ESSAYS Mousse 67
Innocence Impossible: Bunny Rogers
by Emily Watlington
Bunny Rogers’s practice depicts the impossibility of pure innocence. It concerns topics ranging from school shootings to the agency of nonhuman animals, the sexualization of children, and the romanticization of dying young. This essay traces the persistence of these themes through her expansive body of work, focusing on her deployment of cute objects as both material and metaphor.
The temporality of innocence is always “not yet”: not yet spoiled, not yet sinful, not yet blemished, not yet aware. “I hate the word ‘purity,’” artist Bunny Rogers told me. “‘Innocence’ and ‘virginity,’ too. It’s always already dead.” The concept of purity is meant to be neatly opposed to its contamination or adulteration. It’s always defined in the negative, and in the absolute. There’s no kind of pure, or pure-ish: something is either pure or it isn’t. “Unmixed with any other matter” or “being thus and no other,” are two ways the dictionary defines it.
Innocence, purity, virginity: these are terms often associated with youth and femininity, often deployed to justify young girls’ need for protection and rob them of agency. This sensibility is epitomized by laws that treat childhood as ending on a single day, at which point one can legally consent to sex or join the military, as if youth operates on an on/off switch. In 2000 Britney Spears infamously protested this stereotype of the passive, dumb blonde with a line from her girl-power anthem Oops! I Did It Again: “I’m not that innocent.” Rogers’s work likewise complicates any neat binary between innocence and its opposites.
Tilikum body pillow (2017) succinctly summarizes Rogers’s investigation of the impossibility of innocence. Tilikum was an orca whale who killed three people between 1991 and 2010, all while he was in captivity at Sea World. Rogers rendered him as a plush animal: an object to be cuddled and possessed, and also a sculpture of a killer. An orca is often referred to as a killer whale, although orcas have only ever killed humans while in captivity, as if in protest. This behavior is called zoochosis—psychosis caused by confinement. Many animals in captivity are even kept on antidepressants or antipsychotics.1 Tilikum’s actions sparked debates about his agency and innocence, popularized in the 2013 documentary Blackfish. Could Tilikum be held responsible for the three deaths, or were his violent actions a natural response to oppressive captivity? Was he an innocent victim, an evil killer, or both? And what about the human Sea World employees he killed? Are they victims? Oppressors? Rogers’s plush pillow reminds us that the cute is not always to the killer what the prey is to the predator, but that they can be one and the same. “What is the judgment that some persons or animals are cute but a judgment of their endearing subordinance and unthreateningness?” asks William Ian Miller in The Anatomy of Disgust (1997)—the exact stereotype Rogers’s work complicates.2
Rogers explores the perceived innocence not only of nonhuman animals, but of adolescents, too—often by way of sex and death. Consider her extensive body of work on the 1999 Columbine massacre, a school shooting heavily covered in the media that left fifteen dead and twenty-four injured. Rogers has staged a trilogy of exhibitions on the massacre: Columbine Library at Société, Berlin (2014); Columbine Cafeteria, also at Société, Berlin (2016); and Brig Und Ladder at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2017). All remind us of the adolescent romanticization of death, suicide, and martyrdom, especially dying young. The work is rooted both in how these themes are represented in mass media, and in the artist’s own experience of chronic depression and fantasies of suicide since childhood. The shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, committed suicide together after killing their peers and teachers in a Shakespearian pact of mutual commitment, and even they have subsequently been glamorized in numerous ways: through copycat massacres, for instance, or (as Rogers shows us), fan girls online who knowingly or otherwise express romantic attraction to their naïveté and destructiveness.
