Political cabaret wunderkind Morgan Bassichis lives and works in that liminal realm of the pedestrian surreal, as evidenced by their first solo gallery exhibition, “Questions to Ask Beforehand,” which opened at Bridget Donahue in Manhattan’s Chinatown. A live performer by trade, Bassichis infused the gallery with levity, creating a show that hovered somewhere between an archival display of queer sociality and a pitch for an unrealized musical about millennial ambivalence. The airy installation re-created those familiar sites of waiting: a therapist’s office, a spare performance space replete with a modest standing piano, and a cozy, den-like bay. In that comfy area, the visitor could sprawl out on one of three multicolored cushions designed by fellow artist Sam Roeck and take in March is for Marches: May and November, a 2019 sound piece with video captioning that Bassichis made in collaboration with cellist Ethan Philbrick. From this piece, I was able to glean fragments of a story about the longing for men to sit down and enjoy the preparations of a formal supper, among other esoteric musings. Sonically, the vibes were comfortingly reminiscent of an Arthur Russell album. Atop a pair of speakers flanking the projection were a variety of stacked paperbacks, both pulpy and educational, culled from the Lesbian Herstory Archives, including The Lesbian Path (1980), Different Daughters (1996), and Lesbian Health Matters! (1980). Each pile was crowned by a piece of smooth driftwood. This subtle evocation of the rustic brought to mind the setting of an artist residency: cloistered, often woodsy, philosophical, and communal (at least when it’s successful).
Back-to-back television screens played a selection of short video works, Pitchy #1–4 and In the Bathroom, all 2020. Pitchy (shot by and featuring Max Silver, with captioning by Isaac Silber) captures Bassichis in a variety of environs—a park, a wooden shed (or maybe a sauna), a bright-blue bathroom, and a hotel suite—while conversing with a flummoxed off-screen interlocutor who can’t quite understand his subject’s associative and improvisationally sung responses: “I would love it if this interview could just be like question, answer. . . . ” The title is a double entendre; the multipart chat appears to be a pitch from Bassichis for a play with an indeterminate plot, starring the eagerly “clueless” artist who teases us with cryptic yet comically familiar ideas: “In the show, we have to become our own daddy.” Evading critique, they gleefully sing: “Work? Process? Work? Process? The same. The same.”
Bassichis is an endlessly quotable writer, as evidenced by The Odd Years, the book they published in 2020_. _That delightful tome featured reproductions of neurotic to-do lists Bassichis made between 2017 and 2019, the originals of which were—ta-da!—cleanly displayed, community-board style, inside a presentation case lined with cork. APOLOGIZE TO BOYFRIEND FOR THE DIGESTIVE SYSTEM MY ANCESTORS GAVE ME and BE A PERSON WHO SENDS EFFORTLESS BIRTHDAY PRESENTS read some of the reminders Bassichis penned to themself in red Sharpie. The artist builds on the self-flagellating comedy of these notes by printing a series of twelve different pamphlets, made in collaboration with interdisciplinary artist DonChristian Jones. The brightly colored literature was free for the taking and one could peruse it while lounging on the fake therapist’s-office furniture. A speaker tucked into a plant from this mise-en-scène quietly recited lines from the “Questions to Ask” series—“Questions to Ask Before Beginning a New Friendship,” “Questions to Ask Before Meeting a New Group of People,” “Questions to Ask Before Having Sex with Someone,” and so forth—cleverly affirming the paranoid delusion that even the trees have ears.
Sequestered on account of Covid, I was able to listen to a reading of these pamphlets via Instagram Live. The videographer of this performance was shaking with laughter as Bassichis, outfitted in a chic black shift, both sang and recited to an appreciative crowd seated around a piano. While being deeply entertained by the proceedings—“Why do I find it so erotic when straight men say ‘he/him?,’” quipped Bassichis—I couldn’t help but wonder about the artist’s endgame, and what might lie in store in this sweet place of confession, tenderness, and comedy they’ve built for themself and, luckily, for us.