"Jill Magid: A Reasonable Man in a Box," the Whitney Museum, New York

Paddy Johnson

August 4, 2010
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
July 1–September 12, 2010

When Jill Magid wrote “What is a reasonable man in a box?” on the Whitney’s wall I suspect she already knew the answer. The text references the a leaked 2004 memorandum from the US Justice Department prescribing legal means for the CIA to employ illegal torture techniques such as confinement with insects. Slightly more complex than typically seen on an episode of Law and Order, the government’s jargon reduces “legal” torture to: “remove the possibility of permanent physical harm and you can do what you want”, the core of which Magid questions. After all, if you’re imprisoned in a box, how could anyone assume that it would not damage your physical and mental health?

Departing from her usual performative based works, Magid re-imagines the first floor gallery as a dark confinement box and projects a sentimental sepia-toned video of a scorpion’s shadow on the back wall. Every once and a while a pair of long tweezers descend to toy with the bug, catching and releasing it repeatedly. This is its own torturous game, and the shadow suggests only an imagined presence. At the opposite end of the gallery a vinyl-type reproduction of the memo—albeit marred by redaction—is affixed to the wall.

Magid tells the Whitney curators that the point of the installation is not to recreate fear, but to “establish an intimate relationship between the scorpion and the audience through scale.”

On those terms it doesn’t work. The piece is basically a recreation of the conditions set forth in the memo, and Magid’s rationale for refusing this interpretation reads like a maneuver to lessen the political implications of the work and avoid the typecast of “political art.”

Mostly it’s the sounds of the bug scurrying across a floor that offers a heightened sense of the half-present translucent scorpion—a gnawing grating noise that occasionally jars when the insect snaps its tail. This is a simple and slightly predictable artistic approach, which would be more successful if the gallery had a door to truly confine the viewer. Light and sound easily drift in and out of the public space, and the constant stream of tourists and summer concerts in the museum create a large distraction. The exhibition is next to the elevators, guards, ticket desk, and just above the gift shop—I had to visit the show twice to experience it properly.

Even after this extra work, the artist’s attention to details isn’t quite enough to amount to a substantial piece. I like that Magid challenged the crux of the text she uses as inspiration, but the execution of her installation is clumsy. In posing the framing question, “What is a reasonable man in a box?” she replaces the original “reasonable person” with a gendered term. I’m happy to let dudes take the brunt of torture, but for a piece that uses language as its source material, the switch seems careless. Also, the gallery is too cold for any real intimacy, and Magid has seen more success when forging relationships to humanize government systems in her performance pieces. This time Magid cheats by offering up a question both she and the viewer have already solved. That’s not much meat to chew on.

You would like to place a man in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell the man that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him. You would, however, place a harmless insect in the box. You have orally informed us that you in fact place a harmless insect such as a caterpillar in the box with him. If you do so, to ensure that you are outside the predicate act requirement you must inform him that the insects will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain. If, however, you were to place the insect in the box without informing him that you are doing so, then, in order to not commit a predicate act, you should not affirmatively lead him to believe that any insect is present which has a sting that could produce severe pain or suffering or even cause his death […] so long as you take either of the approaches we have described, the insect’s placement in the box would not constitute a threat of severe physical pain or suffering to a reasonable person in his position. An individual placed in a box, even an individual with a fear of insects, would not reasonably feel threatened with severe physical pain or suffering if a caterpillar was placed in the box […] a defendant acts in good faith when he has an honest belief that his actions will not result in severe pain or suffering […] although an honest belief need not be reasonable, such a belief is easier to establish where there is a reasonable basis for it.

—Wall text from Jill Magid

Law & Justice, Police & Prisons, State & Government, USA

Paddy Johnson is the founding editor of the New York-based blog Art Fag City. She also maintains a weekly column at the L Magazine by the same name, and lectures at universities across the United States.

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August 4, 2010

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