No crying: "Tears" exhibit is all wet

Michele Leavitt’s new environmentally-themed installation, “Tears,” purports to have something to do with the Virginia Film Festival’s wet theme this year, though the association is peripheral at best. Oh, Leavitt includes a few watery elements here and there, but unfortunately, this thing has more in common with the blunt message-izing of a Sierra Club brochure than with the goofy art-fun of the VFF and its swimming pool screenings.
The installation space for “Tears” has been arranged to look like a living room, complete with carpets, E-Z chairs, a coffee table, and a television set. In one of the chairs, Leavitt has arranged a mannequin fashioned from what looks like newspaper. Her mannequin slouches in the chair, watches television, and snacks from a bowl of bright orange Cheeto-like packing peanuts.
On the television, a video of random clips and jerky, quick-cut images plays along to an electric rhythm track. Obviously, the installation leans pretty heavily on the pro-natural, anti-artificial eco-message. Leavitt’s installation inhabitant, literally made from man-made material, seems perfectly happy staring at the television blaring unnatural images, eating unnatural snacks, and lounging in chairs marked in large letters in a classic dystopic fashion with words like “easy,” “rest,” and “comfort zone.”
How sad that he doesn’t seem to realize how his artificial his lifestyle is, and how complicit he is in making himself artificial, right?
Actually, not really that sad at all. The mannequin seems to be having a fine time, even if he’s being used to convey a pretty tired and not particularly nuanced message. In fact, far from turning hoards of unassuming arts patrons into Green Party members, Leavitt’s installation rather makes one feel as if they’d accidentally stepped on to the long lost set for Herbie Hancock’s “Rockitt” video.
The rest of it ranges from mild irony (as in the pretty, bright, translucent woods scene and beach scene Leavitt has fashioned from grocery bags, or the translucent packing bags filled with layers of colored trash bits) to straight-up preachiness. The latter comes in works like “Soldier, 1999,” which features a silhouette of a soldier overlaid with letters cut from shiny magazine stock. 
The message– another empty set of statements, this time of the antiwar variety– ends with a question that, one suspects, Leavitt already has an answer for: “Will his life make a difference when all this is through?”
Leavitt leaves her viewer with two options: 1. assume that she’s being serious, in which case one is left with nothing but a bucketfull of unhelpful clichés, or 2. assume that Leavitt is somehow being ironic with her catch phrases– though that is a stretch, considering Leavitt offers no greater context for any apparent irony.
It’s a raw deal either way.


“Tears,” an instillation by Michele Leavitt runs through December 1 at the University of Virginia Art Museum.