Stark fluorescent lights and vast white walls magnify the uncanniness of the domestic motifs that populate the sparse landscape of “you you you,” a retrospective of work by Canadian artist Liz Magor at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst. At one end stands One Bedroom Apartment (1998), a group of household items and furniture pieces clustered together, as if ready for a move. Elsewhere, in Formal I and Formal II (both 2012), two chairs are draped with garment bags cast in silicone rubber. These various constructions seem oddly melancholic, the apartment installation suggesting the belongings of someone in a transitional state and the artificial formal-wear bags, for me, evoking themes of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s play about the professional ambitions of a delusional ordinary man.
The exhibition assembles a diverse assortment of Magor’s works dating from 1989 to the present in a single, open-plan gallery. With sculptures of chairs, stained blankets, towels, and other everyday objects, many placed directly on the floor, the overall installation suggests the contents of a partially raided store, or even a postapocalyptic scenario where only the barest remains of consumer culture are left.
What seem to be familiar objects presented as readymades are in fact casts. From certain angles, three floor-bound works from the series “Double Cabinet” (2001) appear to be merely stacks of towels or cable-knit sweaters. But from others, you see that the textiles (which are made from polymerized gypsum) are stiff, hollow constructions, their insides filled with stores of gin, beer, chewing gum, lighters, cigarettes. Similar openings appear in many of Magor’s sculptures. Tweed (Kidney), 2008, is a hard sculpture of a folded, multicolored coat that bears a slit just large enough for the tequila bottle inserted into it.
For the most part, the works on display are recognizable examples of Magor’s signature approach, but the oldest piece on view, Field Work (1989), looks quite different. It consists of a selection of black-and-white snapshots from the late 1960s showing Magor’s white friends wearing moccasins and feathered headdresses while fishing, sunbathing, or sitting around an open fire. When Magor first displayed the photographs as an innocent document of hippie hedonism, she was strongly criticized for her cultural appropriation, since the work (which she titled after Edward Curtis’s photogravure portraits of Native Americans from the late ’70s) seemed to trivialize indigenous traditions. After this incident, Magor shifted her tactics of appropriation toward sculpture and installation. Her willingness to reckon with past follies is rare. Furthermore, displaying Field Work alongside her subsequent pieces shows the vitality and adaptability of her conceptual framework. The unsettling result locates cultural appropriation among the normalizing fantasies of domestic life.