Featured in
Issue 201

Morag Keil’s Lo-Fi Environments Reflect on Alienation and Escape

With dead ends and doors to nowhere, the recent works of the Scottish artist articulate contemporary forms of nihilism

BY Chris Fite-Wassilak in Features | 21 FEB 19

We drift and bob through an empty clothing store, circling seemingly endless racks of fake-fur coats, trim grey jackets and velour scarves. With shaky, hand-held footage, the video takes us down aisles lined with poised mannequins and brightly lit clusters of sweaters and hats, turning back whenever a door or escalator is encountered: leaving, it seems, isn’t an option. We return to wander the Burberry and Karen Millen sections, yet again. Then, from around the checkout desk, a woman in a mid-length green jacket appears, walking as if in a trance, holding a phone in front of herself at head height. The footage slows and then jumps to the perspective from her phone and off we go again, through a maze of fashion, until her lens happens upon another camera-toting drifter – and so on and on.

It’s as if we’re trapped in a mall, confined to the women’s department, doomed perpetually to browse the overpriced, middlebrow fashion. The purgatorial atmosphere of the video, as part of London-based Scottish artist Morag Keil’s (deliberately misspelled) installation Moarg Kiel (2019), is a familiar one from her work: exploring small corridors filled with dead ends and doors to nowhere. In her video Passive Aggressive 2 (2017), a child races around a slick, middle-class kitchen, opening soft-close drawers and cabinets to reveal the hidden mess behind the shiny veneer; later in the video, we cut from a woman working on a laptop in a cramped bedroom to a digital animation of a green room with doors on each wall – we go through one to find an identical room, then another and another and another. This virtual maze provided the blueprint for Keil’s solo exhibitions last year at Jenny’s in Los Angeles and Project Native Informant in London, in which visitors had to navigate a series of closed doors: some could be opened, leading to small rooms with yet more doors; most were locked. We’re trapped, Keil constantly asserts: so what are we going to do about it?

Morag Keil, ‘Moarg Kiel’, 2019, exhibition view, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. Courtesy: the artist and Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; photograph: Mark Blower

Keil seems to suggest that what we can do is riff and vamp on the surfaces that hem us in. Combining painting, sculpture, sound, photography and video, her work is a collage of the contemporary landscape that has been created with a seemingly disaffected shrug: lo-fi aesthetics interspersed with excerpts from video games and advertising. Objects have been cobbled together; wires spill everywhere and a reflection of the phone recording the image can be seen on every surface. The video Passive Aggressive (2016–ongoing) is an extended piece of motorcycle porn. Originally installed as a series of screens in six separate rooms playing the same content, the video has been remade as part of the artist’s current show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London; the camera hungrily traces over chromed hoods, engines and wheels, only to be interrupted by non sequitur asides to advertisements for the energy company ESB and the international reality television series Big Brother (1997–ongoing).

Peeking through a peephole of one of the locked doors in Keil’s exhibition ‘Here We Go Again’, at Project Native Informant last year, you could see a flat-screen television playing a lush forest CGI animation from a BBC One ident, which then cut to a blue circle that wobbled as a voice-over asked in the half-droning tones of Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa: ‘What would you like to have a conversation about?’ Of course, there was no way to respond; it couldn’t hear you through the door anyway. Keil is content to reflect the frictionless epi-capitalism of daily urban life back onto us, to accumulate the small brandings and intimate exchanges that amount to this static, existential chamber in which we have chosen to drift. Whereas, in the 1950s and ’60s, the situationists envisioned drifting through the city as a way of counteracting its controls and commercial forces, Keil recognizes that the drift has become just another technique for retail design and ‘customer interaction’.

Morag Keil, Passive Aggressive, 2016–ongoing, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin

Back in the clothing store video in Moarg Kiel, the soundtrack is occasionally marked with explosions and barrages of bullets, apparently from some sort of shoot-em-up video game. The juxtaposition seems, at first, trite: going shopping often feels like going into battle. We might think we can turn away and ignore this vision of purgatory, though sitting next to us in the gallery, on a seat seemingly misplaced from a public bus, are mannequins staring blankly at phones in their hands. Being surrounded by inert bodies engaging only with their phones is an all-too-familiar scene; and, surely enough, on the bus home, people next to me are shopping for clothes, while I skip from the news back to whatever music is streaming on a radio app. The boundaries might be less visible, the paths we navigate that bit longer and circuitous, but it’s all just the same purgatory. It’s as if we’ve been placed in the mall in George Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead (1978), but instead of humans hiding out from the undead, now we’re all just zombies. Yet, Keil’s work isn’t just another rehashing of the now-ubiquitous trope of the zombie-as-mindless-consumer; rather, she occupies it as a restless anti-position. Her practice echoes academics Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry’s ‘A Zombie Manifesto’ (2008), described as an ‘irreducible, anticathartic, antiresolution’ stance ‘that cannot call for positive change, it calls only for the destruction of the reigning model’. Behind Keil’s work is the demand to know why we live like this and the impulse to tear it all down; but, until that happens, we wander.

Morag Keil, ‘Moarg Kiel’, 2019, exhibition view, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. Courtesy: the artist and Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; photograph: Mark Blower

There is an ambivalent self-awareness running throughout Keil’s work that, at times, undermines this zombie state. As the title Moarg Kiel wryly suggests, there’s a conscious performance of the mistaken or misrecognized self staged in each installation. This is framed, primarily, through the constant juxtaposition of disparate images and sounds, the impatient jump cuts and the repeated short passages of video that form a jarring staccato before careering onwards. There’s a keen sense of rhythm that permeates her practice, further shaped by the repeated rooms and sequels to each piece – her show at the ICA includes re-stagings of many of her earlier works. The question of who or what is actually being captured hangs in the air. You, Me and CCTV (2018) is a set of poster-sized photographic prints that form a winding line along the floor, each filled with images of eyes, shattered glass and empty alleyways, supposedly taken from Keil’s Instagram; it is an angsty brooding on voyeurism and surveillance, like an OTT adolescent trail that leads, again, nowhere. Meanwhile, the protagonist of one of her earlier works, Potpourri (2013) – which is included in the ICA show – is visibly split, at times appearing as a man or a woman, the narration repeating and re-reading passages as either gender. The short video is presented on a full home-PC setup, complete with two-tiered desk and swivel chair: a casual domestic vibe that belies the intricate back and forth taking place, as the dual-body character reads on a mattress on the floor, tries on clothes and tidies up a cramped kitchen. The voice-over jumps between excerpts from online comments on images and more coherent passages on porn and self-objectification. As one repeated passage states: ‘It just keeps reaffirming a massive circle: so the more overtly sexualized you are, the more popular you are and the more likes you get, then the more likely it is the site will buy your pictures. So, of course, the question is just whether or not you want to make money.’ Keil’s man-woman apparently chooses to cash in, hiring someone to shoot paparazzi-style photos of them to appear popular. At least it’s a choice; albeit a choice to go deeper into the maze.

The world Keil reflects offers no way out – we take part whether we choose to or not. All we might choose is the extent to which each of us exalts our prison. Keil presents us with an impasse that feels like a very contemporary form of nihilism: a relentless critique of the zero-hour contract, a self-marketing lifestyle offered without an escape or an alternative. The maze we’re in isn’t Keil’s or Kiel’s – it’s all of ours. The question is whether or not we actually want to leave.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 201 with the headline ‘Into the Maze’

Main image: Morag Keil, 'Here We Go Again', 2018, exhibition view, Project Native Informant, London. Courtesy: Project Native Informant, London.

Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer and critic who lives in London, UK.