In Witty Installations, Alexander Si Plays Anthropologist, Studying White Culture of the Recent Past

Alexander Si operates as something of an anthropologist, examining recent phenomena in popular culture. Si trained in media studies at the University of Toronto before completing an MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and now researches the impact of technology and media on our well-being. The multimedia artist is an observer who commands a deft ability to capture horrific qualities of quotidian life to which many of us have by now grown numb. Most recently, he grappled with surveillance technology and celebrity culture, two toxic forms of life under scrutiny.

This past September, Si debuted Britney (b. 1981), a project that took the form of a receipt printer installed at Home Gallery, New York, where it spewed an archive documenting the arc of Britney Spears’s life. It began with her birth, and included childhood photos and a list of the hobbies she enjoyed growing up in the Bible Belt; it detailed her appearance on “Star Search” at the age of ten, where she was asked if she had a boyfriend. It featured as well frame-by-frame stills from her 1998 debut music video, … Baby One More Time; reproduced mid-aughts tabloid covers plastered with invasive photos of the singer; and included Spears’s first Instagram post acknowledging the #FreeBritney movement.

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The “receipts”—mostly images accompanied by contextualizing sentences—total approximately 3,000 feet in length, and reveal the frightening volume of information publicly available on Spears’s day-to-day activities over the decades, including mundane Starbucks runs captured by paparazzi. Si had been piecing together Spears’s whereabouts since early 2019, when the pop star’s “Domination” residency in Las Vegas was abruptly canceled, and she was checked into a mental health facility. The ordeal prompted concern and speculation from many fans, culminating in the #FreeBritney movement. By chance, Si’s exhibition was concurrent with one of the court hearings that helped end the controversial thirteen-year conservatorship of Spears’s father.

“While making this piece, I thought hard about what Britney would say if she saw it, because I really don’t want to offend her,” Si said in a studio visit. “That’s why I chose receipts, because they’re disposable.” The ephemeral material’s ties to financial transactions also speak to how Spears has been used for the monetary gain of others, including managers and music companies as well as her family.

A very long piece of paper with black and white photos on it has piled up under a pedestal with a printer placed on top.

Alexander Si: Self-Help and Britney (b. 1981), 2021, at SVA Galleries’ booth at the Untitled Art Fair, Miami, 2021.

While Britney (b. 1981) devoted empathy to a woman who was instrumentalized by greed, Si’s Self-Help (2021) focuses on the rise and fall of women who tried in earnest to build careers off white corporate feminism. The sculpture borrows its form from a Little Free Library, those birdhouse-like structures holding free books for neighborhood exchanges. Si’s rendition, inspired by what he’s seen in free piles in Brooklyn, offers outdated titles that have fallen off the best-seller lists—Ellen DeGeneres’s 2011 autobiography, Lena Dunham’s 2014 memoir, Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso’s 2014 #Girlboss, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Si’s assortment of unwanted books, purchased from used bookstores and on eBay, reflects on how many are now trying to distance themselves from the ideas pushed forward by the aforementioned authors. In our current moment of “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss” memes, such notions of lean-in feminism are increasingly ridiculed for empowering white women to occupy positions of greater power in a capitalist society, rather than abolishing exploitative systems altogether. In Self-Help, the books are enclosed in a wooden structure at an almost unreachable height of eight feet, emphasizing how such frameworks are inaccessible to the majority.

While some of Si’s contemporaries are dedicated to depicting Asian American life beyond caricatures, calling for increased representation in media and culture, Si instead turns his focus to whiteness. Subverting the historical precedent of the white cultural anthropologist studying, sensationalizing, and othering non-white communities, the artist—who was born in China and lived in Canada before emigrating to the United States—approaches whiteness from a foreigner’s perspective.

His experience having practiced and eventually forgone methods of assimilation makes him keenly familiar with white culture. “Once I got here, had no accent, learned all the American pop trivia, ate at Sweetgreen, worked out at Equinox, and became that model minority, it dawned on me that I was still not, and will never be, treated as an equal,” Si said. “Through a lot of unlearning, I was able to stand back and actually appreciate this outsider point-of-view, because it enables me to be critical of [certain norms] that society readily embraces, no question asked.”

Next, Si plans to tackle Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle and wellness brand, Goop. In the meantime, he already has two solo exhibitions scheduled for later this year in New York, where he is based. This coming July, Si will debut an immersive installation at Chinatown Soup exploring Sweetgreen’s role in optimizing the lives of white-collar corporate workers and athleisure enthusiasts. And at Ki Smith Gallery in October, his show of sculptures titled “Videodrome,” inspired by the 1983 David Cronenberg sci-fi movie of the same name, will speculate on the horrific ways our bodies may morph due to our reliance on technology. Throughout, Si’s deft examinations of recent trends in popular culture portray the dystopic qualities of the present. 


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