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Artist provokes by playing with her subjects' identities

There's a sign on the wall at Samson Projects that reads ''Remember a moment when you felt unlike yourself."

It's the playful work of a witty conceptual artist named Emily Mast, who specializes in tricking viewers into questioning the nature and solidity of personal identity. The video ''You and Me Simultaneously" is the centerpiece of the show. The series of close-up confessions provokes a sense of intimacy with the people on-screen. Mast is based in Paris, and the video is in French with English subtitles; the text inadvertently gives away her ploy in the first line, in which a boy introduces himself as Maxime -- a feminized version of the man's name Maxim.

Each character speaks easily to the camera, revealing details, and over time the details seem more and more wrong for the person who confesses them. By the end, an elderly man ingenuously reports how he made a dress to wear in which to sing an aria. ''Onstage, I feel radiant," he gushes. He could be a drag queen, but that's not Mast's agenda. She's intent on the dissonance between the speakers and their words, and how that disrupts her viewers' assumptions.

She toys with our perceptions of the artist as auteur of the exhibition, more eager to portray her absence than her presence. Her high-top sneakers stand near the door, titled ''Everybody's Shoes," inviting visitors to step into them. She refused to visit the gallery during the installation, instead leaving detailed instructions, which are on view. Instead of signing a series of figure drawings she made in red wine (which will fade over the month the show is up), she embossed them; the stamp is less personal than a signature.

Mast provokes reflection on the mutability of personality. A painter creates a fiction with paint; Mast creates fictions out of the very identities of the people around her, including herself. It's unsettling, but its humor reassures. When we get the joke, it's easier to laugh off the discomfort it caused.

Shades of meaning
Like Mast, Deborah Davidovits, who has a show of new work up at Genovese/Sullivan Gallery, uses absence as a significant presence in her art. Her watercolors, shadow puppets, videos, and repaired seashells all follow a single theme: how the jet-propelled rocket of biological life takes up residence in fragile, vulnerable sacs of flesh and bone, then burns itself to nothing and leaves a hole.

That fragility shows up in one video of a sparrow sheltering from pouring rain on the rim of a birdfeeder, and in another of Davidovits's clever shadow puppets at work. The knowledge that you're looking at shadows -- of a man cranking a Victrola, or a woman feeding a deer -- suggests that already the stories they tell are vestiges of something gone.

The artist's main enterprise is copying illustrations from avian field guides and fairy tale books and slicing out all the figures and text with an X-Acto knife. Little Red Riding Hood and the owls from the Golden Field Guide can only be discerned from the shapes Davidovits has cut out. She paints in the background on backing paper, so the trace of the missing figure is easy to miss.

This could be political cautioning about extinction or sermonizing on the loss of innocence, but Davidovits is more delicate than that. As with the puppets, she's suggesting that we're all merely shades: here a moment, and the next as insubstantial as vapor.

Lost in space
Space other opened this year with the mission to show artists Boston has never seen before. The current exhibit, ''Closer," curated by Kerstin Niemann of Hamburg, features the work of young German artists, many of whom haven't shown in the US before.

It's a mixed bag. ''Closer" attempts to engage the viewer about the deconstruction and abstraction of social space. A gallery is social space, and Niemann has done very little to deconstruct or abstract the viewer's experience of the gallery. Jorn Stahlschmidt's wall drawing on panels, with its gentle accordion folds, comes the closest. It's a strong, nightmarish narrative that segues from architecture to a screaming woman to a crowd, commenting on the individual and communal consciousnesses in a city.

Herlinde Koelbl's three-screen video ''Goldmouth" zooms in on the mouths of people as they answer the question ''What would you do if you had a lot of money?" As each answers on the bookend screens, the center screen fills with a grid of those same mouths. The mouth is a powerful image of need and hunger, a perfect icon for desire.

Kora Junger's startling, simple ''Youme and Meyou" series of line drawings diagrammatically depicts men in riot-gear helmets restraining people. Juergen Staack takes still shots from security camera footage of armed robberies and makes odd pairings of images, showing the robbers as comically befuddled. Other pieces, such as Gabriela Jolowicz's predictable woodcuts of street scenes, Norbert Schwontkowski's dark but impressive architectural paintings, and Tjorg Douglas Beer's tape-and-plastic collages, feel only nominally informative about the way we perceive and negotiate social space.

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