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Althea Thauberger: Berkeley Art Museum.

Sky, Kory, Aleta, and Reese, the four teenage girls who star in Althea Thauberger's video A Memory Lasts Forever, 2004, could very well be a high-school alterna-folk band, with the artist acting as their shadowy Svengali. But while Thauberger casts her young charges in glowing light and allows them to costume themselves in stylish junior garb, the artist's intentions are worlds away from those of a record-company flack. We encounter the quartet poolside, on a drunken summer night in a landscaped suburban backyard. As is often the trope in teen movies, parents are absent. We watch as the friends amble, giggling, onto the deck, only to discover the family dog floating lifelessly in the water.


The scenario is enacted four times, with the lead role rotating among the young actresses, who each perform a different response. Sky discovers the dead pet after barfing into flowering shrubs and expresses her pain in melodramatic, wailing denial. Kory panics and hastily hides the dog in the bushes. Aleta acts with stoic disbelief, while her friends provide a Valley Girl chorus of "eeew"; and Reese emotes, screaming that "this wasn't supposed to happen." After deciding how to handle the situation, each girl breaks into song, backed up by a churchlike organ and the other girls' voices, in a musical attempt to express her sadness and confusion.

A Memory Lasts Forever is a brave and curious hybrid of musical theater, art therapy, after-school special, and community-based collaboration--with spiritual overtones. As is her established method, Thauberger developed the work in collaboration with her young stars, students who responded to a casting call distributed to musical-theater groups in Greater Vancouver. The actresses also penned their own songs. The tale comes from Thauberger's childhood but has universal resonance, and the emotional investment of the actresses (whose appearance in bikinis makes them seem all the more vulnerable) is eminently believable.

Thauberger explores the way that pop songs, especially sad ones, may be heart-felt in spite of the cliches employed by their writers and performers. She did something similar in Songstress, 2002, for which she filmed a number of aspiring female folksingers performing ballads outdoors, in unsullied Pacific Northwest landscapes. The Songstress performances are uncomfortably raw, suggesting that Thauberger might be encouraging us to poke fun at her subjects' earnestness. The women sing their songs alone in a direct appeal to the viewer; in A Memory, the singers have each other and thus a sense of community, one that hints at an element of faith in something larger than themselves.

This idea is also expressed in the Memory songs' lyrics, which are printed on the wall outside the screening room. The words waver between the spiritual and the hokey, addressing both loss of innocence and subsequent repentance. So Sky sings, "Once we were like a coven, our spirits soared/Sisterhood kept us strong/And as easy as it was, it was no more," and Aleta, "All my emotions rise to the surface / My life takes a fall/I'm alone and I have lost my place / And I don't know who I can call." The words are direct expressions of feeling, but despite the respect with which Thaubeger treats her theme, the work is somehow less than the sum of its parts. It's difficult to take not because of its unabashedly emotional content or its confrontation of spirituality but because the narrative, while realistic, may be too quotidian to hold our interest repeatedly and doesn't necessarily enhance our understanding. More problematic still is the fact that the songs are hookless, almost indistinguishable dirges, resulting in a work with limited cult appeal rather than a bona fide hit.
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Author:Helfand, Glen
Publication:Artforum International
Date:May 1, 2005
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