Lorna Simpson: 31

at Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, through March 28

A Bar at the Folies Bergere

at School of the Art Institute Gallery 2, through February 28

The video installations A Bar at the Folies Bergere and 31 both immerse us in the lives of their subjects: a late-19th-century Parisian barmaid and a late-20th-century New York office worker. But they aim not so much to document their working lives as to position the spectator at a disorienting distance from the women and pose new ways of thinking about the interactions of strangers in cities.

Lorna Simpson’s 31 (commissioned for Documenta XI in 2002) is the more conventionally structured of the two. In her day-in-the-life portrait of an African-American woman, Simpson uses tropes of cinema, diary, and surveillance. The portrait appears on 31 12-by-9-inch flat video screens arrayed on a gallery wall to resemble a month on a calendar: a row of three screens tops four rows of seven screens. Each video runs about 20 minutes and appears to chronicle the events of a single day; most shots last around five seconds and the streams of imagery are not synchronized, so viewers face a kinetic panorama.

In each video we see the woman waken in a dark room with drawn shades, go about her business in the city, then return to bed and sleep. In Simpson’s dossier of an averaged day, the woman’s clothing and shoes change but the seasons do not. Midway through the videos we might see the woman’s feet on the sidewalk or her reading the New Yorker on the subway, shopping for a toy in a store, or peering at a closed casket in a funeral parlor. Occasionally the activities shown are the same at the same time, creating a cubist flux of detail: in one morning passage on several screens she washes and dries her face, then does her makeup in front of the bathroom mirror. Shot from different angles and unsynchronized, these moments from her routine don’t usually play off one another–though a shot of her opening her mailbox on one screen is matched a few screens away with a shot of her opening a dairy case at a store. In only one shot on one screen, she sits in a medical gown on an examination table.

31 was shot by Simpson and Tobin Yelland in a cinematic style closer to drama than documentary: the woman, Claire Tancons, never looks into the camera that frames and follows her. Watching a loop of her life in the dark from the gallery’s lone bench, you may feel you’re visiting the video mausoleum in Atom Egoyan’s 1989 film Speaking Parts: in the somewhat elegaic 31, the viewer meditates on the life of a woman who seems isolated in her natural habitat. In Simpson’s busy pointillist mosaic of pixels, a nameless protagonist enacts a plotless story made up of interchangeable events.

Five speakers in the ceiling play a spare, quiet sampling of audio fragments–sound designer Ben Rubin has edited the potential din of 31 audio tracks down to a collage of selected items, some of which are synchronized with an image: the pop of uncorking a wine bottle, the ding of an elevator bell, the thump of music at a club. There’s almost no intelligible dialogue except for the singularly allusive line “See you tomorrow,” whispered by a silhouetted woman leaning over to kiss another woman in bed at dawn.

Simpson paradoxically makes a spectacle of her subject while keeping the woman’s inner life secret. Despite the overload of visible data, the woman is silent and her privacy is protected. Her soul is a cipher surrounded by visual noise. And though Simpson challenges the viewer to sort out visual impressions, she’s not reflecting on the act of looking. Her subject may peer at slides, step into a photo booth, and attend a gallery opening, but 31 is not an exercise in art-world reflexivity.

In A Bar at the Folies Bergere, part of a show at Gallery 2, Shawn Lawson and Wafaa Bilal use a novel immersive tactic to give us a different sort of visual intimacy, again with a voiceless woman. We see a framed digital reproduction of Edouard Manet’s 1882 painting Un Bar aux Folies-Bergere: a woman faces us from behind a nightclub bar with her palms resting on the marble counter, which is crowded with bottles, a glass holding two flowers, and a bowl of oranges. Though she looks straight ahead, her gaze is soft and detached. Behind her is a large mirror filled with the reflection of an indistinct crowd of bar patrons. Although the optical geometry is askew in Manet’s painting, he includes a reflection of the back of the barmaid as well as the reflection of a man at the edge of the frame facing her. Presumably he’s what she’s looking at–or through. Manet’s ploy of positioning his spectator as a customer, whether flirt or bore, was startlingly reflexive.

Lawson and Bilal faithfully update Manet’s vision by installing an unseen video camera in their digital reproduction. When a viewer steps before this reverse-surveillance device, the camera feeds his live image into A Bar at the Folies Bergere. Facing the barmaid, we become a new customer, reflected in the mirror behind her: Manet’s late-19th-century painting of a mirror now functions as a mirror in real time of our time. We momentarily populate the scene as virtual bons vivants.

Lawson and Bilal also add a modest yet witty narrative to their homage. As soon as someone enters the barmaid’s line of vision and appears in the mirror, her image comes alive, morphing into a digital video of an identically dressed and coiffed model, who now acts as bored with us as her painted counterpart, sighing and placing her hands on her hips. Eventually she yawns and leaves the scene, enjoying a privilege–escaping our tedious presence–that Manet’s model did not.

A Bar at the Folies Bergere shares the microsociological intent of 31 by endlessly reiterating an intimate acquaintance with a nameless woman whose inner workings remain a mystery to us. Visually diverting and technically inventive, both installations invite spectators into a vicarious encounter–without accusing them of voyeurism.