Leave your body behind

Shana Moulton's multimedia exhibition explores the preoccupation with and commercialization of health.

Stressing out over stomach problems? A quick search in WebMD’s symptom checker will have you guessing whether you might have irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, or even lead poisoning. In Shana Moulton’s solo exhibition Journeys Out of the Body, the artist explores physical and mental ailments through commercialized self-diagnosis and self-prescription in an age of quick-fix remedies and healing objects.

It’s not often that you find yourself laughing in a museum, but Moulton’s use of humor is not just comedy for the sake of it.

Through video narratives, we follow the story of Moulton’s persona Cynthia, whose health-obsessive characteristics are not too far off from the artist herself. Cynthia is a hopeful hypochondriac, constantly searching for things to make her a better, happy, fulfilled human being. This character provides distance from the artist, but you can see Moulton working out personal inquiries and artistic research in a public way throughout her work.

Cheesy meditative music and speeches akin to yoga instructors telling you to “be calm and listen to the sound of my voice” suck you into "MindPlace ThoughtStream." Surfing the internet, Cynthia is desperate to find a cure for her IBS, with shaman Patricio Dominguez’s oratory in the background, describing his psychedelic trip as a “picture puzzle pattern door.” Moulton takes quotes from self-help books, TED Talks, and other motivational speeches, but once they are removed from their original contexts, these quotes that may have depth and merit waver between being inspirational and corny. Suddenly, a swarm of shimmying Shakiras sells Cynthia on Activia yogurt as not only good for your insides, but also spiritually transformative. Dealing with the physical, mental, and metaphysical body, Moulton’s advertisement parody explores how mystical experiences are commercialized along with wellness products.

In Katherine Pill’s exhibition introduction, the MFA curator’s detailed description of Moulton’s work talks about objects as the key to Cynthia’s transformations. Previously, transcendence was seen as a non-material self-consciousness outside of the physical world. Moulton’s contemporary transcendence involves a connection to the commercial world to rise above the pains, inconveniences, and sufferings of being a human ironically using objects to become non-material and blissfully free to prance along the ocean’s edge.

Shana Moulton (American, born 1976), Still from Whispering Pines (detail), Video. - Shana Moulton
Shana Moulton
Shana Moulton (American, born 1976), Still from Whispering Pines (detail), Video.

It’s not often that you find yourself laughing in a museum, but Moulton’s use of humor is not just comedy for the sake of it. This kind of laugh is one that leads to questioning, that strikes a cord where audiences can approach tough, personal topics more openly. In "Galactic Pot Healer," you can’t help but chuckle as Cynthia gets a massage, with her legs kicking around in ecstasy as the Pot Healer works out tension in Cynthia’s back, which has transformed into clay that is being vigorously dug into and sculpted. With mental and physical malleability to be transformed, the healer shapes a new vase out of Cynthia’s back, bakes it in a microwave for a true “quick-fix,” and the wonky vessel comes out perfect with the power of radiation. In this case, her ceramic pot truly is an extension of herself, as are the other objects she surrounds herself with.

Moulton’s contemporary transcendence involves a connection to the commercial world to rise above the pains, inconveniences, and sufferings of being a human — ironically using objects to become non-material and blissfully free to prance along the ocean’s edge.

Alongside the video installations are the handmade props and costumes used in her films. From the yarn-wrapped, bedazzled cane from "Whispering Pines 9" to the various rocks and relics on the "Healing Accent Table," visitors get a chance to see the objects before Moulton activates them in her video performances. Mysticism has ancient Greek origins, so it seems fitting that Cynthia’s lifesaver-hemorrhoid-donut dress on display sports a “Greek psychedelic” pattern, with rainbow colors and Greek gods symbolizing otherworldliness.

Logos, especially of the female figure, appear continuously not just in the videos, but also in the abstracted, smoothed-out figurines resting on the "The Undiscovered Drawer" display cabinet. Commercials use graphic design to sell objects that make your life better. By making audiences feel inadequate as we are, they pounce on our insecurities. Moulton cleverly plays with the commercial’s meaning by using its own methods and tendencies of product repetition (to effectively drill into customers' heads) in lighthearted satire.

click to enlarge Shana Moulton (American, born 1976), Still from Whispering Pines (detail), Video. - Shana Moulton
Shana Moulton
Shana Moulton (American, born 1976), Still from Whispering Pines (detail), Video.

“You can address serious issues without taking yourself too seriously,” Moulton says in an interview about her work. Implementing low-tech video mixed with imperfect, disjoined animation and kitchy meditation music, this complex absurdity adds to the layers of meaning in these works.

Are we healthy? Are we OK? We tend to forget about things that function in our daily lives until they stop working properly. In a parody of commercial tactics, the artist seems to be asking if our ailments are real, imagined, or created by companies to capitalize on. In this smart, funny, introspective show, Moulton isn’t exactly critical of health therapies and products. Instead, she poses Cynthia between inquiry and acceptance of them: she is skeptical of what’s being sold, but is relentlessly optimistic for that sliver of utopia that potentially exists just out of her reach.

Join the MFA for a one-act live performance video opera Whispering Pines 10 on Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. in the Marly Room with libretto and score by Nick Hallett, and vocals by Daisy Press.




Journeys Out of the Body 

Museum of Fine Arts St. Pete, 255 Beach Dr. N.E., St. Pete. Through Oct. 9. 727-896-2667. mfastpete.org.

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