 2020 and 2023: with her bold and desperate effort to exchange functional identities with her correspondents in foreign lands. In the future she may come up with a way to foreground either her vicarious travels or their time spent impersonating an American tourist. Or something even wilder, more exotic, and more existential may come of it.


Alexis Rausch: Nobody likes it here, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through Aug. 5

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