From the ensorcelling bloodbath of Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) to the institutional critique of The Square (2017), the visual arts have proved a suitable vehicle for parodic send-ups in film and television. The latest entry in the field is the new Showtime series The Curse, which follows Asher and Whitney Siegel (played by Nathan Fielder, who co-created the series with Benny Safdie, and Emma Stone), a couple who are filming an ill-conceived home-flipping show with an altruistic veneer. The dark comedy tackles gentrification and the ulterior motives of supposedly community-minded property developers with a searing satire that is very funny and deeply uncomfortable. In the show’s second episode, that satire is aimed at the art world.
The first target is an eco-friendly house designed by Whitney that is covered completely in mirrored panels. After posting an image of the home on Instagram, she starts receiving — and deleting — comments from users calling her out for the structure’s similarity to Doug Aitken’s “Mirage,” a mirrored piece the artist created for the outdoor art exhibition Desert X in Palm Springs in 2017.
“What we’re doing is completely different,” Whitney explains to Native American artist Cara Durand, played by Diné/Tlingit artist Nizhonniya Austin. “My homes are reflecting the local community, and his reflect nature.” (Whitney’s version reflects nature, too — perhaps a little too well, as evidenced by a bird that drops dead after flying into it.)
Whitney’s home may reflect the surrounding community, but in the distorted manner of a funhouse mirror. (Who would want a mirrored facade under the bright sun of Española, New Mexico, where the show is set?) It’s worth noting that although Aitken’s “Mirage” was a popular installation at Desert X, it was perhaps too popular for the local community, who complained that “cars clogged their streets and art tourists picnicked in their yards,” according to the Desert Sun.
Aitken was recently in Death Valley working on a new project when a friend texted him a clip of the show, prompting him to watch the whole second episode.
“I created ‘Mirage’ in the legacy of Land Art, but pushed into the 21st century, into repetition, into suburbia,” he told Hyperallergic. “But it’s also a sculpture that has no security, no doors, no windows, and is open to the public.” He noted the disconnect between his intent and the “capitalist vision” that motivates the show’s “millennials adrift … rudderless characters searching for something to hold onto.”
His reaction to the show’s near-facsimile of his artwork? “I’m all for it. I think it’s great that they’re making this fever dream narrative of the modern condition.”
The episode also tackles art by Indigenous artists and their reception by a misguided White audience. Whitney befriends Durand in the hopes that by showcasing her art in flipped homes (for free, because there’s no money “for a cultural consultant”) she can win the approval of James Toledo, the governor of a local pueblo, whose land crisscrosses the properties they plan to develop.
The first sign of Whitney’s cultural insensitivity comes in a meeting with Toledo (Gary Farmer). “She is Picuris, that’s a Tewa too,” she tells him about Durand. “They speak Tiwa, with an ‘I.’ We’re Tewa with an ‘E,’” Toledo replies, correcting her ignorance. “Very different languages, very different people.”
Later, at Durand’s exhibition, the artist stages a performance in a tipi as Whitney enters and sits across from her. Durand runs a hunk of turkey through a meat slicer, handing the plate of meat to Whitney, who puts some in her mouth, in a stylized reimagining of Thanksgiving. Durand utters a tortured scream and asks: “Why did you do that?” to which Whitney replies, stunned, “Was I not supposed to eat it?”
Whitney twists herself in knots trying to both defend and criticize the bind that Native artists often find themselves in — perhaps subconsciously realizing that she is guilty of the same patterns of tokenization that she accuses museums of perpetuating.
“The way that she gets her art grants, these organizations want her to create art related to her Indigenous heritage exclusively, which can be so stifling,” Whitney says. “Of course there are some artists that really embrace that, which is great. But it really is such a fetishization of the culture by the establishment.”