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Goldfish, Warhol, and basketball in a video riff on identity politics

I first encountered Dave McKenzie four years ago at the Sculpture Center in New York. Wearing an oversize, whole-head, papier-mâché mask molded and painted to resemble his head, he greeted visitors at the front door and handed out free bobble-head dolls. Neatly packed in white cardboard boxes, the dolls represented McKenzie himself -- a young, bespectacled, casually dressed African-American who looks more like a computer-science grad student than the famous athletes or celebrities bobble-head dolls usually represent.

I still have my own Dave bobble-head on display along with other memorabilia in my home, and I still think that McKenzie's performance, called "While Supplies Last," was a brilliant gesture -- a sly sendup of identity politics, the cult of personality, and the commodification of the self. Why can't I just be myself? McKenzie seemed to be asking, even as he cannily morphed himself into a cheap, mass-produced, self-promotional souvenir.

McKenzie's new video, which is having its premier showing now at the Institute of Contemporary Art, elaborates these and related themes in a loosely braided sequence of fragmented episodes mixing live, digitally altered, and stop-action imagery. The 20-minute loop is disconnected, sometimes tedious, and sometimes mystifying, but it is also loaded with suggestive ideas and animated by a sweet, melancholic whimsy. The exhibition is part of the ICA's Momentum series of solo shows presenting works by emerging artists.

During the course of the video, the Jamaican-born, New York-based McKenzie appears wearing his signature outfit of blue jeans, sneakers, red T-shirt, and zip-front blue jacket. He is also intermittently represented in doll form -- sometimes with his real head digitally attached. In some scenes the doll's head is wrapped in white bandages.

At different moments McKenzie appears falling through space as if in a nightmare, running in a track outfit like a marathoner, and sleeping on a park bench like a homeless person. At one point a person in a Bill Clinton mask approaches the doll with the bandaged head and demands, "What happened to your face?"

In the most extended episode, a life-size Andy Warhol doll engages a real McKenzie in a conversation advanced by empty cartoon word balloons and printed subtitles. Warhol, who is carrying a live goldfish in a plastic bag, says he'd like to be a fish, because "fishes have a better life than people." Then we are treated to a recording of Don Knotts singing "I Wish I Were a Fish" from the children's' movie "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," in which a hen-pecked husband escapes reality by becoming a fish.

"I prefer birds," counters McKenzie, whereupon we have a scene in which he attends to a sick baby bird on the outdoor window sill of his apartment building. Then we see Mylar balloons representing SpongeBob SquarePants and other cartoon characters floating against the sky, and we view McKenzie himself from behind as he flies over the clouds like Superman.

In other scenes black superstar basketball player dolls appear in action poses, and McKenzie demonstrates how to turn a basketball inside out to create a black sphere resembling a cartoon bomb. Meanwhile, for unclear reasons, the marathon runner collapses and dies before reaching the finish line -- perhaps an oblique comment on the effects of racism.

In a final vignette, McKenzie traces on a moisture-fogged window the image of Elizabeth Taylor reproduced in a Warhol poster hanging on the wall just beyond it.

McKenzie's dreamy video is open to interpretation. I think that like the bobble-head performance, it's about becoming a whole person. Unlike the performance, in which he satirically projected identity as a cartoonish commodity -- as it is so often in the worlds of art and entertainment -- the video immerses him in a confusing phantasmagoria of possibilities.

He confronts ultimate alpha male power in the person of Clinton. He meditates on "stereotypes of black masculinity," as former ICA curator Bennett Simpson puts it in an insightful exhibition brochure essay. He converses with the wizardly master of the art game, Andy Warhol, who recommends magical self-transformation. (Warhol, of course, famously said he wanted to be a machine.) And he communes with the feminine as embodied in the image of love goddess Elizabeth Taylor.

What one senses in these encounters is that they all represent potentials within McKenzie's own psyche. He doesn't assert identity as the expression of a singular inner truth. Rather, as in "The Wizard of Oz," becoming a person is envisioned as a psychic quest aimed at integrating multiple selves. The bandages wrapped around his head in some scenes are like a cocoon from which he might one day emerge as a fully realized, multidimensional self.

If his video seems less than fully finished, that is entirely appropriate. Becoming a person is a never-ending work in progress.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

'Related'

Dave McKenzie: Present Tense

At: Institute of Contemporary Art through Oct. 28. 617-478-3100, icaboston.org

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