Who are these girls?
Each one emerges from a picture-postcard landscape, a luminescent scene of swaying trees, lapping water and foliage in bloom. Each makes her way—some gingerly, some gracefully—through the undergrowth or along the rocks, down a path and towards us. The sound of the wind and the water and the rustling grass fades and is replaced by music. She sings, each one, a song.
She is young, somewhere on the way to being a woman but still in transit, uncertain of her body. One has her hands jammed in pockets, another holds her arms close to her sides, another looks away from the camera, walking furtively to a spot where she stops and breaks into song. Each song is addressed to a phantom “you.” With each song, what uncertainty there is slowly fades, replaced by a glowing ember of confidence in the words and music.
Why are we troubled by these girls? They are so innocent and intent, so soulful and true. They want nothing more than for us to open our hearts and listen. We stand and watch, scattered through the gallery, listening first to one song, maybe making a guarded comment with it ends, and then waiting for the next singer. This is not something we recognize or rather, its something we recognize all too well but not here. Sincere, lyrical and emotive—these aren’t qualities we happen upon in a gallery. Or if we do, we know who’s done it. These girls are stranger to us.
Althea Thauberger found them through a classified newspaper ad, invited each to record an original song and filmed them performing it before a static natural backdrop. This in her video, Songstress, 2001-2002, but she isn’t in it. The players are strangers and our discomfort with them stems in part from the suspicion that they don’t know how they appear. Althea has smuggled these girls from coffee shops, away from campfires and out of their bedrooms and abandoned them in a gallery.
Under the harsh lights and in these critical conditions we don’t know what to make of them. Adolescent girls have long troubled and entranced us. And we are not alone. Someone equally transfixed has placed them in magazines, given them record contract, made movies and television shows about their travails. We can trace this obsession back to our youth, sitting apart and studying certain girls around us with a mixture of fascination, fear and awe. We documented the minutiae of their lives, enthralled by their slightest thought. This was not merely an interest in girls as girls, not simply an attraction to all girls or girls in general. Only rare and particular girls who, through some combination of confidence, reserve, anxiety and mystery, caught our attention no matter what our current gender or our inevitable sexual preference. Something more, something more sublime drew us to them.
Today, there is an endless and overflowing array of available objects of desire. On every surface and in every medium, youth and beauty are pushed to the fore. But Althea’s girls are different. They are somehow real or, at least, we want to believe the artist’s statement that they are. We are inclined to believe the gallery is a place we can trust, but it isn’t and we know this well. That’s why we feel bad seeing these girls here and don’t trust Althea’s intentions. Even if she just wanted to collaborate on beautiful films of beautiful songs, if that’s all there is, it is not nearly enough. And in that deficiency, our conflicts arise.
We argue with each other, insisting we shouldn’t mock these girls, and sometimes our arguments seem hollow. And sometimes, a girl wins us over or splits us in two, one part enjoying the song, one part ashamed, wondering if this split is what the artist intends. The irresolution keeps us watching and insisting these are serious girls, that they have wrestled control of the artwork. The girls have taken it, made it their own, they have no apologies to make, nothing to be ashamed of. They are empowered in song and sing it defiantly, as truth, in front of the camera, an unwavering single shot that hides nothing. As we scramble to critique them, they defy our gaze and then…we love them even more. Hearts melting (though slightly embarrassed and maybe we won’t admit this to everyone), we return to high school and that furtive study of a chosen girl who generates waves of desire in us. But then, as now, that desire is not to have her but to be her. Or, at least, befriend her.