Marni Kotak’s recent show “Mad Meds” at Microscope Gallery was her third solo show at the gallery. The exhibition featured sculptures, videos, and photography, as well as Kotak’s live 6-week durational performance in the space. The exhibition recreated, in a way, a hospital stay but altered into a personalized sanctuary, rather than an anonymous oppressive institutional environment, while the artist weaned herself from depression medication. In 2011, Kotak gained instant notoriety, as well as national and international attention for doing a performance art piece around the birth of “Baby X”. Microscope Gallery was turned into a birthing room. Kotak gave birth to Baby X in the gallery. The story of the “Baby X” exhibit has grown to epic proportions, and in some ways eclipses the potential for the work to be just art. “Mad Meds” has a very different feel to it.
“Mad Meds” deals with similarly intimate and personal events – depression brought on by postpartum, the use of anti-depressants (Wellbutric, Abilify and Klonopin), and a weaning off of the drugs. The viewers are invited into the space to reflect on their own mental states and relationships to mental health. As a result of postpartum depression, Kotak endured a traumatic inpatient stay in the psychiatric ward at Beth Israel Hospital. This art installation/performance piece takes over the gallery and we’re asked to enter the space. Instead of a build up of expectations and energy as in “Baby X”, it is an unwinding and reflective space. The gallery is turned into a shrine, a temple of sorts with a gold elliptical machine, printed curtains and pillows, and upholstered hospital chairs – in gold and green (images of Tivoli Bays – surely influenced by her undergraduate days at Bard College). We are made witness to her process and her goals, as well as her rewards, such as a 10-foot trophy (made by the artist).
What I really loved about this show, is that while Kotak is at the very center of the performance/space/art/installation, she is a conduit for a larger discussion on mental health, the personal experience of birthing, new motherhood and dealing with mental health issues such as depression, medication, and the weaning process off of medication. I was fortunate to sit and speak with Kotak (dressed in her gold hospital gown) during her performance about the 6-week withdrawal-performance piece. I asked her about the oversized notes that she was writing on Bristol board. She informed me that her therapist had suggested using her non-dominant hand to write and journal as a way to access her deeper subconscious thoughts. I also asked her about what she found most surprising in her experience through the 6-week durational performance. She said that people, men and women, were making pilgrimages to see her from around the country to talk with her, to sit with her, in her self-empowered temple honoring the power of life experiences. She gave them spoken and unspoken assurance that mental health issues can be ok – to be embraced as transformational, instead of shunned and swept under the carpet of taboo.
Seeing Kotak’s work, one can come to understand in a moving way, how art indeed can have a shamanistic history, along with an aesthetic one.
The exhibition ran July 18 – August 25, 2014.
Microscope Gallery’s new address (Sept. 1, 2014) 1329 Willoughby Avenue, #2B, Brooklyn NY 11237
Written by POVarts East Coast Editor: Kit Franco