BY Andrew Durbin in Reviews | 04 JUN 19
Featured in
Issue 204

Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch: A Filmic, Gonzo, Dreamworld

The duo’s latest installation at the Prada Foundation is an incomplete take on contemporary America

BY Andrew Durbin in Reviews | 04 JUN 19

When I was young, I remember queuing for hours to ride the amusements at Disney World in Florida. It was worth it; each adventure promised to take you far from the sweat-drenched US, with its Velcro hats and giant roasted turkey legs. There was Mr Toad’s madcap adventures through a vaguely Victorian nowhere-in-particular or the well-airconditioned Space Mountain, with its sparky atmosphere of interstellar travel. Waiting in line, surrounded by the sounds of the attraction, was the primary medium through which Disney conveyed its Disneyness. What was to come? A noisy blur, most likely.

Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch’s Whether Line (2019) – the Ohio-based artist duo’s latest multimedia installation – begins with a long queue canopied by wire mesh. It bears some resemblance to those found at Disney and is likewise soundtracked by audio of characters from the main event: a new, feature-length film, set in the artists’ hometown in Ohio, where they relocated after years of living in Los Angeles. The line ends, after threading through a large portion of the Fondazione Prada, at a hangar with a multi-storey, barn-like structure in it. The show’s titular film is screened in a modest yellow room. It’s not clear why this vast, empty building is needed for a such a small projection.

Lizzie Fitch & Ryan Trecartin, Whether Line, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artists and Fondazione Prada, Milan

Whether Line stars Trecartin as Neighbor Girl, who tramps through the rural and suburban precincts of the US’s most famous swing state surrounded by friends – most of them played by New York- and Los Angeles-based artists, designers and curators. ‘We have so many sisters in the woods,’ says Akeem Smith, alum of fashion brand Hood by Air. Later, designer Telfar Clemens joins him, casually referring to the film’s setting as a ‘behind-the-scenes colony’ – an eerie description for a state that helped build the American Century only to be slowly, quietly destroyed by it. The film is, as of this writing, unfinished and won’t premiere, in full, until the autumn. The version playing in Milan is less cohesive than the artists’ previous works and in its current structure – long scene after long scene – more closely resembles rushes. Characters bounce about the woods, the construction site for a house, in cemeteries (‘I just need a moment so I can remember what my gravestone said,’ Neighbor Girl tells the camera) and, most dramatically, within the curvature of a dry lazy river that the artists constructed for the film. As with most of Fitch and Trecartin’s work, the film’s thrust comes in dialogue, which is clipped, zanily phrased and distorted. People play games (linguistic or social) that grow more complex as new characters arrive. Tensions rise when the artists’ real-life neighbours struggle to understand what is happening, lending the film a strange poignancy as the artists’ America, here a gonzo dreamworld, subducts with a Trumpian reality. The disjunct between the unfinished Ohio building and the version in which I watched the film, in Italy, produced a further dreaminess than even those interactions on screen, as if the film’s set, with its incomplete walls and views of pastoral Ohio, was more ‘real’ than the perfectly done, absurdly huge one at the Fondazione Prada.

Lizzie Fitch & Ryan Trecartin, Whether Line, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artists and Fondazione Prada, Milan

What is missing, however, is a compelling, structuring edit. Scenes develop slowly, but it is not always clear why we need so much time with any one character. Whereas in past works Trecartin and Fitch were brilliantly economical – splicing scenes, reducing character exchanges to mere seconds, zooming in and out of situations with irreverence – Whether Line is more panoramic. This pacing can, at times, work well: seeing Trecartin attempt to hold the camera’s attention for 20 minutes, talking to himself or other actors, is mesmerizing. That said, I sat, at the unfinished film’s premiere, a little too antsy with anticipation as one scene bled into the next: not for any plot, which has never much mattered to these artists, but for the film itself.

Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin, 'Whether Line' runs at Fondazione Prada, Milan until 5 August 2019.

Main image: Lizzie Fitch & Ryan Trecartin, Whether Line, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artists and Fondazione Prada, Milan

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. His book The Wonderful World That Almost Was is forthcoming from FSG in 2025.