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“Maria Friberg: AM DC”

At Conner Contemporary Art to June 28

“Maria Friberg”

At the Embassy of Sweden to June 27

When a stranger hits on you, he or she makes assumptions based on your demeanor, your stance, your attire—and you learn things about the face you show the world. I’ve been hit on three times in my life. Spying my notepad and deducing that I was at the Black Cat for professional reasons, a red-haired collegian leapt to the conclusion that I had enough money to buy her a drink. Joining me for a walk along F Street NW and immediately sensing my love of cinema, a homeless fellow asked if I’d like to accompany him to the adult theater that was nearby. But my most humbling encounter occurred at a Georgetown bus stop: A large woman recently arrived from Madagascar approached me and asked, “Do you have a job where you wear a suit and a tie?”

Actually, at the time, I had the only thing worse—a job at which you have to wear everything except the jacket. I discovered that day that even when sporting a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals, I was marked by the uniform of my indenture. The only comfort I could take was that I was in Georgetown on the weekend, and my inquisitor probably figured the odds were pretty good.

Maria Friberg, a Swede who divides her time between Stockholm and New York and who makes pictures that, at first glance, look deceptively like commercial photography, has never had a straight job. The closest she comes to office work is when, in the comfort of her home or studio, she sometimes makes believe she’s a secretary. But she is fascinated with men in suits, in the way the white-collar wardrobe obscures the man even as it defines his social role. In concurrent shows at Conner Contemporary Art and the Swedish Embassy (they need to be seen as a set, rather than as separate hangings), Friberg’s photography and video explore not only the power plays of international corporate and political culture, but also the structures of conformity, subservience, and self-effacement that underpin the edifice of modern success.

For two photos titled aware but still there (2002), Friberg enlisted the services of a businessman from Texas (she never uses professional models; her suits are always accustomed to wearing them) and a black Great Dane that doesn’t look like the puppy it still is (she makes an exception for the dog, a pro). They appear together in each picture against a seamless white background. In the first, the man kneels, his hands outstretched on his thighs in an obedient posture; the dog twists its head over its shoulder toward him, but its swiveled eye and cocked ear show its attention to be drawn out toward the camera, as if taking orders to keep the man in place. In the second, the dog lies outstretched on top of the man, who is flat on his back. The tableau could have been taken from a Marmaduke strip, except there is no sense that the two are on familiar terms. Staring intently at the man and drooling on his lapel, the beast exhibits the reckless, dominant friendliness that its breed forces on all those it meets.

Friberg, who does not shy away from interpreting her work, says the photos “are about failing to break bad habits. You are aware of them, but unable to change according to reason or others’ expectations,” adding that “[t]he internal power structure between the two is not the theme….” Yet the man’s suit appears to have been chosen to conform to the dog’s natural color, and his submissiveness is undeniable. Whether the dog, not vicious because not threatened, is seen as bad habit or bad mood (Churchill referred to the “black dog” of his depression) or bad job, it nevertheless knows exactly how to say, “You’re my bitch.”

A more ambiguous situation is established in the five-part almost there series (2000), which shows four Stockholm IT professionals in white shirts and dark suits, drifting face up in a variety of configurations in the Jell-O-blue waters of a swimming pool. Intended for diving practice, the pool is outfitted with a mechanism that stirs the surface of the water with giant eruptions of air from below. Friberg had her finger on the control: Every time she buffeted the men with another blast, the air bubbles trapped in their jackets escaped and they lost buoyancy.

In Friberg’s photographs, ripples radiate across the water from the men’s bodies. The graphlike grid of tiles on the pool bottom is warped by the waves. The men oscillate between a playful lack of self-consciousness and the anxious awareness that they are under observation and must behave accordingly: working to remain on the surface. Sometimes one of them seems as effortlessly adrift as a dreamer in the ignorant bliss of an isolation tank (and here he appears similar to the putti-inspired infants, wingless and heedless, that clamber around the gleaming tops of darkening clouds in Friberg’s recent aeronauter series); at other moments, he might be at the mercy of the turbulent waters that threaten to sink the whole crew. All that is sure is that a deep pool—these were shot before the Internet bubble burst—affords a certain illusory amount of freedom. If Friberg took her pictures today, the men would be lying in damp puddles on the bottom.

