Boca Museum’s “Entertainers” Highlights Strange, Dazzling Talent

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Trine Lise Nedreaas' "Pulse"

I can say with unscientific certainty that there is no song in the karaoke canon that has been tortured as often as “My Way.” For amateur singers of a certain age, Frank Sinatra’s defiant proclamation is the perennial standard, despite its rangy vocal challenges.

Trine Lise Nedreaas’ video “I Did It My Way,” on display now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, appears at first to depict one of countless boilerplate butchers of the song, charting in a static frame an elderly woman’s karaoke malfunction in front of heavy curtains, the song lyrics scrolling in the reflection of her eyeglasses. For a minute or so, we wonder why we’re watching. It feels a little invasive, maybe a little cruel.

Gradually, though, the artist intervenes. The woman’s voice is methodically overtaken by that of a child’s, and a pallid sheen slowly but inexorably covers the frame like a metastasizing cancer, until we see nothing but white. “My Way” has been covered so often that its original meanings have been sapped by too many off-key warbles. In Nedreaas’ haunting juxtaposition of sound and image, the artist has reclaimed it as a meditation on mortality.

It’s the most disquieting piece, though not the most disturbing, in “The Entertainers,” the Boca Museum’s new exhibition of this Norwegian video artist’s work from the 2000s and 2010s. “I Did It My Way” is something of an outlier; the other videos, chronicling people with unusual talents, are not defined by such overt artistic manipulation, though Nedreaas’ command is ever-present.

Nedreaas “is an admirer of enthusiasts who go to extremes to make their mark,” per the Boca Museum’s wall text, and “The Entertainers” highlights a number of creative specialists who flirt with danger. It’s hard to watch the squeamish “Forget me not 01,” in which a sword swallower performs this potentially catastrophic feat, without wincing. In “Forget me not 02,” a martial arts expert ritualistically breaks a series of bricks using his forehead, and “Forget me not 03” tests our gag reflexes with its performance of an old man devouring a plate of sausages by ingesting each cylinder of meat without apparent chewing.

A triptych of soundless, single-take discomfort, these videos share similar backgrounds—they were shot in formal portrait studios—creating an air of both pride and melancholy. There is no audience to cheer them on, no editing to soften their feats. There is a kind of nakedness to their performances that only an artist like Nedreaas can engender.

“Yana and Noname” similarly deconstructs a marginal entertainment form, in this case ventriloquism. For seven silent minutes, in a darkened room harshly lit by the glare of an overhead bulb, the puppetmaster removes her frowning dummy from its case, grooms it, and sits beside it. For a lovely moment, her nose glows red, like the dummy’s. It’s a motherly ritual in light and shadow, stripping ventriloquism of its usual sophomore snark, and shooting it like an Old Master painting.

If these videos capture their entertainers as they are, from a set distance and with a static camera, two of the museum’s selections take a more enigmatic and often dazzling direction. In “Iryna—Backbender,” the figural becomes abstract, as Nedreaas shoots a sparkly contortionist in extreme close-up, the camera narcotically following her supple movements. The human form is broken down into a collection of sinuous shapes and stretchy fabric. The video is eight minutes, but it feels longer; it is so alive to the rigor of Iryna’s art that we leave with a newfound appreciation for her process that would simply be lost among the bells and whistles of, say, a Cirque du Soleil performance.

Then there’s the intoxicating “Pulse,” the most-viewed video in Nedreaas’ oeuvre, which was projected onto the electronic billboards of Times Square in December 2017, and which receives its own jumbo screen at the Boca Museum. Its subject is a hula-hoop dancer working her magic on a pair of glowing hoops. Nedreaas breaks the choreography into fragments—a face here, an arm there, a foot there, the hoops kept aloft in perpetual motion until the camera eliminates the body altogether, and the video becomes a kaleidoscopic swirl of light.

Most video of live performances like these endeavors to place us in the audience, as if we were watching the act happen in the moment. Nedreaas gets us much closer than that, as if we are embedded in the performer herself. Now that’s entertainment.

“The Entertainers” runs through Jan. 3 at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. The museum also opened “My Presidents and Other Recent Acquisitions” and “Jeff Whyman: Out of Nature” this week. Admission costs $12 adults and $10 seniors, and is free for students and children. Call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.