What is a reasonable man in a box? This question—silkscreened in white handwritten script on a slate-gray wall—confronted viewers as they entered Jill Magid’s A Reasonable Man in a Box (2010), installed in the Whitney’s ground-floor single-room gallery. For her first solo show in a U.S. museum, Brooklyn- and Amsterdam-based Magid included a looping 10-minute video of a scorpion, along with a collage of excerpts from the controversial “Bybee Memo,” a 2002 document concerning torture. Originally top secret, the memo was signed by Jay Bybee, then a lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice, and was declassified by President Obama last year. Parsing the legalities of interrogating an Al Qaeda operative, it chillingly addresses whether you can confine an individual in a box with insects, and, if yes, what kinds of insects. Seemingly spare on the surface, Magid’s conceptually driven work is actually dense with meaning as it probes the issues of confinement torture and related laws—both far from the experience of the typical viewer.

The video is striking in its minimal means and manipulation of scale. A scorpion’s shadow—enlarged to roughly a few feet tall—scurries along the bottom of a bright white field that illuminates one entire wall. The arachnid’s behavior is fascinating, particularly the movement of its curling, segmented—and deadly—tail. The piece is accompanied by a soundtrack of the tapping and scraping noises the creature makes as it scuttles about, sometimes frantically. At times, the scorpion crumples in defeat. Occasionally, it walks off one side of the wall or drops off the bottom edge, only to be retrieved by a giant anonymous hand with tweezers; this relentless re-placing evokes the repetitive methods used in torture. Because the video was projected in an enclosed gallery, silhouettes of viewers appeared and disappeared on the screen. Magid effectively positioned the audience “in” the box with a scorpion. This spatial suggestion was a strength of the installation. Paradoxically, we feel empathy for the scorpion, which becomes a surrogate for a victim of torture.

Adjacent was the text collage (composed in Photoshop, then printed supersize and affixed to the wall with paste), calling to mind Jenny Holzer’s large-scale redaction paintings. Magid found the memo online and reassembled phrases to highlight their near-absurd “logic.” As we learn in the accompanying essay by Whitney curatorial assistant Nicole Cosgrove, the artist discovered that the entire argument surrounding insects and torture in the memo rests on the assumption that the person being interrogated is a “reasonable man.” Magid’s installation begs the question, what difference does it make?

For this artist, the manipulation of language and the distortion of logic are as frightening as a stinging scorpion and the threat of confinement. Perhaps more so. Cosgrove’s essay helps enormously in drawing the connections between Magid’s video and text collage, but therein lies one weakness of this work. We need the essay to fully understand the artist’s intentions, and that leaves little room for us to formulate our own conclusions.

Photo: Video still from Jill Magid’s mixed-medium installation A Reasonable Man in a Box, 2010; at the Whitney Museum.