2009, 4 Channel Video Installation, 5 + 2AP
Text: Arthouse at the Jones Center, Austin, Texas)
In Dorian, a cinematic perfume (2009), Handelman reinterprets Oscar Wilde’s famous Victorian novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Focusing on the story’s relationship to Wilde’s infamously scandalous life, Handelman emphasizes the novel’s queer undertones. This sumptuous, four-channel, hour-long video installation is Handelman’s largest-scale production to date. The narrative follows Dorian’s hallucinatory journey through a deviantly decadent underworld roiling with ambition, seduction, and betrayal. In Handelman’s hands, Wilde’s story of indulgence, beauty, and the meaning of art is transformed into a spectacular cautionary tale and campy visual feast, replete with an electro dance party soundtrack.
Handelman’s version of the story follows the essential plot of Wilde’s novel: the artist Basil Hallward discovers Dorian, who is quickly adopted as a protégé by Lord Henry and propelled to celebrity of epic proportions, hounded by paparazzi. The painting that assumes the scars of Dorian’s spiritual corruption in the original story, however, is replaced by Basil’s photographs of the superstar. These ill-fated portraits slowly mutate into a grotesque phantom of Dorian’s corrupt soul as the pageantry of a skyrocketing career foreshadows an inevitable destruction. The video’s highly stylized slickness and saturated color catapult Wilde’s tale into the 21st century while references to rehab and fast food add yet another layer of garish reality to the surreal saga.
Handelman’s actors are well-known personalities from the New York drag and burlesque scene and blur the line between performance and reality by playing versions of themselves. Sequinette, a young gender-bending female drag queen, performs the title role. Armen Ra, who plays Dorian’s flamboyant mentor, Lord H, is a renowned theremin player and drag performer. Quin Charity, a media artist, portrays Basil, the artist who discovers Dorian, while K8 Hardy, a performance artist and co-creator of the queer feminist art collective Lesbians to the Rescue (LTTR) is Dorian’s first love, Sybl Vain. Finally, drag legend Flawless Sabrina enacts the visceral Dead Dorian in the finale after the eponymous portrait’s power dissolves.
After the initial publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, public accusations of the book being “unclean, effeminate, and contaminating,” compelled Wilde to write a preface in which he explained his philosophy of art. The preface is remembered for Wilde’s cheeky yet contemptuous closing line, “all art is quite useless.” He also, and perhaps more incisively, wrote, “it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Taking a cue from Wilde, Handelman implicates the viewer as much as her selfish and hedonistic characters. Dorian depicts a nightmarish journey that questions society’s privileging of youth, beauty, and the cult of celebrity by holding a mirror to our own narcissism.