Buffalo, NY Michelle Hines
Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center

The surge of artistic and critical interest surrounding the hoax in this post-JT Leroy art world inevitably forms the backdrop for this small retrospective of Brooklyn-based artist Michelle Hines, Within the Contest of No Contest. Hines’s notoriety was won with the series of video stills World Record #4: Peristaltic Action, 1995, which show the fresh-faced and determined young artist generating a princely bowel movement the entire length of her colon down a bowling alley in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. This indelible scene was widely publicized not only in Bruce Hainley and John Waters’s 2003 Art: A Sex Book but more recently throughout the internet blogosphere, where its reproductions have spread like a fecal contagion. To say that I was rendered speechless by my initial encounter with this scatological monument (what Hallwalls curator John Massier terms “23 feet of unbridled ambition”) – and desperately disappointed when I discovered that said historic bowel movement had not in fact taken place – would be a grotesque understatement. (Beyond the obvious anatomical impediments to her endeavor, this willfully gullible spectator was tipped off to its artifice by its gallery presentation as eight video stills rather than a more visceral – and hypothetically original – video).

In Hines’s work from the nineties, fabrication or impersonation are the inevitable byproducts of the dogged struggle for celebrity, no matter how marginal or cultish this recognition might be. By engineering such an infamous stunt as Peristaltic Action ¬– which could provoke shock in hardened art enthusiasts weaned on Ron Athey’s scrotum distended with saline or John Duncan’s soul-shattering necrophilia ¬– Hines embodies (and degrades the machismo of) the endurance-based body artist, casting this figure as a fame whore no better than the millions who similarly seek the most outrageous route to renown. Thus we have a small, blurry, black and white snapshot of Hines holding an ear of corn that towers over her, its plump and juicy nibblets each the size of her cheek (World Record #1: Largest Ear of Corn, 1994). Authenticated by texts describing Hines’s consultation with scientific authorities and exact quantitative measurements to evidence her achievements, the World Record series bears the hallmarks of the obsessive pursuit of a Holy Grail that can only have value to herself – but who would deny her her look over overweening pride in their doing? The sense of desperation – for authenticity, for fame – that marks such carefully crafted lies bears the emotional poignancy that George Kuchar once inadvertently described as “Truth wrapped in trash and vice versa.”

Another video and still series from this period that reflects similar concerns reproduced appropriately degraded (thereby authentic) “documents” of paranormal occurrences including crop circles and Yeti sightings years after these marvels had past their peak cultural cachet. The most desperate and disquieting work here, however – no doubt because it is also the most performative – is a forty-minute, bare-bones video featuring a plucky gentleman performing an exhausting cavalcade of Celebrity Impressions, 1997, to a silent and invisible audience that refuses to be entertained. Here the gap between ambition and effort is at its most painful and sordid, as each public persona mimicked – George W. Bush, Jimmy Stewart, the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live (as moldy a cultural reference as the Yeti is) – sets a goal that the spirited impression inevitably fails to achieve. And then an awkward pause where the laughter should be announces the next cringe-inducing flop.

And what of the apparent conceptual naiveté of the more recent work on display, an extensive array of digital color photos taken from high above city streets of groups and individuals below (Through Binoculars, 2004-2006)? Here the unwitting performers (competitors?) are merely the anonymous participants of everyday urban life, while we are put in the position of judging the merits of their bodies, postures and fashions. The “contest” is thus simply the field of the social itself – with each specimen irrevocably isolated one from the other. Unfortunately, by setting such a high bar for spectacle with the earlier work, the more mundane and perhaps more nuanced insights of this new series tend to get lost in the glare of the spotlights.