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This Artwork Changed My Life: Alex Bag’s 2009 Video at the Whitney

Alex Bag, Untitled (Project for the Whitney Museum), 2009. Courtesy of Alex Bag and team (gallery, inc.).

Alex Bag, Untitled (Project for the Whitney Museum), 2009. Courtesy of Alex Bag and team (gallery, inc.).

“I got a budget for the show,” artist drawls, appearing tired, zonked, practically cross-eyed. “I wanted to rent a monkey.” The show in question was Bag’s splashy solo presentation at the Whitney Museum of Art in early 2009. The monkey, ostensibly paid for using that same institution’s funding, has a star-making cameo in Untitled (Project for the Whitney) (2009), the bizarro video screened at the museum.
The nearly 40-minute-long work takes the tropes of typical children’s programming and subjects them to flagrant abuse: a foul-mouthed dragon puppet; a stoned dude, dressed as a disabled war vet, who plays acoustic covers. So far, so silly. But rewatching this strange gem a decade later is mildly heartbreaking, for personal reasons (as if most reasons aren’t personal reasons), and it’s not an understatement to say that Bag’s absurdly brilliant Whitney commission changed my life in ways that still reverberate.
Alex Bag, Untitled (Project for the Whitney Museum) , 2009. Courtesy of Alex Bag and team (gallery, inc.).

Alex Bag, Untitled (Project for the Whitney Museum) , 2009. Courtesy of Alex Bag and team (gallery, inc.).

My father would die in the fall of 2009, a few months after Bag’s premiere. I’m not mentioning that to be maudlin, but because Untitled (Project for the Whitney) is about family, about parents and offspring: the uncomfortable past, the horrifying future. Back then, I was a young journalist, of the poorly paid variety, but I didn’t have much direct experience with the art world. My dad had been a hobbyist painter and art aficionado. Though I grew up, like Alex Bag, in New Jersey, we somehow never made the short train trip into the city to hit up exhibition openings in Chelsea. I think something about them seemed too elitist, impenetrable—like fictional art shows in the movies, where everyone wears a suit, and you need a ticket just to get in the door.
Alex Bag’s work landed like a flaming asteroid set to destroy any such outmoded conventions and hang-ups. Here was an artist who wasn’t afraid to show her wounds—her anxieties and embarrassments—and who had successfully snuck giggling irreverence into one of the country’s halls of high culture. Untitled (Project for the Whitney) isn’t , exactly, but a certain mistrust and disrespect of serious institutions is baked into its pot-brownie mix. And I loved how Bag obliterated any idea of the artist as a genius, a savant, someone who has it all figured out. “You’re broken,” her fuzzy dragon companion chastises. “It’s hopeless.” He’s the harshest of critics: “I think you hate yourself so much that you’re desperate to pretend to be anybody else.…I think it’s funny, sad clown.”
Alex Bag,  Untitled (Project for the Whitney Museum) , 2009. Courtesy of Alex Bag and team (gallery, inc.).

Alex Bag, Untitled (Project for the Whitney Museum) , 2009. Courtesy of Alex Bag and team (gallery, inc.).

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I encountered Untitled (Project for the Whitney) when I was just beginning a decade-long professional sojourn into the art world, and dealing with the realities of having a terminally-ill, art-obsessed parent who would never witness any of it. Bag, meanwhile, made the video as an askew homage to her own mother, who hosted a happy-go-lucky children’s show in the 1970s, some clips of which are embedded here. In the video, Bag positions herself as the world’s worst role model, in charge of overseeing a gaggle of grinning child actors who suffer through her madness. The artist is the product of her childhood, and now, technically an adult, she struggles to pull her shit together for long enough to be of help to the next doomed generation.
Untitled (Project for the Whitney) is funny, to a point. Who can resist a browbeating dragon who unleashes sarcastic zingers like “set the GPS to despair” and condemns what Bag is doing as “self-indulgent, masturbatory drivel”?
Alex Bag,  Untitled (Project for the Whitney Museum) , 2009. Courtesy of Alex Bag and team (gallery, inc.).

Alex Bag, Untitled (Project for the Whitney Museum) , 2009. Courtesy of Alex Bag and team (gallery, inc.).

The work reminded me that art doesn’t have to be buttoned-up; it can be ridiculous, obscene, nonsensical, raw. But Untitled did, and still does, make me uncommonly sad. The climax of Bag’s children’s program is a sing-along version of ’s 1971 cover of the Rolling Stones’s song “Salt of the Earth,” with a studio full of confused kids dressed in silly felt capes and hats. Behind them rolls video footage of similarly dressed hippies from the 1970s, their peace-and-love vibe now merely quaint, if not hilarious. Sure, on the surface, Untitled (Project for the Whitney)—with its cheesy special effects and rambling monologues about “meaning” and “connection”—plays like a half-improvised stoner lark. But just beneath lies a heartfelt document, an examination of generational rupture, an impossible future, and what being an artist even looks like.
Ten years ago, this undefinable video made me realize that art isn’t just about heroic people making perfect objects. It’s also about total weirdos admitting that they don’t know even know where to begin—and making a masterpiece out of that.

Did an artwork change your life?

Artsy and Elephant are looking for new and experienced writers alike to share their own essays about one specific work of art that had a personal impact. If you’d like to contribute, send a 100-word synopsis of your story to [email protected] with the subject line “This Artwork Changed My Life”.
Scott Indrisek