© Avery Singer  Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
© Avery Singer Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
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Review

Avery Singer: Free Fall

5 out of 5 stars
Eddy Frankel
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Time Out says

A faceless, grey corporate office; patterned carpet tiles, neon strip lights, shredded paper; suffocating, windowless, airless. This is early 2000s corporate America as seen by Avery Singer. But this isn’t just any date in the early 2000s, this is 9/11.

The American artist’s immersive, trippy, beige installation is a meditation on tragedy and collective trauma, on one event which tore apart a country, and shattered Singer’s own youth. She lived down the road from the World Trade Center, her mother worked there. She was 13 or 14, teetering on the brink of adolescence, when tragedy hit. Who she is, what America is, was fundamentally altered by 9/11.

You enter the gallery and face a wall of lifts, portals to a seemingly endless array of offices. Panels over the windows behind you are meant to ease vertigo for high rise office workers. Inside hang portraits of people impacted by the attack, a painting of a severed hand found on a window sill miles away, a police car. One of the portraits is of Marcy Borders, famous for a photo of her outside the World Trade Center covered in dust, staring emptily, sallow and broken. Another is of Stan Honda, who took that photo and helped disseminate and proliferate an iconic image of tragedy. The last is of Rachel Uchitel, whose fiancé died in 9/11, her eyes heavy with mascara, her ears and fingers draped in jewellery. Borders died of lung cancer after dealing with alcohol dependency, Uchitel endured years of substance abuse, ending up on a celebrity rehab show. Tragedy and trauma unfold in so many uncontrollable, insidious, twisting ways. 

All this death, gore, addiction and heartache, but mediated through corporate greyness

In the space next door, Singer has created a book store filled with 2000s-era thrillers and self-help books. Down an office corridor, you find more paintings; Singer’s own avatar smoking crack, an eye, a mass of hair, all rendered in airbrushed digital perfection but somehow off, too digital and too real, paintings that exist in an uncanny valley. 

The show feels dreamlike and nostalgic, but not in a hazy way. It’s all crystal clear but glitchy, fragmented, not quite right. It’s intense but also unemotional, a sort of medicated shock, tragedy through the lens of Citalopram. It’s uncomfortable, but mainly because it’s so cold. All this death, gore, addiction and heartache, but mediated through corporate greyness.

The whole show comes at a time when artists are being ever more policed about their subjects. In 2017 Dana Schutz was widely protested for her painting of the battered body of Emmett Till at the Whitney Biennial, the Tate’s current huge (and brilliant) Philip Guston show was repeatedly delayed because it featured images of the KKK, there are rumours of disquiet about Chris Ofili’s Grenfell mural at Tate Britain. So is it ok for Avery Singer to make this work? Who owns tragedy, who owns trauma? Who’s allowed to speak, to comment, to commemorate? Who can make art about pain and death? 

I don’t know if I have the answers to any of those questions, I don’t know if this is tasteless, if it’s just a tacky excuse to sell paintings off the back of mass murder. But I do know that in its provocative, tense exploration of a schism in modern society, in its early 2000s dreamy nostalgia, its heady meditation on addiction, pain and media ubiquity, Singer’s installation is deeply, unsettlingly, brilliantly affecting.

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