Crowding out Meaning

Pushing the Palette Knife
The human thicket.
The human thicket. // Creative Commons

Los Angeles artist Alex Prager plays a game of “Where’s Waldo?” with visitors to Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art. In her first solo show in the United States, “Alex Prager: Face in the Crowd,” on display until March 9, Prager explores a personal anxiety that many share: the fear of large crowds and congested spaces.

The show focuses on Prager’s massive, elaborate and multifarious photographs as well as four short films, including her latest one featuring Elizabeth Banks. In these staged and carefully cast pieces, she artfully blends eras and slyly clashes personalities. In one of these constructed crowds, she places a 70s-era woman, conspicuously carrying a magazine with the face of Michelle Obama. Photos such as this one are set in a wide variety of over-crammed and claustrophobic spaces including movie theatres, airport terminals, beaches, government buildings, sidewalks and crowded events.

Prager’s images explore the paradoxes of crowd dynamics, namely being anonymous and alone in a sea of equally anonymous people, while simultaneously wondering and perhaps even creating fictitious narratives about these strangers’ lives. Prager calls attention to the importance of individual stories, giving each of her actors very distinctive features, dress and facial expression. The figures wear remarkably distinct countenances, but direct them at no one in particular. If there is a story to be told, it can only be about an individual, because the subjects of her photos seem to have nothing in common beyond the shared space they all occupy.

Prager leaves the viewer wondering where all of these people are going and where — or perhaps, what era — they come from. Prager says in a promotional video for the exhibit, “I wanted there to be a kind of awkward disconnect. When you first glance at the pictures, you see a crowd that seems very active and interactive, but the longer you stare at the crowd, the more you see the space in between each person and the emptiness.” Prager is touching on two issues: the cliché of being “alone in a crowd,” but also, more subtly, the disturbing decline of in-person interaction in our technology-centric society. The sense of emptiness her work describes is derived from the growing inability to cultivate new human relationships beyond the screen.

The photos are all taken from a high vantage point, reflecting another specifically twenty-first-century, Snowden and 9/11-fueled anxiety: the fear of surveillance. Prager herself is the surveillance camera, and the viewers of her photos take in these crowd scenes from an otherwise impossible perspective — that of a bird’s-eye camera. But the actors in her photos are largely dated to the latter half of the 20th century, a time during which people’s lives were unaffected by these concerns.

The exhibit also includes some of the artist’s earlier work to articulate the progression and transformation of her style. However, her technique does not appear to have changed much: Her photos then and now resemble movie stills of suspended action.

There is, of course, a question of ingenuity that muddles Prager’s project. All of her scenes involve hundreds of actors carefully costumed and directed on constructed sets. The power of dramatizing and staging her scenes allows for a subtext of temporal blending and pop culture. But this choice is at risk of threatening the stated goal of her project. The fear of crowded spaces and their condemnation of the individual to anonymity does not shine through as clearly as one hopes. Turning her subject and their surroundings into such caricatures only serves to weaken the potent anxiety that she purports to examine. Communal spaces are naturally diverse; in staging her entire composition, Prager fails to arrive at a more authentic portrayal of crowd anxiety.

In her trademark Cindy Sherman-esque style, she continues in these photos to obsessively stylize and typecast, removing any sense of reality. This execution carries an interesting message regarding the consumption of popular culture iconography, but does not live up to the exhibit’s title, “Face in the Crowd.”

Prager tackles a uniquely twenty-first century issue — the fear of surveillance in public spaces — all the while adding a timeless tinge by infusing her photos with glamorous 1960s Hollywood elite and stereotypical 1980s tourists alike. The effect is to produce an intriguing, but overwhelming visual experience that does not allow the viewer to quite put her finger on what the artist is trying to say.

Comments