Art in Translation: Miss Texas

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Video still from Lauren Woods’ “The Teenth of June”. (Image courtesy of Lauren Woods)
Video still from Lauren Woods’ “The Teenth of June”. (Image courtesy of Lauren Woods)

Movies these days can be expensive, so when I heard there was a videographic art exhibit at Women and Their Work on Lavaca Street free of charge — I figured it was worth investigating.

The gallery itself features contemporary art by female artists from all around Texas. The current exhibition, Lauren Woods’ “Notes of a Native Daughter,” features video installations that examine race, gender and social politics.

Walking into the exhibition, it feels kind of eerie pulling back the black curtain door to reveal a dark room, lit only by five screens. The pieces, set up like stations, are spread out so that they can be experienced individually — never having your line of sight split between two pieces.

The piece which stood out for me was Woods’ “Teenth of June,” which features footage from the last minutes of the 2006 Miss Texas pageant. A monumental year, Shilah Phillips was crowned Miss Texas, marking the first time in the 85 year history of the pageant that an African-American won.

The video is in slow motion, starting at the announcement of the winner and runners-up. As the names are called, it is easier to see the real expressions on the contestants’ faces. Though all have smiles on their faces, there is always a brief moment of disdain, disappointment or resentment in their expressions as one by one the contestants take their spots behind the contenders for the title.

“Teenth of June” takes on a whole new tone when the artist sets it to the soundtrack of the 1978 film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The violently suspenseful violins seem to hit their peak of intensity right as the final two girls are waiting to hear the results. The runner up, a very tan, blonde bombshell holds Phillips’ hands in “mutual support” with a look of anxious anticipation.

The unidentified blonde looks very excited, as if she has the pageant in the bag. She embraces Phillips in a hug, leaning in for a comforting, congenial kiss on the cheek. While accepting the hug, Phillips very clearly leans out of the kiss, only allowing the woman to graze the edge of her jawbone. It is clear that there isn’t any sincerity behind the gesture.

As the names are announced, there is a brief moment in which both women seem to react as they expected: Phillips looks gracious, prepared to accept her first runner-up position, while her counterpart looks as though she finally won. Then, reality sets in and Phillips begins crying in disbelief as she is crowned and her contender takes her position with the other finalists.

I felt that this piece poked fun at the concept of racial accomplishment. While yes, it is somewhat of an achievement for there to be an African-American Miss Texas, it took 85 years. We like to think we’ve come a long way, but I was shocked to find that this took place as recently as 2006. It makes you think about what accomplishment really means when it comes smaller or later than it should.

Then, on a less heavy note, it is pretty hilarious to see the facial expressions of the girls up close and in slow motion. The transition of emotions that they go through in a span of 15 seconds is so bizarre. It’s the sort of thing that could only happen when you are on stage, trying your hardest to look perfect and happy and beautiful while feeling a whirlwind of not-so-pretty things on the inside.

I wonder what my face would say in slow motion. What would yours say?