Happening Now: MAD MEDS at Microscope Gallery

Marni Kotak, “Surviving 6 Karpas (Beth Israel Psych Ward)”, 2014, photographic plaque, 40 x 24 inches (detail) © courtesy of the artist and Microscope Gallery

In 2011, Brooklyn-based artist Marni Kotak shocked art critics and mommy bloggers alike by giving birth to her son Ajax in Bushwick’s Microscope Gallery.

Just over two and a half years later, Kotak is at it again in MAD MEDS, a 6 week durational performance and installation where the artist withdraws from the psychiatric medications she was originally prescribed for postpartum depression following Ajax’s birth. Kotak’s third solo exhibition for Microscope, the show opened July 18 and features a number of sculptures, videos, and photographs in addition to Kotak’s live performance.

Although they have attracted far less media attention than Ajax’s birth, Kotak’s other “Found Performances” have also presented private, everyday life as public performance art, highlighting female sexuality and the female body sans media sheen. In one performance, wearing a bikini to show off her post-pregnancy body, Kotak exercised continuously on an elliptical machine in an effort to lose weight. In others, she has re-enacted masturbating in her closet as a child, French kissing her best friend in 5th grade, and losing her virginity as a teenager.

As in this other work, Kotak’s third solo exhibition for Microscope gives visuality to normally hidden aspects of the gendered body (and mind). WebMD estimates between ten and twenty percent of new moms experience postpartum depression. Yet postpartum depression is rarely openly discussed and often stigmatized (a related case in point: the hyperbolic reaction earlier this year when Chirlane McCray discussed the difficulties of being a new mother). By publicly performing her own withdrawal, Kotak both normalizes the experience of postpartum depression and interrogates the industries (and institutions) who profit by shrouding it in secrecy.

Installation shot of MAD MEDS, Microscope Gallery © Emily Greenberg

However, much more so than in her other works, this show is also about offering an alternative to the institutional spaces designed to hide those bodies perceived to be “ill.” It’s also surprisingly quite tame. As I walked into the gallery, I was greeted by chirping birds and soft music. There was Kotak in the back, sitting up in a gold-leafed bed surrounded by fluffy pillows and blankets, calmly eating an apple. Cool-toned photos and gold trophies charting her progress adorned the walls behind her. A golden elliptical machine stood near the head of the bed, a set of free weights at the foot.

Accompanying this idealized recovery room was a reconfigured waiting room at the front of the gallery, complete with outdated reading material and overhead television. In place of the usual doctor’s office paintings on the wall, Kotak had instead installed photos commemorating her hospital stay as well as two opposing sculptural works: “All the Meds I Took,” a gold medicine cabinet filled with empty pill containers of the medicines Kotak has consumed to date, and “All the Meds I Didn’t Take,” a Fabergé egg with all the drugs she has discarded during the withdrawal process. The former is much more engrossing, the colorful labels and bottles attesting to the sinister aesthetic of pharmaceuticals.

"All the Meds I took," 2014, mirrored glass and wood medicine cabinet, custom-printed prescription vials, 15 x 24 x 4, by Marni Kotak © Emily Greenberg

These blunt, even confrontational, sculptures contrast sharply with the waiting room furniture. Both the chairs and the rug show a woman wandering through a bucolic nature scene. Although the furniture at first reminded me of the serene pastels which normally decorate waiting rooms, they are much more specific in subject matter. Their inclusion here shows that Kotak does not aim to dismantle institutional space so much as to personalize it. It is her own personal waiting room. Sitting in these chairs, one can watch one of two video works: “Dis(ability)” on the overhead television or “Mad Ms. Project” on an iPad.

Installation shot of MAD MEDS, Microscope Gallery © Emily Greenberg

Made from appropriated YouTube advertisements for Abilify, “Dis(ability)” plays on the overhead screen but is unfortunately difficult to hear. That’s fine because the “Mad Ms. Project,” also shown on a larger television in a room adjacent to the gallery, more than makes up for it. In the video, dozens of women relay their experiences with mental illness, their voices contrasting sharply with the male voices from the Abilify clips in the other room. The stories were both collected and solicited by Kotak, who is briefly visible in a mirror behind one of the speakers. “The medical industry has a schizophrenic attitude towards drugs,” says one. Another breaks up her story by playing the guitar. Here, the viewer is the “mad” one, trying to piece together meaning from the experience as dozens of women talk over one another. Only occasionally, when the other speakers momentarily fade out, does one voice emerge above the fray to offer a semblance of narrative cohesion.

Their voices echoed in my head as I walked back through the gallery. I stole one last look at Kotak, who was writing in an over-sized notebook. We did not speak, and she took no notice of me. She instead kept writing in her book, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to withdraw from psychiatric medications in a Bushwick art gallery while people stopped to stare. And perhaps it is.

MAD MEDS continues through August 25 at Microscope Gallery (4 Charles Place, Bushwick, Brooklyn). Follow Microscope on Twitter @MicroscopeEvent.

About Emily Greenberg

Emily Greenberg is an artist and writer living in Brooklyn. View more of her work at emilygreenberg.net.

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