With Covid still rife, the artist reexamines the concept of the work holiday party – exposing playful truths about contemporary American life in the process
As 2020 draws to a close, we stand at the precipice of a new world. For Los Angeles-based artist Alex Prager, change is good – and fear is a necessary catalyst, driving her to leap into the unknown rather than risk the stultifying effect of repeating herself.
“I never wanted to get too comfortable. I get bored easily,” Prager tells AnOther. “I know my process and part of it is being terrified. Imagine what it’s like to be in a cave and then suddenly see a lion with you. If I have a little bit of that terror going into a project, I’m on the right path. Being scared when you’re embarking on a new project is one way to keep it fresh.”
Prager likes to set the bar as high as it will go, daring herself to take what is familiar and render it anew, finding fresh ways to explore the liminal space between reality and illusion in her sumptuously surreal works of art. In 2008, Prager reached a plateau in photography and began to investigate film, the cinematic possibilities infusing her work with a delectable tension. Throughout her practice, Prager has always made set pieces when she wasn’t able to secure the real thing, indulging in her love for sculpture along the way.
But it wasn’t until 2020 that the opportunity came for Prager to work on a scale the likes of which she could only dream. Miller Lite commissioned the artist to create Farewell, Work Holiday Parties, a holiday advert bidding adieu to the annual office Christmas party. With Covid-19 in the air, the idea of getting drunk with co-workers and dining off a shared charcuterie board is just about the last thing anyone would want to do – making it the perfect milieu for Prager’s playful truths about contemporary American life.
The film opens with an office worker breaking down, black mascara streaming down her face as tears roll down her eyes as a slowed-down rendition of Andy Williams’ 1963 classic Happy Holidays floats through the air. A middle-aged man with receding hairline lives out a lifelong dream of playing DJ while a bald and bearded co-worker sits bare-bottomed on the Xerox machine, making copies of something no one wants to see. A pair of middle-aged workers party like it’s 1999, while a woman in white boots and a Santa hat has already passed out at her desk.
These are just a few of the beguiling yet awkward vignettes now on view in an installation at LACMA of the same name. Prager unveils the full set for the film, featuring 15 hyperrealistic sculptures of people living their best – and worst – lives. While some might feel relieved these scenes are now a thing of the past, for Prager the gawky insouciance of American culture befits a monumental work of art.
Produced with Hollywood effects company Vincent Van Dyke, costumer designer Jennifer Johnson and production designer KK Barnett, Farewell, Work Holiday Parties is the kind of work made possible by a corporate patron who understands and shares her vision of the world. “These things are part of my work and the worlds I like to align myself with. I don’t go to Paris to make pictures and films. I love real things that are going to connect the masses,” Prager says.
Prager’s attention to detail is unsurpassed, from the red lipstick smudged across a woman’s teeth to the gold chain laying across the hirsute chest of an old man who has unbuttoned his shirt to the navel while he dances. “I have such a love for humans and characters of all types,” Prager says. “I put so much love into every little freckle, mole, rash, bruise, and unibrow – all the little details are coming from a place of love, to find ways to connect with each other.”
In a time when we are isolated and more dependent than ever on technology to forge connections across the void, Prager’s work reveals our extraordinary need for community, no matter how virtual it may be. Prager embodies the ethos, “If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready,” her practice adapting seamlessly to the limitations imposed by social isolation. She cast and directed her subjects over Zoom, scanned and 3D printed their body parts, and adorned them with glass eyes and human hair to create a delightful stroll through the uncanny valley.
“I have thought so much about art and how important it is during the pandemic. It saved my life, my mental health. Art puts forth a lifeline for humanity. Thank God for art,” Prager says. “I’ve gone back to the show so many times because I love seeing the ways people are responding to it. Even though they’re not living and breathing it’s bringing up so many memories and so much joy to people. Seeing ourselves in these frozen moments and being able to laugh, respond, and release something it’s really important and we all need that release right now.”
Alex Prager: Farewell, Work Holiday Parties is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art now through January 3, 2021.