Section: Arts

Bocanegra’s Valley explores eight visions of Judy Garland

Valley, a video installation at the Gund Gallery by visual artist Suzanne Bocanegra, is aptly named. When you stand amidst the projected videos, eight different versions of Judy Garland tower over you like mountains surrounding a natural valley, moving in unison yet each offering an experience unto itself.

Valley takes its name from the 1967 film “Valley of the Dolls,” which chronicled the perils of fame and drug addiction in show business. Judy Garland, by then a renowned performer facing the twilight of her career, was originally cast as one of the lead characters. She was subsequently fired due to her own addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates, a direct result of mistreatment she endured throughout her lifelong work in the entertainment industry. This installation presents eight recreations of Garland’s screen tests for the film, which were marred by her substance abuse issues. It is this parallel between fiction and reality that Bocanegra pulls on in her installation, unraveling perceptions of and misconceptions about addiction to reveal a more complex dynamic — that is, prime stardom overlaying inexorable aging and vulnerability.

Your particular experience inside Valley depends on where in the room you are situated. Lining the floor of this long valley are nine short stools, which you can move wherever you please. A dead center placement is best for receiving the full onslaught of eight Judys, four on either wall, each played, as Bocanegra describes on the Gallery’s website, by “strong women artists” she admires, including poet Anne Carson, ballerina Wendy Whelan and artist Carrie Mae Weems. Although the installation portrays a Judy struggling with substance abuse, the cumulative effect of eight Judys surrounding you, their distinct voices saying the same words with the charisma of eight different artists, manages to conjure the star before the fall.

To see beyond the glamor of Garland’s star power, you might move your stool a bit closer to any one of the projections. While isolating one screen is not possible, as they are too large and too close together, cutting down the number of Judys beaming at you from eight to three or two creates a more intimate experience, as if Garland is performing for you. At close range, you can observe Garland struggling to make it through her screen tests; you may notice the way she responds absentmindedly to requests and directions, the way she finds opportunities to perform during a simple outfit inspection and tries really hard to remind us of her stature, conjuring the old Judy in some moments, but a mere a shell in others. 

There is, of course, the question of how best to play addiction, and the performer in each video makes a slightly different decision. From the eight artists playing Garland, Bocanegra elicits performances that are alternately quiet, loud, expressive and evocative. With each variety comes an idea about what substance abuse might do to fading talent, as well as the sense that we may not be able to understand this cycle without becoming Garland ourselves.It may feel at first like you will never grasp the experience as a whole. Everywhere you turn, there is another Judy. Even after you have met each Judy, each passing second introduces you to someone new: Judy in a new take, a new outfit, trying again and again to get it right, to please. After a while, though — it was about 15 minutes for me — you will be able to stitch together in your head a version of the entire four minutes and 44 seconds of the wardrobe test, populated by multiple Judys — Carson’s Judy in one shot, Whelan’s Judy in another. At that point, Bocanegra’s Valley will ask you to decide which of its concurrent experiences you find most valuable in understanding this moment in Judy Garland’s life and career: the mega-Judy that affirms her starry legacy, or the faltering Judy, which, in eight different varieties, reveals a legendary performer trying not to lose the artistic stature she once enjoyed.

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