A New Installation Brings a Fictional 500-Mile City to Life in New York
Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe collaborate with Jennifer Herrema.
Even with the many spectacular exhibitions that have opened this past week—Adrián Villar Rojas‘s lying David at Marian Goodman, John Baldessari works with a ball pit at Shin Gallery, and Mike Kelley‘s Exploded Fortress of Solitude at Hauser & Wirth—the collaborative installation “Scenario in the Shade,” by artists Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe with artist-musician Jennifer Herrema (Royal Trux, Black Bananas) puts up a hell of a fight for your attention.
The whole installation revolves around a fantasy: the San San International, a megalopolis-cum-festival-cum-art fair that stretches from San Diego to San Francisco, a distance of 500 miles, evoking the familiar science-fiction trope of a hellishly overpopulated future.
At the center of the project is a 30-minute film that plays in a large back room with comfy seating. Herrema invited musicians from Devendra Banhardt and Lizzi Bougatsos to Mayo Thompson and Kurt Vile to contribute to the rich instrumental soundtrack, which ranges from ambient piano and electronica to anthemic rock. Voiceovers recall a 1973 Kiss concert amid lush visuals like glitter and water raining down on floral bouquets. There are cakes decorated with words like “paranoia man in a cheap shit room” and “pre-teen huff job.” Additional audio furnished by the musicians provides a sound track to the entire two-floor installation.
Freeman and Lowe made the movie, Lowe explained to me, and then moved the set to Red Bull, and had been up late installing it—and having a party for the musicians—the night before.
“This is the first moment I’m able to walk around here without all the activity and distractions, so now I know what this is,” Lowe told me Friday during a preview visit. “And it’s great. I worked with so many people. So many people did so many things. And they actually did a fucking great job! Let’s throw some high-fives.”
The elements of Freeman and Lowe’s installations, which they’ve staged all over the country, are by now familiar. The artists and their assistants scour junk shops across the nation to gather busted-up sheets of pegboard, bad thrift-shop paintings, VHS tapes, outdated electronics and the like, which they assemble in thoroughly built out installations that you wander through under dim lighting. It’s kitschy and creepy. In describing them, writers employ words like labyrinthine, sprawling, and immersive. Seedy underbellies of popular culture are evoked.
At Red Bull, there’s faux wood paneling, there are drug store shelves covered in brown prescription bottles, and there’s what looks like an abandoned meth lab (invoking some of the early projects, like “Hello Meth Lab in the Sun,” that first put Freeman and Lowe on the map). The entryway to a mock courtroom in the basement consists of a blue Porta Potty (has the justice system gone down the toilet?). There’s a low-ceilinged, cushioned chillout room with a hookah that you enter through a hole cut in the back of a wardrobe (Narnia reimagined as a Moroccan hashish den).
“Some of this is just the ubiquitous trash that makes up a metropolis,” Lowe said. “Pegboard and slat wall city, you know? There was a huge team of people going to Rhode Island and to upstate New York. All these towels are from Venice Beach, while the Duane Reade stuff is from around the corner.”
There are a bunch of keychains that all sport the name Yvonne. There are “Time Crisis” and “Target: Terror” video game consoles. There are eyeglasses racks that are all but empty, as if near-sighted looters had raided a nearby Duane Reade. There are shelves lined with great big oversized jars like the one where Clarice Starling found the head of Buffalo Bill’s first victim in Silence of the Lambs.
If it all seems a bit too cute, the thoroughness of the artists’ execution of their vision saves it from that fate. It’s convincing. It’s funny. It’s taken to a degree of finish and detail that demolishes doubt.
Their alternate universe is evoked in some of the dryly funny voiceovers in a 30-minute film that plays in a room at the rear of the gallery.
“Scenario 99: We’re in a new place—Mercury City.”
“Past lives…mediation…ESP…They know how to get rich. They can fund the underground.”
“It’s the Cold War. The fun war.”
When I asked if I sensed a whiff of Pynchonesque paranoid fantasy in the film, Lowe was quick to confirm that it’s there.
“Paranoia is a medium, isn’t it?” he asked. “It’s the invisible one.” (Possibly unrelated: Marcel Duchamp talked about his titles as invisible colors.)
The artists’ verbal wit is further in evidence in mocked-up books that appear in the film and the installation: I Thought Hawaii Would Be Different. Tijuana Eye Patch. Unscrewed Capitalism.
There’s a whole series of faux-academic publications littering the mock courtroom, all under the “Vortice Science of Behavior” imprint: Please Excuse the Rug on Your Eyes. Slice of Pizza Costume.
Though the artists have been working with the notion of the fictional city-cum-festival for several years now, when asked what was ahead for the San San International, Lowe was for several moments at a loss for words.
“I’m still very deep at the center of it,” he said. “It’s a big world. It’s our world, but a slightly different world.”
“Scenario in the Shade” will be on view at Red Bull Studios through December 6.
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