Alex Bag

Alex Bag BY Raphael Gygax, Alex Bag. edited by Raphael Gygax, Heike Munder. JRP|Ringier. Hardcover, 230 pages. $55.

IN 1995, AS MATTHEW BARNEY became famous for his opulent, surrealist film epic, video artist Alex Bag rose to stardom as a kind of anti-Cremaster, creating no-budget video art with little more than cheap wigs, bedsheet backdrops, appropriated television clips, and stuffed animals. In Untitled Fall ’95, Bag played a student at SVA, reporting on each semester in a satirical video diary, which she punctuated with sketches that featured warring toys, a fake phone-sex commercial, and Björk explaining how a TV works. Now, Bag’s first monograph has finally been published, as her work is absorbed into art-school curricula and newly pirated excerpts are posted online. The book contains stills, photographs, reproductions of her notebook pages, essays by critics, and scripts for the videos. Reading these screenplays shifts the focus from the brilliance of Bag’s performances and her purposefully makeshift art direction to the strength of her writing. Her pitch-perfect use of vernacular speech and mastery of plot and character become clearer, underscoring what’s long been known—she is a comic genius, and one of the art world’s coolest harridans. Bag’s punk-inflected institutional critique was leveled against novel targets like the sexual politics of art school and the alienated labor of a professionalized art scene, and she depicted these insider subjects with the damning detritus of mass media and advertising culture. In one of Untitled Fall ’95’s interludes, a Ronald McDonald doll’s brutish come-on to a Hello Kitty toy is followed by Ronald proposing a marketing partnership—it’s the perfect introduction to the penultimate installment, about a summer job for a Williamsburg artist. She notes that she’s “never heard of him before, but apparently he’s like an overlord of this pathetic scene out there,” and almost two decades later it’s still funny, even on paper. Bag’s post-Pop, pre-YouTube tour de force has become a prescient cult classic for a new generation.