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The Suicide. 1996. USA. Directed by Gregg Bordowitz. 87 min.
The Suicide marks a turning point in the moving-image practice of artist, writer, and activist Gregg Bordowitz. The second in a pair of mid-1990s adaptations from Russian modernist sources (Bordowitz cast David Rakoff as Vladimir Mayakovsky in an earlier interpretation of A Cloud in Trousers), this feature-length work is a departure from the autobiography, protest, and education-centered videos the artist pioneered in the early years of the AIDS crisis. In Nikolai Erdman’s eponymous 1928 play, Semyon is out of a job, overcome with disillusionment, despair, and the failed promises of the Russian Revolution. Yet those in his orbit don’t console him—rather, throughout the biting satire, each neighbor weighs how Seymon’s sacrifice might better their own cause. Bordowitz uncovered the play’s allegorical potential to explore the tension between the demands of AIDS activism and art-making in a decade when access to life-saving drugs in the United States was coupled with profound grief and burnout within the activist movement. He recalls, “I saw Semyon as a person living with AIDS, [a] person whose suffering was turned into a political football.”
The film was shot during a residency at the Wexner Center for the Arts, with ambitious sets and period costumes, from a screenplay adaptation based on several Erdman translations. Bordowitz notably modeled the work’s visual style on 1950s live televised dramas in the mold of CBS’s Playhouse 90 or NBC’s Philco Television Playhouse. This experimentation with genre-mixing harkened, for the artist, to a utopian moment for the nascent medium of television (embedded in its own Cold War and McCarthyite cultural moment). In retrospect, The Suicide is also evidence of the broad-ranging, inventive uses of video in the 1980s and 1990s, across broadcast, performance, and politics, by Bordowitz and his peers.
This run is presented in conjunction with the MoMA PS1 exhibition Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well and runs concurrently with a program dedicated to harm reduction through media presented by Bordowitz and Jean Carlomusto.
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