What We Do Is Secret

Emma Bee Bernstein: Exquisite Fucking Boredom
Curated by Phong Bui
Microscope Gallery
Through June 25, 2012

Attend, please. Attend carefully. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives. If the works of Emma Bee Bernstein -- Polaroids, videos, poetry -- have anything to tell us, it is that we probably didn't really need a second act anyway. The first one was quite enough. These pieces, loosely woven together in Polaroids, a smash-cut, homemade DVD movie, and texts, tell a story that probably needs no tying up of loose ends because it is probably your story, and mine, and everyone else's, and whoever grew up America, and you know how these things end. Ms. Bernstein committed suicide at age 23 in Venice, Italy, in 2008.

Exquisite Fucking Boredom is the title of the video, and I am sure that there are endless references to be made to the works of Mark Morrisroe, or Nan Goldin, or Francesca Woodman (whose short, narcissistic career launched a thousand others), but the truth in the film is that it really isn't about finding any profound meaning in the pole dancers, and the burlesque girls, and the heavy-grunge boy bands smoking and drinking and probably doing maybe a half a tab of E. You are probably surprised that the only part of the soundtrack that isn't someone's feedback jam is Iggy singing "I Wanna Be Your Dog" -- which seems so out of place, but you make the connection that it is Chicago, after all, and you probably were expecting MGMT or some shit, but Iggy kinda ties it all together for you. Nobody has to be told not to look in the camera -- they don't even notice it's there. Especially the girl who is grabbing on to her long-neck beer like someone might take it away and isn't so much drinking it as blowing the bottle. The fireworks that punctuate the clips almost tie it all together, almost. At least they remind you that something is happening somewhere, even if it isn't here, and if it were you probably wouldn't be interested anyway.

The daisy chains of Polaroids are like strands of antique pearls, all coming unstrung even as you try to put them together to read them. "Untitled (set #8)" (2003–06) is Emma staring at the camera, posing with a Dan Flavin light sculpture, and a picture of a boy that has "Sunday Feb 4, 2004" written on it (the rest of the writing is in blue ink and is faded and smeared and you can't read it and besides it wasn't meant for you).

These little notes are cryptic. "Untitled (set #11)" (2003–07) has another picture of a boy, but now he is all curled up, fetal style, and it says, "reopened myself to the indifference of the world." It is a girl's writing, but maybe it was the boy who said it. "Untitled (set #4)" (2003–08) has a blurred, red-toned photo of a nude boy, Emma on a bed with cards, a girl passed out on a couch with her head in a bucket. You can stop me any time if I am boring you. But you should really be paying attention. Really.

"Untitled (set # 4)" (2003–08), same thing, you know how this works by now. People at the beach, two boys clowning in the backseat of a car, one is holding a light bulb, the other one has the lampshade over his head. People are posing in front of mirrors. In search of an identity. Or rather, in this case, In Memorium to Identity. Mom (that is Susan Bee) is right there in the middle -- looks like she is in front of those stalls in Chinatown. "Yikes!" is written in Sharpie at the bottom of one picture, "Untitled (#127) (Yikes!)" (2003–05). That kinda sums things up, don't you agree? The pictures, the Polaroids, are a lot like life. A few bright moments, then light.

That's all I'm going to tell about. I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I'm supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here, but I don't feel like it. I really don't. That stuff doesn't interest me too much right now. It's funny. Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do you start missing everybody. - Bradley Rubenstein


The Microscope Gallery is at 4 Charles Place in Brooklyn, New York.

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.