November 4, 2012 § Leave a Comment
As part of the Future Projections program at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, UK-based Canadian artist Kelly Richardson brought a scaled-down version of her amazing new work Mariner 9 to the Royal Ontario Museum. A panoramic video installation, Mariner 9 presents a detailed portrait of the surface of Mars as it might be seen in the future—littered with space junk, but still apparently uninhabited.
Commissioned by Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle, the TIFF installation offered North Americans a foretaste of the touring mid-career survey of Richardson’s work (also organized in the UK) that will arrive at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery in February 2013 and, in smaller form, at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery in 2014. This survey promises to be an event in itself, with eight rooms at the Albright-Knox to be taken over by her work. In this email interview, Richardson talks about the origins of Mariner 9, our fascination with life on Mars, and what that might mean for the future of life on Earth.
Rosemary Heather: There was an almost unnerving coincidence at seeing Mariner 9 in Toronto at the same time that NASA’s Curiosity was exploring Mars. It makes your project seem more real, almost as if you are doing the advance work—mapping the mental territory—for this new era in space exploration. Care to comment?
Kelly Richardson: The idea for Mariner 9 did come about before I became fully aware of when Curiosity would embark on its mission to the red planet. The opportunity I was given to develop the work was during a residency as part of Tyneside Cinema’s Pixel Palace program. The timing was perfect for the commission to be presented in parallel with the Mars mission.
Because of the unique problems the piece introduced, I spent the majority of time during my two-month residency researching and developing the various approaches I could take to produce the work so that, by the end of it, I would be ready for production to begin. Interestingly, by this point—the end of the residency and the beginning of the creation of Mariner 9—Curiosity had departed for Mars.
As we had planned to launch its UK exhibition within days of NASA’s anticipated landing, roughly eight months later, the work was produced entirely during the time it took for Curiosity to leave our planet and arrive on Mars: simultaneous missions. Mariner 9 premiered in the UK three days before NASA’s landing, and given that I had included Curiosity in the work itself, I was obviously thrilled when it landed successfully.
RH: One goal you’ve said you have for the work is to produce an immersive experience for your audience, which the installation delivers when presented at full scale, as it will be for your show at the Albright-Knox. Is it correct to say this effect in part derives from the authentic look you were able to give the piece? Can you also say something about the kind of research you had to do to achieve this look?
KR: I’d say the convincing Martian landscape certainly contributes to the immersive quality of the work. I wanted people to feel as if they could step onto Mars and I did overhear a number people in the UK telling one another that that’s exactly how it felt.
This is the first piece I have done that was entirely digitally produced. Usually I begin by filming existing locations, which I then alter digitally to create the work. However, as I couldn’t film on Mars I had to take a different approach.
I discovered that NASA knows exactly how Mars is constructed and that it had made this data available to the public, which could then be brought into a 3-D program to faithfully create the lay of the land. Using images of the surface of Mars taken from various rovers as a reference, I could then texture my digital version by creating similar rocks, sand, etc., to produce a photorealistic terrain. So that’s exactly what I endeavoured to do—and of course, it wasn’t nearly as straightforward as I’ve made it sound here.
I put a great deal of research into actual missions that had gone to the planet to recreate digitally the graveyard of partially functioning and corroding remains from various spacecraft you see in the work. And as it is a “futurescape” several centuries from now, I also researched current thinking about what future rovers may look like.
Lastly, I wanted the scene to be set during a dust storm, which is one of the most difficult effects to achieve in 3-D. Research aside, the skill set required for the whole of this work was huge. In the film industry, it would have required a large team of people. Two of us (my partner Mark Jobe and I) worked on the project full-time for 10 months. We basically started from scratch, as we had to learn several new programs and methods of working to achieve the desired look.
RH: I love the way, even when describing the project, you convey a sense of why it is so compelling to you—the recent Mars exploration adding extra urgency. I am wondering about the sound. You took great pains to include details that give the piece visual verisimilitude; is this true also of the soundtrack? I recently saw Christian Marclay’s The Clock and noticed how the sound from one segment will often carry on over top of subsequent clips, providing an element of continuity (along with the timepieces) to the artist’s otherwise disparate selection of movies. Can something analogous be said about Mariner 9? Is the soundtrack what makes it truly immersive?
KR: I’d say it’s equal parts visual to audio that makes the work immersive. The installation, at 43 feet by 9 feet, takes up far more than your immediate and peripheral fields of view. In fact, it’s so large that you really can’t take in the whole of the piece without physically moving around it.
In England, it was common to see people sitting in front of one area for a good while, and then relocating to another area for an equally long time. Holly Hughes, who is curating my mid-career survey at the Albright-Knox, also noted that when you walk around the work, the light changes as it would in front of a physical landscape and many people have noted how three-dimensional it looks, without the use of 3-D technology.
