Though she was only nine when the tragedy took place, young American artist Bunny Rogers has questions about the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, and has used the school’s cafeteria and library as jumping off points for entire bodies of work in the past. Her Columbine arc reaches a haunting conclusion in Brig Und Ladder, her first museum solo show in the U.S., currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
On this occasion, Rogers has moved on to the Columbine High School’s auditorium, physically recreating the auditorium’s seats within a dark room on the Whitney’s first floor. More than static sculptures, these chairs become seating arrangements for viewers to watch A Very Special Holiday Performance in Columbine Auditorium, a projected video work which sees three animated avatars from the early 2000s cartoon Clone High perform an almost tragic rendition of “Memory,” from the musical, Cats, in Russian sung by Rogers herself. Nearby on the ground lies a mopey body pillow of Tilikum, the deceased killer whale who gained notoriety after killing multiple people as an attraction at SeaWorld Orlando.
The solemnness of the first room feels like a site of memorial, though not necessarily for Columbine. As the accompanying wall text explains, the installation is meant as “a mysterious and mournful narrative rife with encrypted intimate details of the artist’s life.” These works are the result of culture being filtered through the artist’s personal sensibilities, then spit back out to the viewer to make meaning of.
After leaving this first room, this sentiment becomes stronger. The darkness of the “auditorium” gives way to a room full of bright spotlights shining on more sculptures, dramatizing each of them with harsh shadows and causing them to stand out as distinct objects from one another (though they mostly come in sets of three).
Familiar objects and more cultural references appear here, and again they seem to hold personal meaning to Rogers that are likely far from our own associations with these objects. Long pastel ladders, often missing rungs, lie slanted onto a wall leading to the ceiling of the space, functionally useless and somehow lonely for this reason. Three mops each equipped with two bright mop heads also lean on the space’s walls, ultimately spotless and thus out of work. Three computer chairs at the end of the room serve as an antithesis to the mops, worn and used with huge chunks ripped from their cushiony flesh.
The group of threes are interrupted by two final and singular works. One is a fence, reminiscent of those used in youth baseball fields, upon which dozens of leaf-shaped car fresheners hang, occasionally isolated by color and in other sections mixing all together, like the cacophonic politics of high school social scenes. The final piece is perhaps the eeriest of them all; a large recreation of Lady, a female “girl-next-door” figure from Thomas the Tank Engine. The sterile smile on the sculpture’s face and the huge tacky ribbon around her head suggest a forced femininity.
The nature of filtering cultural iconography through personal sensibilities and experiences makes the exhibition difficult to pin down. Explains Rogers, referencing the threes that thread Brig Und Ladder, “The idea for the show came out of wanting to talk about my relationship to two other people, so I guess it is a space for three people to exist.”