Shana Moulton: Meta/Physical Therapy

Shana Moulton in collaboration with Nick Hallett. Meta/Physical Therapy performed on April 12, 2024, as part of Shana Moulton: Meta/Physical Therapy, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 17-April 21, 2024. Pictured: From left: Shayna Dunkelman, Nava Dunkelman, Raquel Acevedo Klein, Shana Moulton, and Anaïs Maviel. Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk. Digital image © 2024 The Museum of Modern Art, New York
April 19th 2024

In an unassuming corner of the artist Shana Moulton’s Meta/Physical Therapy, on a screen affixed to a staircase that is the same color—lilac—as the Exage Japanese softening-cleansing cream I use every morning and evening to, quite literally, ex any whisper of age that dares stain my skin, B-roll footage of penguins plays. It glides through water, reveling in that particular brand of quiet and transcendent animal freedom that is foreign to us humans, burdened as we are by the ball-and-chain of self-consciousness. To the disdain of philosophers such as Aristotle and René Descartes, I find it difficult to avoid believing that these penguins have stumbled upon meaning—that serendipity of significance that Shana Moulton’s publicly vulnerable, charmingly naïve, and hallucination-prone alter ego, Cynthia, has chased for over 22 years through various contemporary mediums: beauty rituals, home décor, print magazines, prescription medication, and exercise regimens. Yet, like the fingers that are not quite touching—but almost do—in Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, meaning feels just close enough for Cynthia to reach for yet again.

Meta/Physical Therapy is Cynthia’s latest attempt at self-transcendence; it is a site-specific installation at the Museum of Modern Art that Moulton has devised featuring the trinity of video, sculpture, and performance. The latter was created in collaboration with the composer Nick Hallett. It is hypothesized that penguins are drawn to shiny things because it reminds them of how light bounces off fish’s reflective scales underwater; thus, activating their instinct to hunt. In Meta/Physical Therapy, Cynthia is captivated by a shiny vase that arrives to her courtesy of Amazon and activates her instinct to anguish. Throughout this episode, the anxiety of waiting-for-the-vase evolves into the anxiety of “Where should I put my vase?” which Cynthia googles. It is safe to conjecture that this ordeal was initialized via a not-pictured anxiety of choosing-what-vase.

The vase is a vector for Cynthia’s existential woes. She hyper-fixates on home décor to exact the control and extract the meaning that evades the vicissitudes of her daily life. “Everything…in its right place,” a rendition of the 2000 Radiohead dirge of the same name, plays in a simultaneously hopeful, foreboding, and threatening register in Meta/Physical Therapy. And yet, as prophesied by a particularly surreal, singsong-y psoriasis medication commercial—clips of which interject the exhibition’s central screen—“nothing is everything. If “Everything [is] in its right place” and “nothing is everything;” ipso facto: nothing is in its right place. This logic doesn’t beget a cynical spiral, but rather a “sweet surrender”—to quote the Sarah McLachlan song that is reinterpreted in the exhibition—to the powers that be. Whether that’s commodity fetishism, late-stage capitalism, or the invisible hand is up to the viewer. At the end of the day, “It doesn't mean much / it doesn't mean ANYthing at all.” Cynthia fills the void she feels with objects, regimens, and rituals. These are her guardian angels, who—to quote McLachlan again—“Strip away the emptiness that surrounds [her]. They quite literally fill the empty vase that is the world around her, allowing her to interpolate it into the world according to Cynthia. “Who are you?” they ask. The answer is as clear as the crystals she believes will heal her; in fact, it is in those crystals, it is in the pseudo-Murano glass female figurine gyrating beneath the baptismal climax of a heaven-sent rain shower; it is in the mat-based mind-body pilates regimen she performs as a contemporary observance of spiritual alchemy; it is in the rainbow that comes full circle and mirrors the anesthesiologist John D. Loeser’s 1982 model of pain; and it is in her nightgown, which looks a little too much like a hospital gown. Meaning-making is a disease: Please Do Resuscitate! At the end of the day, we have only our objects, our regimens, and our rituals. Meaning is latent, but it’s all in our heads—at least that’s still something. Isn’t it?

Meta/Physical Therapy is on view through April 21 at the Museum of Modern Art.

Image: Shana Moulton in collaboration with Nick Hallett. Meta/Physical Therapy performed on April 12, 2024, as part of Shana Moulton: Meta/Physical Therapy, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 17-April 21, 2024. Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art.