The strangest of Friberg’s works is confront me back (1997), a three-minute video of a writhing, three-piece-suited Reykjavik banker wedged between the bucket seats of a car whose smudged gray upholstery matches his clothes. So that the car’s instrument panel and steering wheel wouldn’t obstruct our view, Friberg had the front sawed off a wreck. The video was shot in real time, but the man moves so slowly that it looks like slow motion. With the phallic gearshift pressed against his leg, there are overtones of sex and control, but they are imprecise and difficult to get a handle on. The most peculiar element is our unawareness of any motivation for the man’s actions. His clothing bespeaks respectability, and we naturally expect a banker in the driver’s seat to be a model of rationality, but he moves as if drugged or in a trance.

We know all too well the purposeful morning ritual surreptitiously taped last year at a Capitol Hill cafe for AM DC: Papers need to be scanned, coffee needs to be drunk, boogers need to be picked and inconspicuously deposited on the floor. A man in a suit, wearing French cuffs and plump in that busy-got-better-things-to-do Washington way, plows through the newsprint, handing it off, generally without a word, to his pal, who sits with his back to the camera, which picks up the cappuccino hiss and brittle clatter that bounce off the tiles. He’s an important guy—no one reads the Washington Times as his fourth paper of the day unless he’s looking for his name in it—but not so important that Friberg knows who he is. He’s as imposing and unmindful as the office buildings she intercuts with the cafe footage, and he’s faceless, familiar in the unplaceable way “That Guy” character actors are.

From George Grosz to Sue Coe, artists have seen the suit as an emblem of complacency verging on evil, its inhabitants targets ripe for broad satire. But the open-minded, uncensorious Friberg is aware of the full range of power relationships it represents. With a light hand, she picks apart the class divisions elided by this modern uniform, which confers anonymity and import on underling and overlord alike. The suit is where those of substantial influence can hide in plain sight—or could until a lobbyist visited Conner and ID’d the AM DC flicker as Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), a congressman you’re unlikely to know unless you’re a Hill rat or live in Jacksonville. And it is also what enables the unknown white-collar drudge to shut up, blend in, look competent, and get through the day without anybody guessing that there might be a human being trapped inside.

That local audiences are so adept at getting past the façade the suit presents should make Friberg a natural draw here, but it won’t ensure that she gets an appropriate reception. The crowd at the talk she gave last week at the Swedish Embassy was true official Washington: international, chatty, besuited (of course), supposedly well-educated, yet completely at sea as to what art’s been up to since the 19th century. These folks were reasonably comfortable with the notion that photography, now 165 years old, might possibly require skill and so be considered “art.” But—oh!—what to do when a photographer farms out the taking of her pictures to technicians? Just what is it you do, dear?

The biggest stumbling block was that Friberg’s pictures are as slick and as neatly composed as advertising images—so naturally nobody could figure out why she would want to waste herself on art. (Friberg insists that such questions never come up in Sweden.) It would not, in fact, be difficult to come up with a few snappy slogans to tack onto the photos, and though you might actually get away with commercializing aware but still there, no good ad editor would let a captioned almost there get back to the client. Advertising has to stay on message; you shouldn’t load a picture with too much implication. It’s a subtle thing, but the swimming-pool photographs pull in too many directions. Their presentation—so clean and glossy as to be initially off-putting—is simply an analog to the false front of the suit.

When conservatively cut and colored, the male costume theoretically maintains its power to standardize and dignify, but when the suit jostles against extreme celebrity, those functions succumb to an inability to render the wearer sufficiently anonymous. For a second D.C.-themed video, Friberg alters the mix of AM DC, giving us an identifiable character and easy-to-read behaviors but removing most of the context: no time to fall (2001) is a six-and-a-half-minute montage of footage from CNN’s live coverage of a pre-9/11 speech between Dubya’s speaking parts—in other words, reaction shots only. The lucky, dimwitted fruit of Poppy Bush’s loins stands there smirking—remember when all he could do was smirk?—at the good fortune of being cheered or laughed at or even booed by the members of Congress. Geez—how’d this happen to me?

Whatever you think of Bush the Younger, his performance here is an exceptionally human one: He masquerades belonging, even dressing the part, but remains visibly out of his depth. When, in Paul Slansky’s apt turn of phrase, “the clothes have no emperor,” Friberg shows that a good suit will get you only so far. CP