Apparently sweet imagery and objects (ribbons, plush animals) recur throughout Rogers’s work as she revisits childhood and innocence (and, at times, girliness), including its darkest sides. Her visual imagery draws heavily from mass media (Neopets and the show Clone High are recurring motifs), forcing us to consider the actual prevalence of what we tend to type taboo. Sianne Ngai describes cuteness as what we love because it submits to us; hence, cute objects are often plush (malleable), small (able to be dominated), and formally simple (yet to be shaped, innocent). Tilikum body pillow is an excellent example; so are the plush blankets from If I Die Young, Rogers’s 2013 exhibition with Filip Olszewski at 319 Scholes, New York. A cute object’s plushness allows it to withstand the very violence that its passivity seems to solicit. “Soft contours suggest pliancy or responsiveness to the will of others, the less formally articulated the commodity, the cuter,” writes Ngai, making this material choice apt for Rogers’s exploration of the way innocence always also contains its opposite.3
Rogers’s plush, twin-sized blankets stand in for child “models;” their colors are indexed to match the average of the pixels of photos taken from an online child modeling agency. Their watermarks are left intact, and ones like “Preteen Pussy” affirm that at least some of the images were actually drawn from child porn. As with Tilikum body pillow, the apparently cute, soft object reveals itself to be quite dark, though here innocence is figured against violation rather than aggression or agency. Ngai argues that perceived innocence or passivity seems to solicit violence: this is why we describe something as so cute we want to eat it up, pinch its cheeks, or squeeze it to death.4 Rogers agrees: “Adorability is fuckability,” reads one of her poems, “because children are adorable / and men want to fuck children / Acknowledge or die wow / You are dead to me.”5
The blankets reproduce the experience of violation that they represent, showing viewers something they believe to be sweet and innocent, and then directly undermining it. In addition to soliciting violence, cuteness can also elicit a desire to protect: innocence is a fragile state. Such impulses are said to have an evolutionary, biological basis, for instance to inspire parents to care for their babies even when changing disgusting diapers.6 As Ngai puts it, “Cute things evoke desire in us not just to lovingly molest but also to aggressively protect them.”7 Rogers and Olszewski evoke the latter response (aggressive protection) against the former protecting the children from the violence of exposure, reaffirming their vulnerability. Rogers also writes of the impulse to protect in her poem “pedophile”: “i will always defend you / i want to tell everybody else just stop / you will always be in the right / you are pure.”8
Rogers explored her own simultaneous vulnerability and agency for Pones (2013), a series of photographic portraits showing the artist in positions of sexual submission in absurd settings, often outdoors in public places. She posed on all fours, like a pony, and in one image even wears a saddle. The work references the circa-2011 internet phenomenon of planking, in which social-media users posted photos of themselves lying flat and plank-like in unexpected settings. It also recalls the word “pwn” from online gaming culture, which means to own: to be pwned is to be dominated, to pwn is to win. In the pictures Rogers is dressed like a young girl, wearing a tiny backpack, ribbons, or baby pink. Cuteness, writes Ngai, is “not just an aestheticization but an eroticization of powerlessness, evoking tenderness for ‘small things’ but also, sometimes, a desire to belittle or diminish them further.”9 Performing this vulnerability knowingly, Rogers calls into question the paradox of willful submission.
Pones also refers to “bronies”—a name for adult men who are My Little Pony fans. Some bronies argue that they should have a right to enjoy My Little Pony even if they are not its intended audience seeking to break down the notion that adult men cannot enjoy what is intended for young girls. But some bronies view My Little Pony as a fetish, and some are pedophiles. How quickly simple and joyful fandom can turn to abuse; yet how distinct the two are. Pones and the blankets from If I Die Young are two earlier projects by Rogers that explore sexuality and innocence. Death, rather than sex, has been a more explicit theme in her recent work, though obviously it ran throughout If I Die Young as well. In addition to the blankets, that show featured twelve speakers playing audio pulled from YouTube recordings of young girls singing covers of The Band Perry’s song that goes, “If I die young / Bury me in satin / Lay me down on a bed of roses.” Played simultaneously, the artists convened a virtual chorus of young girls in their bedrooms. To die young is to die faultless, at one’s peak, unanimously loved, a victim—cue Billy Joel, “Only the good die young.” This romanticizing of death recurs in A Walk to Remember, a Nicholas Sparks book turned Mandy Moore film in 2002. Moore makes an appearance in Rogers’s Mandy’s Piano Solo in Columbine Cafeteria (2016) by way of her animated cameo on Clone High. In Rogers’s video, Moore drinks wine and plays Elliott Smith songs on the piano. Situated in the Columbine High School cafeteria and combining factual stories with ones from film, literature, music, and online, the works point to the glamorization of dying young (especially for girls) in the media and in life. The two are deeply entangled: the Columbine massacre was infamously modeled after video games, and its mediatization has proven highly controversial.
Rogers does not point a finger at those who romanticize death, but rather grapples with the ease with which we are, and she is, seduced by the tendency. For her installation Farewell Joanperfect (2017) at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark, the artist staged her own funeral in what resembled a high school multipurpose room all painted black. Even the basketball hoops wore black veils, modeled after Ponce de Leon’s funeral scene in Clone High, and framed a portrait of the young deceased looking melancholy, painted by Olszewski, Rogers’s ex-boyfriend. Presumably, he’s someone who has had to mourn Rogers’ absence in some way. The informal setting implied an impromptu funeral: the death must have been sudden, and the affected found the nearest space to mourn together.
