Margarita Maximova at Beursschouwburg: Parodied personalities and the limits of language

Beursschouwburg opened it’s new space to the public at the start of September with Belgo-Russian artist Margarita Maximova’s (1990) first solo show You’re on your own – and all over the place, incorporating modes of thought about poetry, satire and performativity. The exhibition has a glass wall that looks out towards the street – you can view this work in an exterior public domain, as you would a shop window. A wave of multiple large screens displays interchanges between animated butterflies, text messages and a parody self help video. Catch the exhibition between Wednesdays and Saturdays until Friday 21st December.

Margarita Maximova’s work can be situated within feminist digital art trends. It resonates with Martine Syms’ practise, an LA-based artist who is currently splayed across the internet. Syms’s installations use language and video and aren’t afraid to question race and gender stereotypes. It’s the kind of artwork that feels very of the moment; taking inspiration from those like Jenny Holzer who laid the groundwork for these thoughts in the 1980s. Operating in similar mediums but taking a more veiled and dystopian tone, Maximova’s show in Brussels deals with social and online attitudes towards gendered emotion.

Integral to this exploration is a playful critique of language. Part of the installation sees videos that show text messages and a multiple choice questionnaire, or “psychological clickbait test”. One screen that appears like a PowerPoint presentation flashes with the words I am an extraordinary person, and gives options: Never, often, always, rarely. This piece pokes fun at the ability language has to categorise emotions and personality traits. The reality is that an answer to such a question cannot take the form of a singular word and the process feels absurd. The exhibition obliquely expresses a desire to expose the limits of colloquial and formal language. It asks: can language ever be sincere or empathetic in computer-generated form, and how does this interact with the psychological aspects of being human? Rather than provide a direct answer, the work leaves such questions implicit.

We get a sense that this work is a commentary on our own familiar and societal use of the Internet and of language.

At other times and in less quiet form, however, Maximova’s work embodies a certain zaniness. The zany is a minor aesthetic category theorised by Sianne Ngai as an important presence in contemporary popular culture and poetics. The zany is the performance of the self, where one looks effortless whilst being held up behind the scenes by an intensified workload. Think of an entertainer on television who masks their lack of sleep and drug habit, or a tired and overworked business person holding their facade together. These images run through the videos you can peer at in Beursschouwburg: the parody self-help video sees her look the camera in the eye and tell us, “Today we’re going to talk about wounds… some people will stop at nothing to render you powerless.”

We hear her faux and almost robotic voice echo the words feel, heal, up level words. The work is engaging with poetry and a sense of language as soft and onomatopoeic; yet the setup of the scene has a plastic, shiny and white quality. The performance emphasises the facile nature of the YouTube persona so extremely as to make us question whether the “reality” underneath the zany smile exists at all. The viewer gets a chill not unlike that from watching Black Mirror. One might also be reminded of Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (currently on show at Kanal), where the artist performs a kitchen routine with humorous imaginary hand movements and an undercurrent of violence.

Adding to this tone is the soundtrack to some of the videos: bubbling and synth-like, it is part-90s kitsch, part-drone horror film. We feel that this work is a commentary on our own familiar, societal use of the Internet and of language. Maximova churns our perception of these habitual practices, making them strange. Other visuals that pervade the videos are more mysterious: shrubs, a smoke-filled screen or a desolate and rocky landscape. Far from falling into a simplistic “art as social commentary” realm, this exhibition presents these ideas to the viewer subtly and eerily. 

Margarita Maximova’s You’re on your own – and all over the place runs until Friday 21st December at Beursschouwburg in Brussels.