Hills Snyder {read more}

Three Walls

Cathryn Josefina Merla-Watson

Hills Snyder, Cat Tois, 2010; installation views, Three Walls, San Antonio

Compelling Cat Tois (pronounced “ca-twa,” just so you know) is an abounding Francophilia that purposely tempers the rampant intensification of U.S. jingoism and imperialism unleashed after 9/11, what Hills Snyder describes as a “hooray for our side” mentality. Like patois, which refers to hybrid dialects that poach from other forms of speech and are considered vulgar and/or nonsensical, its feline counterpart Cat Tois underscores how the United States revels in its own imbecility, mindlessly regurgitating the violences of its past through the promulgation of the spectacle, rather than engaged and sustained political discourse; simultaneously, Cat Tois enunciates a novel grammar of the senses that eschews predetermined paths and allegiances, opting instead for semantic nomadism.

Various landmarks provisionally map out this “psychogeography.” The candlelit bookshelf, containing a mini-replica of the Eiffel Tower and French fries for hungry spectators, conceptually guides the show, providing a corridor between and among themes. The individual and her relationship to desire, perception, psychoanalysis, mysticism, mass consumerism and modernity are among the themes, presented through a select repertoire of writings by French authors, or authors who engage in French intellectual traditions, such as Michel Foucault, Michel Houellebecq, Arthur Rimbaud and Henry Miller. A tray of absinthe and accoutrements reinforce the themes of mysticism and the sensory, as well as the mindless mimesis of the past in the present through its mirror backdrop. Opposed by social conservatives, absinthe, or the “green fairy,” evokes the bohemian milieu of Parisian intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

A French record album playing in the background entitled Sanguinem Mittère (“Music to Sip Absinthe By”), whose childlike chime melody is juxtaposed with haunting string arrangements (think scary clown music), imparts overall effects of synesthesia and the carnivalesque. Standing nearly nine feet tall, another mini replica of the Eiffel Tower is composed of various patterns of Persian rugs, recycled from a previous show, and illuminated by an ominous pink light. The two shadows cast upon the adjacent wall through strategic lighting reference the Eiffel’s doppelganger, the Twin Towers. On a lighter note, the tower also doubles (or quadruples, rather) as a cat toy, amenable to posing kitties.

However, in participatory or relational art such as Cat Tois, the diagnosis is usually that topical and political action is constricted to and therefore neutralized by the elite and ephemeral space of the artwork, so as only to reproduce what Jean Baudrillard has called the “DEGREE XEROX OF CULTURE,” a mere reiteration of the spectacle—that which Cat Tois sets out to critique, despite its adamant refusal of teleology or ultimate objectives. What Snyder does most effectively, though, is underscore that while the War on Terror is dizzyingly complex and puzzling, as mirrored in his myriad strings of signification, it is rationalized in popular culture through a benighted “twin,” the symbolic economy of nationalism and consumerism. Cat Tois indeed points out that there is something catawampus in the U.S. nation-state. Cathryn Josefina Merla-Watson is a PhD Candidate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota.

« return to table of contents