The temporality of innocence-robbing is often painfully abrupt, revealing the fragility of its construction. The title Farewell Joanperfect references the Joan of Arc character from Clone High, a show that ran from 2001 to 2002 on MTV and depicted historical characters as high school students. Rogers identified with the characters, especially Joan of Arc: a sort of goth outcast modeled after a famed martyr who recurs in her work as an avatar for herself. In Rogers’s eyes Joan represents female aggression, which is often channeled inward rather than expressed as rage or violence. Martyrdom is dying in—and thus being preserved in—a state of perfection. The artist told me that sometimes daily life is more bearable when she remembers that she will die someday. Accordingly, the somber installation did not feel like a “celebration of life” (the deceased was not depicted smiling), nor a cathartic relief from it; it was simply the artist’s fantasy, at once somber and cartoonish.
Farewell Joanperfect also included dark floral arrangements, and a mop with rose petals caught in its fibers. Mops recur in many of Rogers’s shows, often as portraits of specific people: herself, ex-lovers (Zombie Mops), lost loved ones (Mourning Mops). The Mourning Mops are “more like gifts or ‘in dedication,’” Rogers explained to me. “Zombie Mops don’t represent necessarily the best of a person, whereas I wanted to make Allese (Mourning Mop) (2015) as beautiful as possible for this person, from a place of total affection.” The mop portraits reference the limits of saturation: we can only absorb so much before we start contributing to the mess, spreading it around. For her 2016 exhibition Wrjnger at Foundation de 11 Lijnen, Oudenburg, Belgium, gray mops were displayed on a floor covered in ceramic sculptures of dead pigeons. The show was titled after Jerry Spinelli’s Wringer (1996), which tells the story of a boy refusing his small town’s tradition of shooting pigeons and wringing their necks. The mops are clearly inadequate tools for cleaning up the literal and societal mess.
Rogers’s current show, Pectus Excavatum at MMK Frankfurt, includes the poignant Flames of Hell Fan (Red) (2019), and Flames of Hell Fan (Blue) (2019), which comically renders hell nonthreateningby incorporating cut-out bunnies, children’s blocks resembling cartoonish bricks, and plastic flames propelled by a fan. It inverts Rogers’s frequent maneuver of revealing the hellish sides of the adorable: instead, we see the endearing side of hell. Also on view at the New Museum, New York, is a re-creation of Rogers and Olszewski’s Sister Unn’s, an installation first displayed in Queens in 2011: a flower-shop storefront not open to the public, with one frozen rose visible in its freezer. It draws its title from The Ice Palace, a 1983 Norwegian novel about a community in mourning, and includes the website www.sister-unns.com, where visitors can dedicate a rose.
“My subject matter is unchanging; the interesting thing is really the shift in perspective,” Rogers tells me, and I agree. Throughout her expansive body of work, across her many mediums and references, her concerns persist, but she’s “not going to make the same show about the sexualization of children when I’m thirty as when I’m twenty.” Her evolving thinking, contexts, and life are inscribed in her persistent investigation of the impossibility of innocence, which is fitting for the hard-to-get-at nature of her often-uncomfortable subjects.
 Laura Smith, “Zoos Drive Animals Crazy,” Slate, June 20, 2014, https://slate.com/technology/2014/06/animal-madness-zoochosis-stereotypic-behavior-and-problems-with-zoos.html.
 William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 32.
 Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 64.
 Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 89.
 Bunny Rogers, My Apologies Accepted (Fairfax, VA: Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2014), 59.
 Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust, 32.
 Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 4.
 Rogers, My Apologies Accepted, 85.
 Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 3.
Emily Watlington is a writer and curator. Currently she is a Fulbright Scholar based in Berlin and Cambridge, Massachusetts; previously she was the curatorial research assistant at the MIT List Visual Arts Center.
Bunny Rogers (b. 1990, Houston) is an artist and writer living and working in New York. Her recent solo exhibitions include Brig Und Ladder at the Whitney Museum of American Art (2017), and Pectus Excavatum at MMK Frankfurt (2019). Her books of poetry include Cunny Poem Vol. 1 (2014) and My Apologies Accepted (2014).
Originally published on Mousse 67