The sound does play a huge part in the immersive quality of Mariner 9, though. During my research I discovered that we don’t actually know what Mars sounds like. All attempts to record audio on Mars have failed so it’s mere speculation at this point as to how it would behave on the planet.
In lieu of this information, I created a soundtrack which, again, attempts to convince the viewer that they’re there, providing the tools for a suspension of disbelief. It is 5.1 surround sound, made up of a dust storm swirling around the room; faint, strange, rhythmic sounds; and mechanical sounds associated with the movement of spacecraft. The nature of the sound also reflects the function of the visual, which is both hypnotic and strangely beautiful, but equally unsettling.
RH: Finally, I guess the biggest question is, Why Mars? Aside from the current focus of American space exploration, are there other reasons this project took Mars as its subject?
KR: Over the last few years, I’ve been increasingly interested in the way science fiction allows us to experience what life might be like in the coming century. Scientists and futurologists can speculate on what the future might look like, but artists are capable of visualising those futures, making them tangible. If hindsight is always 20/20, experiencing these potential futures offers us a window through which we can view our present time and the direction we are headed in with some measure of clarity.
Mariner 9 presents Mars as littered with the rusting remains from various missions to the planet. Despite its suggested abandoned state, several of the spacecraft continue to partially function, doing their job to look for signs of life, and possibly transmitting the data back to no one.
That search for life—to know that we’re not alone in the universe—is fascinating on many levels, but it’s also a beautiful, endearing endeavour, particularly for us as a species. We are destroying much of life as we know it, literally consuming our planet, at a truly alarming rate. I’m interested in that contradiction at this critical time in history when current predictions for our future are not just unsettling, but terrifying.
By Rosemary Heather
This text was originally posted at canadianart.ca
More info about Kelly Richardson can be found here.
Kelly Richardson is represented by Birch Libralato.
October 29, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Brad Phillips’s preferred meeting place in Vancouver is Reno’s Restaurant at Broadway and Main. “It’s quiet there, and we will be able to talk,” he says.
In the condo-choked gloss of Canada’s most beautiful city, Reno’s offers a step away from the fray. Albeit of a dying breed, Reno’s is the type of diner you can find pretty much anywhere on the continent. In keeping with Phillips’s practice as an artist, it’s situated at a studied remove from current trends.
As Christopher Brayshaw, the Vancouver critic, photographer and co-founder of CSA Space, remarked to me, an artist concerned with appearing hip would never reference John Cheever. But Phillips does (Unknown Painting, 2005), and Cheever provides a revealing clue to understanding the appeal of Phillips’s art. A paragon of WASP experience in the mid-20th-century US and the writer of matchless tales of suburbia, Cheever created fiction whose power lies in intimations of dark undercurrents that run through domestic life. Phillips makes art with a similar effect. He is an artist who takes photographs and makes paintings in a photorealist style (meaning photorealism is less a goal than a by-product of his practice, but more on that later). Like refractions of light through a crystal, his work creates surface tensions with what’s left unsaid.
A Toronto native, Phillips moved to Vancouver in 2002. Like Cheever, whose relationship to pop culture is at this point etiolated at best, Phillips makes work that appears to have little in common with his city’s dominant art practices. Photography is central to his work, but he uses the medium more as a tool than as a mechanism deployed to reflect back on the genres photography creates. This is not to say Phillips’s work lacks an international audience. Represented by the Zurich gallery Groeflin Maag until it closed in 2010, Phillips is an artist arguably appreciated more outside his home country than within. His work has been purchased by some noteworthy collectors: Toronto financier and philanthropist W. Bruce C. Bailey was an early supporter.
It is possible Phillips’s work flies beyond the sightlines of full art-world appreciation in Canada because he makes art in a fashion that is deceptively straightforward. His work is plainspoken in a way that is perhaps more intelligible to the European eye. Phillips hews a vernacular style that constructs a world from the materials at hand, as evidenced by his habit of making paintings about books he has read. One Month of Reading in the Mirror (2007), for instance, presents a stack of books by the writer Patricia Highsmith, their spines cracked from use. Not surprisingly, Phillips, a maker of paintings, gives his literary references a surface form. He presents books to be judged by their covers, so to speak. For an exegesis of their references, viewers will need to look elsewhere—including to other works made by the artist.
The implied deferral of significance between works is the method by which Phillips constructs an edifice of meaning through his practice as a whole, his titling of a work being a pointed element within the piece’s overall composition. This is especially true because his work is always figurative with a focus on the still life (Sentimental Monochrome, 2009) or landscape (Summer of Whatever, 2003), and he has made many paintings in which the signifying element is reduced down to a declarative text. The work Richard Prince (2009), for instance, is a painting of a piece of paper taped to a wall, with a note scribbled on it that reads like a one-liner from Prince’s own Joke series (1986–ongoing): “I wish I’d been able to speak to my father before he died, so I could tell him to go fuck himself one last time.”
