Maria Petschnig’s second solo exhibition, “Petschnigs' " at On Stellar Rays, warrants a reexamination of the self and the mind. With the installation of low ceilings, cheap wood paneling throughout the entire gallery space, strange objects, and two bizarre videos, Petschnig plunges the viewer into an inescapable confrontation with our voyeuristic tendencies.
A Cold Sweat
The moment I stepped alone into the dark gallery space, I felt, at once, unsettled. To the left, there was a large object masked by a sheet of velvet, protruding from a wall; to the right, the low hum of an eerie video alternating between shots of the outside of a house and tose of a semi-naked woman wrapped so tightly in duct tape that her flesh bulged. No reception desk, no warm greeting; no sign of another human being.
Before visiting, I had read a review of the exhibition from Time Out New York, detailing that the gallery had been “transformed to resemble a serial killer’s basement rec room.” With no one to comfort me, I began to think that there was a more sinister agenda lurking under the guise of an art gallery. I instantly became more alert and my senses skyrocketed; sweat formed in the arc of my neck and fear began pounding at the door of my rationality.
I willed myself to the next room. It was lit solely by a cheap floor lamp in the corner, standing next to a mattress leaning against the wall with two large, protruding—terribly imposing—objects, masked by a gray sheet. These were supposedly meant to suggest severed heads, according to Time Out New York. I took one look and got the #%$! Out!
A Change in Lens
Admittedly, I am a bit of a scaredy-cat. Yet I eventually ventured through the entire exhibition and got a chance to speak to On Stellar Rays’ Associate Director, Courtney Childress (her office was in a back room). I asked whether the exhibition was, in fact, meant to resemble the basement of a serial killer; it turns out this notion couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Childress detailed that Petschnig modeled the installation after the childhood home of the artist and her twin sister (hence, “Petschnigs”). It is meant to be an intimate yet uncomfortable space. However, the creeping discomfort should stem not from the thought of a serial killer, but from “unresolved, psychosexual tensions” and a sense of intrusion. The viewer is meant to feel not as a captive, but as a peeping tom.
The aforementioned video, titled Vasistas, flashes shots of the outside of a house— particularly at a lighted, curtained window in the night. The viewer is placed in a position of an outsider or an on-looker. Another video, Petschsniggle, depicts the artist and her twin engaging in several odd activities (e.g. cutting a skinned cucumber in half and standing together topless in a shower) alternating with shots of the outside of a bedroom door (opened just a crack) accompanied by quiet, muffled sounds. The masked protruding objects seem to suggest body parts just by their silhouette alone.
While the suggestion of incest certainly looms large within the show, there is no solid indication of its existence. Childress clarified that Petschnig forces us to reexamine ourselves, our bodies, and environments—why are we so quick to jump to conclusions? A misguided and disturbing conclusion thanks to some bizarre, but mild scenes both prove the power of suggestion and something scarier still: how easily and effectually we may be governed by this power. Maria Petschnig is a master of suggestion and “Petschnigs',” her hall of mirrors, will keep you guessing until the very end—and even then.
Article by Maggie Wong