If it sounds too good to be true, it is. This dour cliché, recited in mellifluous tones by the narrator of Stuart Hawkins’s droll video Broken Welcome (2011), has become the mantra of our recent world-wide economic debacle. In Hawkins’s hands, tragedy plays as farce in a madcap narrative that takes place among the readymade ruins of a residential development left unfinished by the real estate meltdown. This would-be gated community with the hopeful name Newtown is actually located in West Bengal, India, but aside from a few farm animals grazing amid the piles of excavated earth, it might be anywhere. Which seems to be Hawkins’s point. The tawdry tale of the dream of home ownership brutally dashed by mortgage overreach, bad credit and foreclosure has been exported worldwide by the global recession.
Hawkins, an American who lives parttime in Nepal, makes it all seem almost jolly. Her video takes us through the characters’ initial euphoria, feckless commitment and dawning realization of looming financial disaster. The story is told by the aforementioned narrator, whose dulcet voice evokes advertisements for just such questionable real estate projects. It is realized with makeshift props and actors who have been transformed into cartoon characters by flat white cardboard head coverings that turn them into blank clones of each other. They participate in little vignettes that include dance numbers inside abandoned apartment skeletons and scenes of “young professionals” setting up house on empty lots. Occasionally the narrative is interrupted by talking heads-again masked in cardboard–of the duped buyers confiding their disillusionment to the camera. There is also a recurring motif of the chicken and the egg–here represented by an actor in a chicken suit and others topped with large egg-shaped sculptures–evidently suggesting the difficulty of sorting out the ultimate responsibility for the development’s failure. Which came first, the developer’s greed or the consumer’s credulity?
The video was supplemented by staged photographs with similar props and characters that reiterate the folly of debt-fueled aspiration. In both formats, Hawkins makes excellent use of an esthetic that seems inspired by the flimsy productions of a grammar-school art class. It fits perfectly with her theme, underscoring the murky realm where innocence shades into self-induced idiocy. Indeed, as the man says here, if it sounds too good to be true, it is.
Photo: Stuart Hawkins: Broken Welcome, 2011, video, approx. 10 minutes; at Zach Feuer.