The punch line hits its mark, but it gets a laugh that’s more queasy than funny. Richard Prince poses questions about which components of Phillips’s work are autobiographical, as the reference made to the work of the American artist seems less a clever homage than a discreet form of self-revelation. Similar conclusions can be inferred from the text painting Doctor Shopping (2010), which features a tightly framed list of doctors’ names on a black background. The slight angle given to the list of names and the shadowing in the lower right-hand corner subtly position the viewer, and more explicitly the artist (Phillips is tall), as if perusing the list within the lobby of a medical building.
Brayshaw notes that Phillips’s painting technique is “faux naive”; the artist’s photorealist style risks the appearance of simplicity. Close inspection of the canvas reveals great painterly skill, but it is a technique deployed as a means to an end. Phillips avails himself of a dry finish when applying paint to the surface of the canvas. It is an effort made in firm disavowal of the drama of the brushstroke, and also a way for the artist to maintain a fidelity to his pictorial goals.
“There are no happy accidents in the making of my work. I know exactly what the painting is going to be when I start, and that’s how it looks when I finish. In between, nothing happens except execution,” Phillips says. In a similar fashion, he uses titles to banish ambiguity, all the better to summon full engagement with his works’ melancholic ambience.
In making his works, Phillips uses a camera, but he reports that he mostly knows what image he wants before he takes a photo. While he sometimes exhibits the photographs he takes, they mostly become the bases for his paintings. At each step in the process, Phillips excerpts and revises. Every component in his repertoire—whether paintbrush or camera—is only a tool to facilitate his exceptional talent for pictorial composition. One Month of Reading in the Mirror presents what we assume is a gathering of books read, but this record from the artist’s life is angled, as if seen in a mirror. In this way, Phillips constructs a metaphor for self-reflection: we are what we read, so to speak. Another work, Major Depressive Episode (2011), features a chain lock on a door in close-up. The focus on this detail, combined with the work’s title, is almost cinematic in effect, its impact deriving in part from an implied honesty about the artist’s circumstances.
Rather than being painterly or expressive, Phillips makes artworks in the service of narrative. He has a story to tell, and each painting is not so much a chapter as a sentence in its overall composition. A Modern Painters review of the artist’s exhibition at London’s Residence Gallery last year notes that Phillips focuses on details as if “he had zoomed in until his eyes reached the satisfying flatness of the written word.” Literature finds an equivalency in the clarity and flatness of Phillips’s skill with pictorial denotation.
Phillips’s use of a realist style and his dry application of paint give his work a certain verisimilitude. In the words of John Cheever: “Verisimilitude is…a technique one exploits in order to assure the reader of the truthfulness of what he’s being told.… Of course, verisimilitude is also a lie.”
Phillips uses visual art as a means of self-portraiture. He authors certain truths about himself through the fiction of painting. In the midst of the current ethos of Internet and reality TV–based self-disclosure, his modus operandi strikes one as almost old-fashioned. As Vancouver writer Kevin Chong notes in conversation, Phillips’s work is self-revelatory, but not in the style of the up-to-the-minute Facebook status update. Making paintings is, after all, hardly the quickest way to get your message across. The same could be said of the presentation of art exhibitions. Art occasions slowness and contemplation, which, as the American artist Kerry Tribe has noted, is a proposition that is a “tiny bit radical” when considered in relation to the value today’s culture places on instantaneous content transmission.
Phillips concedes that in recent years his work has become more directly autobiographical. The Victoria-based fiction writer and critic Lee Henderson notes in an email that Phillips’s earlier work tended to favour what Henderson calls “goth girls [Untitled, 2001] and other midnight imagery: a van parked in a vacant parking lot in front of a black sky [The Last Party, 2002], a silhouette of a forest at night and so on.” The imagery, Henderson says, was in keeping with “a young man’s experience.”
Today, Phillips’s work is both subtler and more polished. Perhaps not coincidentally, he matches advances in his painting skill with the recognition of the value of his life as subject matter. His directness of expression, however elliptical, is a measure of his confidence as a maker of artworks, an assuredness that belies the self-recriminating eye with which he often seems to regard himself.
Phillips admits that this new tendency to make works that refer more directly to his own experience leaves him feeling exposed, though he has found that his audiences recognize the vulnerability he risks and respond accordingly. When he cites influences, other artists hardly figure, although he does count himself a fan of Hans-Peter Feldmann, Joan Mitchell and Edwin Dickinson. Phillips says his influences come more from the traditions of literary fiction. In particular, he says the confessional poetry of writers like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath has had a huge impact on his work. “They made such beautiful prose out of their lives and I realized I could do that in painting,” he tells me.
