If you take the time, you will find much to enjoy in "Shana Moulton: Journeys Out of the Body" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. Therein lies your challenge. Taking the time means investing two hours, minimally, to view the 15 or so videos. Ideally, you would need at least three hours because you would probably want to revisit some of them. That commitment asks much of most museumgoers.
Watching a video is a different museum experience. While we might browse static art in a gallery, returning to a painting or sculpture, video requires the viewer to remain stationary as it unfolds. If we're lucky, a nearby bench provides a break. (If we're really lucky, we have the thoughtful planning of this museum which provides lightweight stools on wheels for our comfort.) So my feeling out of the gate is an exhibition based almost entirely on videos is a tough sell.
I suggest an entry-level strategy to appreciate the show.
The overview is Moulton's quirky take on quotidian, everyday situations we deal with but, in some instances, don't like to discuss; irritable bowel syndrome is a standout example she uses, and an unusual subject for art. Many of her "props" are over-the-counter medications, self-help gizmos and cosmetics as well as advertisements for them that become a sort of dialogue. Advertising, after all, could be the conversations we are reluctant to have with another person. ("Can we talk about hemorrhoid creams?" Not a good conversational gambit.)
When her alter ego Cynthia uses or ingests an item, she often undergoes a metamorphosis or unlocks deeper self-awareness. I think. I don't really understand any of it. It's entertaining — that isn't a negative — and interesting. Cynthia can be hilarious as a navel-gazing hypochondriac, but too obscure and personal for me. So I believe you will get plenty from the show if you flit around the galleries, feeling no guilt that you aren't giving each one your full attention. You will have "aha" moments in which you will relate to the artist's narrative.
That said, some works are more compelling than others. The Galactic Pot Healer Ascension was among my favorites because it seemed the most accessible. It, like all of Moulton's videos, is styled with bright colors and kitschy objects that act as counterpoints to Cynthia's deadpan performance. Cynthia accidentally breaks a beloved ceramic pot while reading Sky Mall magazine. (Great detail.) Through bizarre mediums, spilled laxative, for example, she receives messages guiding her to the pot healer who puts broken ones back together. She visits him/her — the person is headless, cloaked in a pink thing resembling a Snuggly and the same color as the laxative, and we don't hear his/her remarks; we see them printed on the screen like subtitles. After performing Itsy-Bitsy Spider-like gestures, the healer says the pot can't be fixed. But, he/she asks, how about a consolation massage? As the healer massages Cynthia's back, her flesh becomes clay with which he/she creates a new pot. It's baked in a microwave and emerges perfectly shaped and glazed. A related video shows the pot healer doing the spider routine as a vessel's shards come back together, then slide over to a shelf for display. The wall label gives us an esoteric interpretation of Pot Healer.
But wisdom from the mouths of children: I noticed a mother and two kids walking around the show. They stopped as I watched Cynthia's "flesh" being gouged out of her back. The mom suggested moving on, but they were mesmerized. I approached her as the children ran back and forth among the videos. I asked the mom, Katherine Humphreys, if I could talk with them about the show. They're not museum novices; Humphreys takes them for frequent visits, most recently the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But the twins are still 7-year-olds.
"I think it's expressive and weird," said Frances.
"I don't know anything about them but I like them," said Charles.
I couldn't have expressed it better.
Contact Lennie Bennett at (727) 893-8293 or [email protected]