Alex McQuilkin - On heaven, hell and all the usual madness

Unnoticed under a heap of clothes, a teddy bear lies on the floor of a closed wardrobe. In front of him, in that very wardrobe, two teenage girls stand facing each other, bashfully chewing their fingernails and nervously scuttling from one foot to the other. It is only as a muffled babble of voices that the party going on outside comes through to their unusual venue where both of them try to hide their hesitant interest in their counterpart.

For seven minutes they stand avoiding each other’s gaze, seven minutes that, according to the rules of the game, are supposed to be seven minutes in heaven. “Actually, it’s really an awful game”, Alex McQuilkin explains the popular party entertainment that involves two persons being locked inside a tight room and left to do whatever they please for the duration of the indicated time. However, the intimacy that is supposed to be effected in that forced situation does not arise in Alex McQuilkin’s video “Seven minutes in heaven” (2004), instead revealing the inner conflict of the girls who, trapped under the pressure of living up to the expectations of a wild exchange of body fluids, sink into wavering inactivity.

The conflicts and pipe dreams in teenage girls’ everyday life are the great theme around which the works of the young video artists Alex McQuilkin (*1980, Boston) centre. Through her protagonists, she tells intimate stories about the search for identity and the desire to be someone special – stories which offer the viewers immediate identification points but still leave them standing slightly embarrassed in front of the monitor.

In “Teenage Daydream: It’s only Rock’n’Roll” (2002), the viewer is to witness a daydream full of strange ideas of sex and violence in which a young girl in a pink wig dances herself into a kind of trance in a wild and what she seems to consider sexy way, a gun in her hand and bloody bandages around her wrist, while a second person’s blood covered and strangely angled legs protrude from underneath the bed. Somewhere behind the surface of Sailormoon and Kurt Cobain posters on the pale turquoise walls of her room it’s all about the romantic dream to break free, about becoming an outcast in protest and slipping into the determinedly tragic role of the glorious main character in an act of vengeance worthy of a Tarantino.

This very private daydream, with all the blood and the sucked fingers evoking something between disgust and ridicule, surges a certain feeling of inappropriateness in the viewer, as if watching a scene through a keyhole one was neither meant to nor exactly wanted to see. The voyeuristic aftertaste is enhanced still through the videos’ intentionally never quite perfect technical realization that intensifies the impression of private video material - an effect especially drawn on in her debut feature “Fucked” (1999) which is made in the style of a private porno and shows, entirely unsexy, a young woman trying to do her makeup while shutting out completely that she is having sex that very moment. Similarly, the effect is employed in the second Teenage Daydream: In Vain (2003) in which the camera seems to rest on the dressing table in front of which a girl with cheap custom jewellery over the bloody bandages around her wrist is painting her face and smoking in an advanced state of boredom.

Both daydreams can well be read as a pointed commentary on teenagers’ tendency of a devoutness to Hollywood that replaces their own fantasies in favour of a never-ending stream of readily prepared desirable identities to be delivered into their own four pink walls at the push of a button to mix up and become that very glorious and tragic ideal that leaves so many mothers and fathers standing aghast before their once-so-sweet offspring – some glam-punk, some grunge, a good pinch of Lolita, everything, in short, that is stored “rebellious” and “shocking” in the cliché drawer.

Especially in „Get your gun up“ (2002), Alex McQuilkin plays with cinema’s drama and climax and reveals an interesting perspective when she underlays a wordless duel of hip swings, strained eyes and red lips with Ennio Morricone’s title theme of Sergio Leone’s Western classic “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, thereby linking the conniving battle with a woman’s weapons to the iconic duel in that very movie in which all characters knew right from the beginning that in the end they would have to face their death.

Death and especially the melodrama of attempted suicide, which as the last stronghold of rebellion has always borne alluring fascination, are repeating themes in Alex McQuilkin’s works. In silent aesthetics, “Test run” (2005) shows her slowly drowning herself until after what feels like an eternity, with an apathetic look in her eyes, the video ends with the sound of splashing water. In “The Ranch” (2005), the first work in which Alex McQuilkin replaces the music with speech, she approaches the duality of beauty and destruction from a different side and plays the almost erotic pictures of a girl lolling lazily on the white sheets of her bed off against her voice which is telling the story of her stay in a mental institution and a half-hearted attempt to kill herself.

Alex McQuilkin leaves it to psychologists to research possible reasons for her protagonists’ behaviour, gives no explanations but offers experiences, insights: She guides the viewer deep into an excessive, flashy and pubertal world that fascinates as well as it revolts, maybe because it fits right in with those secret fantasies one still remembers, slightly ashamed, from the own adolescent years.

© Katharina Klara Jung, 2006