Growing up, I loved the Just So Stories, a set of fables that explained why the world is the weird way that it is. "How the Rhinoceros Got his Skin" explains that the rhinoceros is so angry and wrinkled because one day he removed his skin to go swimming and someone he had angered put breadcrumbs inside his empty suit. Now those crumbs are permanently lodged under his skin, causing constant itchiness and irritation. I think the reader was supposed to feel that the rhino had deserved this punishment, but I always felt empathy for his discomfort: Many social situations make me feel like my skin just doesn't fit right. On other days, my skin feels leaden and heavy, like I'm actually carrying around armor instead of skin, and my inside-self is stifled under the weight. But in good moments, moments of love, somehow my skin becomes delicate and translucent, and my best self can rise to the surface and be seen.
At one moment in artist Molly Lowe's video Cycle, the central figure unzips her skin and steps out of it, only to find another layer underneath. Watching her, I recognized the claustrophobic skin suit as my own and experienced her inability to shed that outer layer as a frustrating inability to escape from herself. It was just one of the many surreal images that seemed to completely nail a strange emotional truth of my own. Later, Lowe told me, "The art itself functions as a sort of weird mating call. I am calling out and waiting for someone else to respond and tell me that we are not that different." The work is vulnerable, guttural, and sometimes uncomfortable to watch. But it is also generous, beautifully composed, and an honest attempt to communicate something complex.
Lowe mines her personal history to create dense, messy, and visceral videos that address the social space between people and the ways we yearn to connect. The videos have a dreamlike quality, following their own internal logic of images and sensations, and, similar to a horoscope or a Tarot card reading, every scene is draped with many potential meanings, waiting to be picked up and owned by the viewer. "We believe in spaces that we don't understand; art is a way of visualizing some of the stories that we believe about reality," she says.
The 20-minute Cycle, depicts a group of humans completely enclosed by pale pink bodysuits. Onto these bodysuits Lowe painted crude facial features, nipples, and genitals, giving the impression that the figures were drawn by a precocious and sexually inquisitive child. In keeping with this child auteur, feelings are made literal and visible through the presence of a red strip of fabric that the figures use to tantalize, whip, tug, choke, and guide each other. They are bound together by this cord, immobilized and blinded by it but lost and cold when left alone and without it. The overall feeling of the piece is one of frantic, confused social interaction, mixed with moments of inexplicable joy and loss.
In choreographing Cycle, Lowe says she "created moments when difficult or confusing memories were being re-enacted." For example, in the fall scene (the video cycles through the four seasons, each roughly mirroring a stage of development), the figures congregate in a cornfield, and I found myself unsure if I was about to watch an orgy, a sacrifice, or a celebration. For Lowe this links back to childhood: "On the playground I would often play too rough, not really knowing the difference between play and violence." Alhough we would like to think that as adults we have this distinction under control, Lowe's work suggests otherwise.
Interested in the struggle for connection and the often-awkward fit of social norms, Lowe's videos examine both sex and monogamy. Cycle opens with an explicit and awkward scene of two humans entwined inside a single body suit. A hilariously literal interpretation of the Bible's "become one flesh" verse, the two bodies writhe among the bushes, then struggle to stand before the video cuts to them lying in the crook of a tree, a fleshy mound devoid of individuality and capable of little except further fornication.
Lowe moves to a more intimate vantage point in Love. In this most recent video, Lowe and her partner perform the roles of the couple, wearing masks that Lowe cast from their faces—a simple reminder that that even in the most vulnerable of situations, our public persona is present and completely knowing another person may be an illusion. Like the bodysuits of Cycle, it also abstracts the couple, allowing me (also a white, 30-year-old heterosexual) to project myself onto the characters. The eight minutes of Love encompasses both an entire relationship and a single first date, during which the clichés of romantic love—red wine, wedding cake, growing old together—are reinterpreted and interspersed with more surreal imagery. Hearts replace heads, a woman drags her shadow through the dessert, and in one particularly lovely moment, the humans disappear and the masks sit on a tea kettle and a bottle of glue.
Love plays with a myriad of ways in which two people can fail to connect: On a date, the two characters look at muddled reflections of themselves rather than each other; at one point they seem to kiss, but it is merely their shadows overlapping. Lowe's daringly honest vision shines a harsh light on reality—a night club looks ridiculous when half the participants are blow-up dolls, and candlelit sex seems an absurd conceit when reduced to lumps of hairy clay kneading, molding, and penetrating each other. Is love just another space that we have chosen to believe in? An animal need dressed up in rituals?
But both Cycle and Love circle back around to their beginning-to a point of hoping for a communion. For all the frustrated attempts, there are also examples of tenderness and synchronicity, moments when one human hears another human and responds as best he can. That's all that we can do.