Walking through Tracey Snelling's Woman on the Run, now on view at the Frist Center, is a little like reenacting the scene in Beetlejuice where Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis shrink down to the scale model of the town cemetery — except that instead of the Dante's Inferno Room cathouse there's a No-Tell Motel, instead of a horny dead guy there are security guards milling around telling you not to touch anything — and instead of being creepy and hilarious, it's kind of boring.
Woman on the Run is a large-scale multimedia exhibition that fills two large rooms in the upstairs gallery of the Frist. The front corner of the installation spells out Snelling's story in an ill-conceived comic book storyboard. It begins, "Is she an innocent woman ... or a femme fatale!" The comic goes on to tell the story of Veronica Hayden in a series of clichéd plot developments matched with shots of the installation and poorly Photoshopped video stills with corny text snippets like "Dangerously Yours" and "Suspect," and the whole thing pans out like a joke the artist isn't in on.
Beyond the storyboard is a facade of a brick building that features homemade videos in place of windows. In one, Snelling's alter ego Veronica is seen getting ready to go out with the husband who will soon be murdered — the impetus for Veronica's titular run — and as he wraps the scarf around her neck a little too snugly, the broad acting seems unintentionally campy.
On at least one occasion, the video that was supposed to be playing in a neighboring window was malfunctioning, and instead showed a flashing "Memorex DVD Video" that bounced around the blank blue screen like a game of Pong. That unexpected failure actually provided one of the exhibit's most interesting commentaries on contemporary technology's place in old Hollywood.
Earlier in her career, Snelling meticulously rendered miniature replicas of timeworn houses, gas stations and bodegas with gritty details. She would then photograph the buildings in their would-be natural settings, using a long exposure to trick the camera lens into reimagining the structures as life-sized, but with an almost imperceptible difference that gave the photos an intangible eeriness. The tumbledown aesthetic of those early pieces remains in her large-scale work, but the subtlety of her process is lost in translation. The true-to-life size of a hotel room sculpture, for example, brings more attention to the ways that it is an imperfect replica than to the ways that it matches.
Snelling is a talented set designer, and the best parts of Woman on the Run are the tabletop miniatures of rundown city streets, with tiny photographs of real doors nestled inside dollhouse-sized doorways — replicas inside replicas — and windows that host small videos of the heroine in various stages of packing a suitcase. In the life-sized motel room sculpture, minor details show promise — like the grease stain around the door's latch that illustrates the years of dirty hands that have fumbled over it. My favorite detail was the rotary telephone that, for those curious enough to pick up the receiving end, plays an odd recording that feels like a clue to a mystery. But disappointingly, the phone line doesn't reveal anything interesting — it's just a mashup of various movie and television quotes. The veneer of intrigue never takes hold, and what could be noirish, Lynchian voyeurism seems less like an exhibit of a ramshackle neighborhood, and more like a ramshackle exhibit.
Behind the motel room, a pile of garbage is spotlighted against the building wall, stacked with dirt, cigarette butts, bottle caps, a filthy pillow and some wire. This hidden mess is a nice addition, and there is a clandestine feeling to getting away with putting a bunch of garbage in the middle of an art museum for the security guards to watch over, making sure it isn't disturbed. If Snelling had focused more on filling the space with details like this, and less on hammering home broad film noir stereotypes, the installation could have made an interesting statement on contemporary obsessions with criminal behavior and the dark underbelly of Hollywood. But the work never gets far enough out of its shell to make any comment at all.
Snelling's talent is in making the unreal appear real, and giving representation to the unrepresented. Knowing that, it's hard to understand why she would go out of her way to replicate settings that don't exist in reality in the first place. With Woman on the Run, she makes copies of things that were already copies, and instead of providing insight into the relationship between truth and fiction, she presents the work as a mystery for the audience to figure out. But wouldn't anything exhibited under a buzzing neon sign while the score from Psycho plays in the background seem mysterious? It's surprising how unremarkable Snelling's ambiguity is.
Artists like Mike Nelson and Christoph Büchel have created mysterious installations with depth and ambience. Cindy Sherman was investigating the feminist references of film as early as the 1970s. The 2010 documentary Marwencol shone light on one man's obsessive-compulsive need to create miniature worlds as a means to work through his psychological trauma. But this is not that.
The Frist curators took a risk by exhibiting the work of a relatively unknown contemporary artist, and I was fully expecting to love the exhibit. But after three separate visits I still felt the parts never assembled into a whole, and the exhibit seems more like a scale-model architect is expanding into terrain with depth she doesn't yet fully comprehend.
Even the security guards — those out-of-place sentinels who make sure you interact with the exhibit, but only so much — seemed already bored by the mystery on opening night. Couldn't they have been costumed? Or instructed to whisper Veronica's secrets to each other? One of them told me he had watched the exhibit's window-video 12 times, and was convinced that there was no real mystery to be solved. I can't help but agree.
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