“After the Rainbow” by Soda_Jerk (2009)
“After the Rainbow” by Soda_Jerk (2009)

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For D.C.’s 5×5 public-art project, curator Justine Topfer has brought the ghost of Judy Garland to haunt the National Museum of Women in the Arts. In a tiny gallery just past the information desk (the only part of the museum with free admission), visitors can sit on a single small bench and experience “After the Rainbow,” a two-channel video by the Australian new media collective Soda_Jerk.

The piece intercuts scenes from Garland’s 1939 breakout in The Wizard of Oz with snippets from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Easter Parade (1948), and the 1962 television special “Judy, Frank, and Dean: Once in a Lifetime.” In the resulting mash-up, instead of being deposited in Munchkinland by a Kansas tornado, young Garland as Dorothy Gale has a face-to-face encounter with her older self—an ex-movie star wracked by hepatitis and approaching premature death at the age of 47.

The video moves from left to right and back again across two makeshift screens, unevenly backlit rectangles floating a few inches off of the wall. On the left, Dorothy runs away from home—until Professor Marvel gazes into his crystal ball, spies Garland’s face some two decades hence, and makes an ominous prediction. Panicking, Dorothy backtracks as a massive storm bears down on her. Suddenly the sky catches fire, transforming into melting, bubbling celluloid, signaling a transition from the narrative we know to something more sinister.

When the left screen goes dark and the right lights up, a shocked, tearful 17-year-old Garland watches her 40-year-old self mournfully sing “The Man That Got Away”—a torch song with lyrics about seeing one’s dreams crushed by lost love. Slowly, young Garland backs away from her older doppelganger; time reverses course. The house is carried back to the left-hand screen. When young Garland opens the door again, she sees herself as she was at the video’s start: young again, and running to meet Professor Marvel. The loop closes.

The piece is playful, smart, yet melancholic. Garland led a tragic life, manipulated by studio executives who filled her with drugs and insecurity about her appearance. Multiple marriages, suicide attempts, and the inability to enjoy or sustain any of her successes followed. Yet with each iteration of the loop, young Judy Garland dries her eyes, smiles, and watches herself enter the same never-ending cycle of crisis, shocking self-awareness, and happy amnesia once again. In a life mediated by spectacle, perhaps, escape and reinvention of the self always seem possible.

With her slate for 5×5—which also includes pieces by Marley Dawson, Abigail DeVille, Kota Ezawa, and Sanaz Mazinani, all scattered around the city—Topfer focuses on artists torn between two places, processing memories of what they’ve lost. Abstractly, “After the Rainbow” fits Topfer’s theme, offering a bizarre, confabulated dislocation within the media archive.

But how does Soda_Jerk contribute to a public-art project ostensibly designed to offer new perspectives on D.C.? Curator Lucy Lippard once expansively defined public art as “accessible work of any kind that cares about, challenges, involves, and consults the audience for or with whom it is made, respecting community and environment.” This definition doesn’t preclude public art being placed in a museum, nor does it require that work be made in collaboration with local audiences. But it does suggest that such projects must directly address the neighborhoods or cities in which they are sited—their histories, populations, and conflicts.

“After the Rainbow” is a marvelous, affecting spectacle. Certainly we should be happy to have it in a D.C. museum that needs to focus more energy on contemporary, media-driven work. But Garland’s locked groove has nothing to do with public art.

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