Video and performance artist Julika Rudelius is a bit of a “watcher.” She behaves like an anthropologist: studying people, their habits, rituals, ways, codes, norms, and behaviors. Instead of cataloguing the physical artifacts she finds or contemplating patterns of behavior, she captures the evidence with her camera. In “Julika Rudelius: Rituals of Capitalism,” she presents her findings as a solo exhibition encompassing Leo Koenig’s main gallery and project space. Her two multi-channel videos, photographs, and the trace remains of an installation tell us that although the game may change, the rules almost always stay the same.
Rites of Passage (2008) — a fourteen-minute, HD video played on two synchronized hard drives — screens on a loop in the project space. The video provides a window into the lives of young men at the beginning of their political careers. Rudelius constructed the narrative through a combination of documentary footage and staged sequences based on interviews she conducted and actions she observed. With government offices in Washington DC as the setting, the video explores what it means to gain access to and maintain power on a large scale. Images of the man-boy-interns being coached by father-figure-mentors follow a routine. There is a relentless barrage of questioning, and an overwhelming demand to perform: “What does it take?” “Do you have what it takes?” “Are you ready?” Snippets of conversations between the young men and their guides show tender moments where sage advice and coaching is given and received, but the desire to please, lord over, and submit adds a menacing charge to this seemingly banal banter.
“Do you have what it takes?” a guide asks his page straight on.
“I hope so,” the young man finally says in an unexpected moment of vulnerability, his desire palpable. “I hope so.”
Rudelius created another mix of staged and spontaneously performed sequences called Rituals of Capitalism (2012), on view in the main gallery. The 10-minute-30-second video was conceptualized during a 2010 residency in Guangzhou, China, as a way to understand her surroundings and deal with her frustrations over the language barrier. She watched the young men in the market district, and eventually filmed them in a series of subtly erotic poses in the middle of busy traffic and workaday life. Although they couldn’t speak, their exchange was even-handed: Rudelius would take them to McDonald’s (their favorite restaurant) after videotaping them, and when she stared at them, they always stared back in recognition. In the video, the young men pose as if the busy street or factory floor were a runway; a magician transforms one RMB into a higher denomination, and young women sing songs while men shower them with cash and roses. Photographs in the adjacent gallery focus on the carefully coiffed hair of the young men with a few faux fur animal pelts scattered among them for good measure. In an overly didactic gesture, Rudelius originally installed two animal furs (presumably from dogs) found at one of the markets. The gallery removed the furs shortly after the exhibit opening because of their unknown origin, leaving only the pedestals where they rested as their trace.
Rudelius’s critiques of the systems of power and her commentary on gender, class, and privilege are disquieting, yet ultimately trite. The young men with political aspirations recite hollow words and jargon-filled phrases while the young men in China remain silent, their body language shouting familiar, repetitive, and similarly generic phrases. While anthropologists broadly study humanity, their larger goal is to apply knowledge of social, cultural, behavioral, and biological patterns in ways that might generate solutions to improve the human condition. Rudelius’s data reveals what most of us already know: power generally belongs to those who are white, male, and monied; sex sells, and creating a sense of desire and lack is the motor that runs Capitalism. By amplifying empty discourse, Rudelius missed an opportunity to work toward solutions to the global socio-cultural phenomena she wanted to bring to light. Do we have what it takes to subvert the rituals of capitalism? Too bad the exhibition didn’t press us for an answer.
—Lee Ann Norman
(All Images: Julika Rudelius, Stills from "Rituals of Capitalism", 2012; Courtesy of the artist and Leo Koenig Inc.)