In 1998, Tracey Emin exhibited her unmade bed — filled with used Kleenex, filthy underwear, and empty cigarette cartons — as testament to the psychic and physical trauma induced by a bad breakup. Multimedia artist and poet Bunny Rogers references My Bed when describing a trio of computer chairs included in her exhibition “Brig Und Ladder,” her first major museum show, at the Whitney Museum, on view through October 9.
The chairs are standard computer-lab fare save for their dreamy, washed-out colors and nearly identical blemishes — a fist-size chunk of foam ripped from each back. The holes are modeled on bullet-ridden computer chairs Rogers saw in police photographs taken of the Columbine High School library after the 1999 massacre.
Rogers had long wished to make a piece using computer chairs, furniture she sees as highly evocative. Born in 1990 and raised in Texas, Rogers spent her formative years in front of a computer, inhabiting the space at her desk as intimately as Emin inhabited her bed.
Much of Rogers’s art considers how images and memories coalesce online, and in turn, how screenshots or icons can take on synecdochical meaning, especially in childhood. From 2011 to 2012, she collaborated with Filip Olszewski to convert a Flushing storefront into an abandoned flower shop, filled with black roses — real-life incarnations of a rare item available on the virtual pet website Neopets. Prior to that, Rogers had earned the attention of the online art community with her beguilingly labyrinthine personal website, home to a catalog of digital disease awareness ribbons and other poignant screen kitsch.
It is from the vantage point of a computer chair that Rogers presumably saw her first images of Columbine, a tragedy that haunts “Brig Und Ladder” and was the subject of two of her recent gallery exhibitions, “Columbine Library” and “Columbine Cafeteria,” the latter of which showed at Greenspon Gallery in Soho last summer. As in those earlier series, the shooting is depicted here not in graphic fashion but rather as one reference in an intricate tangle Rogers pulls from to conjure feelings of loneliness or grief, and to explore the ways we digest and perform them. In her words, the work considers how we “express individual loss collectively” and seeks to capture the “ornate nature” of sadness.
In the case of “Brig Und Ladder,” the primary inspiration was a personal loss: the dissolution of close friendships. “The idea was to talk about the devastation of losing a friend; in this case, two,” Rogers says. (The title of the show is meant to recall the words bridge and ladder but also contains a coded reference to one of her friends’ names.)
Beyond this, there are few others clues as to the precise meaning of the sculptures on view: in addition to the chairs, three wood-stained industrial mops with wilting whiskers, a squat female Thomas the Tank Engine painted a desaturated pink and gray, and three dyed ladders, two of which have missing rungs. There is also a small square of chain-link fence hung delicately with pine-tree air fresheners, which resembles an impromptu roadside memorial.
The color-coding and repetition of the chairs, mops, and ladders correspond to a private numerology and lexicon. But Rogers is masterful at mood-setting, and one can still — as with Emin’s work — feel her objects’ palpable ache, even without knowing the stories behind them. The defiled computer chairs warn of the fragility of comfort, perhaps, or the danger of isolation. The train car, called “Lady,” is a token of girlhood gloom. The ladders and mops — items that might be found in a school janitorial closet — suggest disarray, escape, and frustration. They also possess slight sexual undertones: the ladder, an emblem of climax in Freudian dream psychology; the mop, a tool associated with domestic housework and femininity.
Rogers’s inner angst is given a more public face in the exhibition’s first room — an architectural setup she describes as front- and backstage. Entering “Brig Und Ladder,” one walks into a mock theater set with plush folding cinema chairs. A large screen plays A Very Special Performance in the Columbine Auditorium, Rogers’s third in a suite of animations centered around the shooting.
In the nine-minute video, characters from the 2002-03 MTV cartoon Clone High — stand-ins for Rogers, a friend, and a family member — perform a somber Russian-language rendition of “Memory” from the musical Cats.
Rogers was just nine when Columbine occurred, and listened to the dialogue the shooting sparked — on the dangers of the media, of disaffected youth — with kid ears. Her mournful performance here drips with aggrandized adolescent angst, deliberately conflating favorite childhood musicals and cartoons with national tragedies and personal ones.
There is something undoubtedly profane, even exploitative, about mining the events of a school shooting that left fifteen dead to personal ends. But this is a critique Rogers nimbly anticipates with her inclusion of Tilikum body pillow, a cute plush of the Sea World orca responsible for killing three people, described by PETA and others as an embodiment of the cruelty of animal captivity. On his side, Rogers has sewn a patch dedicated to Elliott Smith, a musician idolized for his sullen, wounded air, and canonized on many moody teenage bedroom walls after his apparent suicide in 2003.
As Smith and Tilikum show, sorrow is often referential and allusive, clarified and strained through images, objects — even animals and other people. Out of the confusion of “Brig Und Ladder” comes a deeply moving and honest portrait of the emotion.
Bunny Rogers: “Brig und Ladder”
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
Through October 9