Artist-witness creates exhibit for Arthouse in response to shooting at Texas Capitol

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Artist-witness creates exhibit for Arthouse in response to shooting at Texas Capitol

"Failed States"

When:Noon to 11 p.m. Wednesdays, noon to 9 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays through March 4

Where:Arthouse at the Jones Center, 700 Congress Ave.

Cost:Free

Information: www.arthousetexas.org

Magid's car, "Failed States," will be on view from noon to 3 p.m. Feb. 4 and noon to 2 p.m. March 3 on Colorado Street just outside the Texas State Capitol's west entrance gate.

On Jan. 21, 2010, shortly after noon, 24-year-old Fausto Cardenas fired a small-caliber handgun outside the Capitol's south entrance.

Cardenas fired into the air. It was a sunny Texas January day and the sky was bright blue.

Cardenas had just left the Capitol after visiting the third-floor office of Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, where Cardenas had demanded a private meeting with one of Patrick's staffers.

Witnesses said Cardenas, reportedly a Houston-area resident, fired about five or six shots before Texas Department of Public Safety troopers tackled him. No one was injured.

Cardenas was arrested and in August 2011, pleaded guilty to possession of a weapon in a prohibited place. No motive for Cardenas' shooting has ever been discerned.

The incident — the only shooting at the Capitol in recent history — led to higher security measures, most dramatically the installation of metal detectors at every entrance.

Among the witnesses to Cardenas' enigmatic act was New York-based artist Jill Magid. "They were all over him," Magid told The Associated Press at the time. "I could hear him saying ‘my hands are up.' "

Magid's exhibit "Failed States," at Arthouse through March 4, is her creative and conceptual response to what she witnessed.

Specifically, Magid compares Fausto Cardenas to the character of Faust, the fictional scholar of a classic German legend who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge.

Conceptually, the exhibit is presented as something like a stage script unrolled across the gallery walls with prints, video and photographs in between wall text offering stage directions like "Enter FAUSTO" and "[Shots fired skyward]."

Magid penned her own 12-stanza mini-play, "Fausto: A Tragedy," copies of which are available for exhibit visitors.

Magid has also taken her project to the street, literally. She took the 1993 Mercedes station wagon that she and her husband bought as a sensible yet hipster family car and had it professionally armored to what's known in the armored vehicle business as a B4 protection level, or capable of withstanding 9 mm and .44 Magnum gunfire. With ersatz Texas license plates that read "FAILED," Magid had the car parked in the same parking spot where Cardenas parked his own car, a prime spot just outside the Capitol grounds' west gate. (The car will be in place on Feb. 4 and March 3.)

"I was so interested in the ambiguity of Fausto's act," Magid said while in town recently to install her exhibit. "Fausto's gesture can't be easily parsed. Yet I couldn't get over the theatricality of everything he did."

Heavily conceptual yet also minimal in its presentation, Magid's exhibit is neither a light nor an easy read. Yet there's a payoff from a patient consideration of everything Magid has created not the least of which is the sheer wonderment over a very curious chain of coincidences.

Challenging authority

That Magid — of all artists — happened to witness such a bizarre act is a synchronicity almost unbelievable. Or perhaps it's operatic.

Magid was in town in January 2010 as a guest of Arthouse, which had commissioned her to create a Texas-specific project. Magid's conceptual artworks explore the blurry boundary between observation and surveillance, between secrets and public revelation. She tries to undo power structures, specifically the Big Brother-like systems so prevalent in our post-terrorism world.

"I look for a loophole to get in so I understand a system of power," she said.

In 2004, while in Liverpool, England, she decided to engage the city's CCTV cameras. Wearing a red trench coat, she spent a month walking the city. Then she wrote to the police requesting that they save the surveillance footage of her, which the authorities are required to do upon request. (Otherwise footage is erased after a month.) Magid wrote her requests in the form of intimate love letters. The resulting video and letters, "Evidence Locker," were included in the Liverpool Biennial.

Magid garnered a considerable amount of art world buzz for her project, "Authority to Remove." She received a commission from the Dutch intelligence agency, AIVD, when the organization moved into a new building. (Like many places in this country, public buildings in the Netherlands have a percentage of their construction budget earmarked for public art.) Magid spent a couple of years getting to know various employees at the agency, mining them for intimate details of their private lives. Eventually Magid's installation would become a document of the AIVD's more human side, something for the agency to publicly display to benefit its community relations.

However, AIVD leaders got nervous that Magid's project revealed the identities of those who worked undercover. Specifically, they didn't like a novel that she had written based on her interviews, an auxiliary effort to her exhibition. After some considerable machinations, the AVID redacted about 40 percent of Magid's novel.

The affair turned out to be boon to Magid's career. In addition to generating a fair amount of publicity, Magid's redacted manuscript became the subject of an exhibit at the prestigious Tate Modern museum in London.

In her mid-30s, Magid is married and lives in Brooklyn with husband and toddler son. Dark-haired, slender, Magid speaks in a quick-fire fashion.

"I'm really interested in a certain type of observation," she said. "I'm interested in a lighthouse keeper who is constantly watching the same sea. Beauty can happen when you stare at one space over and over."

Capitol convergence

Magid had planned to center her Arthouse exhibit on snipers. On the day Cardenas opened fire, she just happened to be cutting through the Capitol on her way to the University of Texas tower, from which in 1966 Charles Whitman went on a shooting rampage killing 16 people and wounding 31.

Magid said she was in the Capitol lobby when she saw troopers run past and out the door. She followed them.

Afterward, it seems Magid spoke to just about every local newscaster who reported on the incident. And in the Arthouse exhibit there's a six-minute loop of her on the local news.

"Two guards rushed out. They surrounded this guy. It looked like a football huddle," she said in one interview.

In August 2011, Magid was again interviewed by newscasters when she returned to Austin, planning to observe the trial that was averted.

"I became his witness on the day of the shooting," she said. "And I decided to stay through to the end of his story."

As she did with her project with the Dutch secret service, Magid wrote a 150-page manuscript, a novel of sorts, about her experience with Cardenas and the aftermath of his act. An excerpt from her manuscript will be published in the February issue of the Texas Observer.

For all of her creative imaginings though, intriguingly Magid — as do we — in the end remains an outsider to Cardenas' story.

"The truth is that I cannot picture him anywhere other than inside the story I know from the newspapers," she writes in her manuscript. "And from witnessing that day in January 2010 when something ‘strange' occurred."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

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