It is rare a rare opportunity today to have meaningful dialogues about death in ways that feel both real and artful.
At her opening in Tribeca, Jennifer Elster was unavoidable. She was darting around the room like a nurse tending to a thousand patients; checking on her paint works, other humans performing; “are you doing okay?”, performing her own work, “central!”, to rearranging a piece that had turned over. If you weren’t asking, “who is that curious woman?”, she was asking guests, “so, what do you think?”, or cooing, “it’s so good to see you!” She was chicly dressed, but not oppressively boho; she maintained a glass of wine through night. She was glowing the entire time; clearly still on a life-long bender that hinged on perfection.
But for a long time, this woman -absolutely fizzling with energy- was avoidable. In every sense she was avoidable; she’d avoid questions, certainly avoid showing work, avoid explanation. She approached this retrospective with sensitivity. It was the first moment to show much of this work, and for someone like Elster, one thing she can no longer avoid is judgement of her work. But much of the work is stenciled or handwritten thoughts on canvas and paper: brief, often witty reflections on life. Elster has still successfully avoided revealing the time and place and circumstance that might have prompted any given phrase. We see this avoidance in her “In The Woods” video series, which followed the likes of Alan Cumming and Moby, hearing their responses but never the instructions.
Elster told us for the opening night, “the musicians did not receive programs until they arrived.” In this way, Elster is toying with the idea that while the performance is now unavoidable, why not go further, make it all that much more raw. Same goes for the performers dealing with Gender, Socio-economic issues, and more; almost alien in their presentation; stoic and nearing some sort of reverse uncanny valley. So here we are, asking about limits, which Elster took a good while to consider. But when asked about limits as a concept she retorted: “I trust my moral compass so I believe in pushing the limits as far as I am curious to explore to express my feelings or perspective. I push life in all mediums I get entangled with [sic]. If I am scared of something specifically, I am also drawn to it.”
Makes sense, considering the fact if she’s having a retrospective, a terrifying proposition, might as well do it perfectly. Worth knowing if Elster felt a sense of unavoidability in all of it … she goes on: “I have wanted to feel and expose my own vulnerability and I did so very much at the opening.” Called it. “And in turn I saw many people feeling and crying. We opened ourselves and that is beautiful and honest and brave.” Elster, who has collaborated with Yoko Ono and the late David Bowie, may know a thing or two in terms of getting other people to open up, even if she’s still shut off (remember, lots of this work is just now getting shown). Elster revels in, but never addresses the power of words. She’s a young Terry Gross. Elster makes a final observation: “I feel as if people are literally walking around inside of me at the Gallery […].” As a viewer, it felt this way, too. But with Elster there, I felt like a parent checking out my kid’s dorm away at college, with my kid rushing around in front of me, trying best as they can to tidy up and explain. There shouldn’t be a shame in it. Life is a choreography, and we can’t avoid a watchful eye, even our own.
J. Elster: The Retrospective of an Extroverted Recluse will be on view from May 13th to May 25th, 2016 at 75 Leonard St. NYC, 12:00 – 7:00 PM; closed Monday.[slideshow]