Fifteen years ago, in the corridors, classrooms, cafeteria and library of Columbine High School in Colorado, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold fatally shot one teacher and 12 fellow students and injured 24 more before taking their own lives. Since that day, many have speculated about the killers’ motives: were Harris and Klebold sociopathic loners, or disenchanted and misdirected young men? The media, for its part, largely depicted the atrocity as a simplified narrative of villains and victims.
In ‘Columbine Library’, Bunny Rogers’s recent solo exhibition at Société, the young American artist offered a more complex reading of the event. Rogers was nine years old at the time of the shooting, and she uses the massacre to frame a series of works that reflect on her own biography as well as comprising a broader study of collective memory. For Clone State Bookcase (all works 2014) Rogers replicated the Columbine library’s bookshelves but filled them with stuffed toys bearing a cartoon likeness of the singer Elliott Smith. Rogers floods the seemingly innocuous with misplaced symbolism: the bookshelves may look unremarkable or generic, but they replicate items that were present at the site of slaughter; cutesy consumer items are transformed into an homage to a musician whose suicide made him an idol for disaffected youth. Rogers is often drawn to figures and objects overburdened with symbolism, and here she uses them to great effect as emblems for adolescent alienation.
In Clone State Chairs and State Skool Chairs, Rogers remade both the old and new versions of students’ chairs from Columbine (the school’s furniture was redesigned post-shooting), underneath which she stashed custom-made bags based on those that the killers used to carry their explosives. These works, which replicate objects from before and after the shooting, symbolize the dual impulse that occurs during a period of grief, when the mourner becomes caught between the urge to memorialize and the need to forget, to build monuments and to move on. Rogers fixes her attention on the small, seemingly banal details to articulate a moment of collective trauma.
Clone State Bench and State Skool Bench served as seating for two synced animated films. In Poetry Reading in Columbine Cafeteria with Gazlene Membrane, a character from the cartoon series Invader Zim (2001–02) stands on a tabletop reciting poems from Rogers’s book Cunny Poem Vol. 1 (2014) as the animated school canteen gradually fills with water from overhead sprinklers. The scene is based on eyewitness accounts of the aftermath of the shooting, adding a tragic backdrop to the character’s emo-grimace and teenage ennui. The poetry she reads is full of lyrical aphorisms, at turns nihilistic and narcissistic: ‘With people, feelings are muddy …’ In the next room, Poetry Reading in Columbine Library with Joan of Arc continues the recital, in which the reader’s truncated statements conflate emotionalism with flippancy, while death, loneliness, mourning and unrequited love are recurring motifs.
Aside from the well-known scenery in which they appear, the characters and references in Rogers’s films and poems can feel hermetic, overdetermined by the artist’s biography. There is a curious elision between overwrought emotionalism and something more authentically personal. Vulnerability and toxicity, sentimentality and flippancy: Rogers is skilful at muddying these registers. ‘Columbine Library’ offered a complex entanglement of the personal and public; throughout, Klebold and Harris were absent – intimated but never enunciated – suggesting that though we may attempt to find motives and fix memories in objects and images, they remain elusive.