In keeping with the efflorescence of cultural innovations during the 1950s and 1960s, the confessional poets discovered fresh territory to explore in their work by freeing themselves from the constraints of propriety that had governed poetic expression up to that time. Free verse went hand in hand with the revelation of personal intimacies that were sometimes considered shameful. Phillips likewise uses his work to intimate personal difficulties. They can be as commonplace as insomnia, in Twice a Day or Insomnia (2010), or as bleak as those suggested by Deadbeat Dad (2007), one of a series of works the artist has made of the back of a framed photograph—paintings that pack an emotional punch disproportionate to the bare facts of what they depict.
Phillips’s admiration for the work of the confessional poets is, like much else in his practice, a kind of throwback. Viewed in the light of today’s ultra-confessional culture, this connection suggests that Phillips has found a permission set by their example—permission for art to be the vehicle for the imparting of intimacies that gain a life beyond the moment.
By Rosemary Heather
This text appears in the Fall 2012 Issue of Canadian Art.
More info about Brad Phillips can be found here.
Brad Phillips is represented by the Monte Clark Gallery.
October 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In a 1972 text that takes the Watergate scandal as its stepping off point, Hannah Arendt writes:
The deliberate falsehood deals with contingent facts; that is, with matters that carry no truth within themselves, no necessity to be as they are…
It’s hard to think of a better analogy for contemporary art practice, or at least a certain tendency within it. Watergate may be far from the concerns of contemporary art but the manipulation of contingent facts is often the way art gets practiced today.
The characterization of art as a species of lying is long standing. The idea dates back to Plato. As a bulwark against the temporal nature of existence (which changes and ultimately expires) and the non-omniscient perspective of human beings, Plato posited another reality, one that was more real than the one mere mortals’ experience. It’s a schema that takes solace in the possibility of transcending the imperfectness and contingency of everyday life.
For Plato artworks were non-ideal, mere approximations of their referents, if potentially seductive regardless. Today art trades in a subtle variant on this idea of art’s essential deception. Dispensing with the framework of the meta-physic, contingency is no longer a problem. Instead it represents the opportunity every artist engages with. With each instance of reception meaning crystallizes anew, which is why such a high value is placed on the actual encounter with the artwork.
However, encountering an artwork provides no guarantee that meaning will derive from it. In the best scenario, contemporary art aims for a kind of freedom enjoyed by the spectator in the contingent moment of understanding. But it’s not a freedom easily won, and the reason for this is directly connected to the way art intermingles with falsehood.
In a certain type of art practice things are made to stand in for other things. This type of practice makes literal the idea that appearances are deceptive. The art encounter that results will require viewers to hunt for the meaning of the facts presented to them. A mental operation will be required that is often tough because exceedingly subtle. Back to Arendt:
“deception [is] so very easy up to a point…it never comes into conflict with reason because things could have indeed been as the liar maintains they were…”
Artworks similarly never come into conflict with reason. If a work defies logic it simply isn’t successful. It fails the demand that it be in some way interpretable.
The best works of art are open-ended and susceptible to multiple interpretations. The onus placed on the viewer in this transaction accounts for the dissatisfaction about art often expressed by contemporary art audiences. Arendt gets at this idea when she says “factual truths are never compellingly true.” And the demand placed on the viewer is perhaps never greater, and meaning is never more elusive, than when artists present an assemblage of facts, things standing in for other things, with only minimal clues about how to grasp their intention.
How do we access the meaning an artwork implies except through the hard surface of the facts presented? In the end, there is only this surface, a set of appearances held in tension with one another and, implicitly, held in tension with what isn’t there. The clues and lack of clues work together to create a kind of surface coherence, the edits or cuts becoming as important, as you will come to understand, as what is left in its stead.
Commissioned on the occasion of the show, this text appears on the poster give away that accompanied Kevin Rodgers, OUT OF ORDER, McIntosh Gallery in London, ON, 19 July to August 11, 2012. The exhibition was the culmination of the artist’s PhD research at The University of Western Ontario.
June 15, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Toronto-based writer Rosemary Heather spoke to Los Angeles-based artist Kerry Tribe during her solo exhibition Speak, Memory at The Power Plant (24 March – 3 June 2012).
This excerpt is part of a longer conversation, most of which took place in a taxi on the way to the Toronto airport. Heather notes, “Setting out to do this interview, I devised a theory of how to understand Tribe’s work. As often happens, however, our conversation overtook any hope I had of getting Tribe to commit to a particular hypothesis about her art practice – it defies easy encapsulation. This made talking to Tribe about her work much like the experience of engaging with it: the process is an end in itself.”
ROSEMARY HEATHER: One way that I thought of talking about your work is through the lens of Here & Elsewhere (2002). You remade a piece by Jean-Luc Godard, in which he interviews children by asking them metaphysical questions. Can I locate that as a framework for your work as a whole?
KERRY TRIBE: The idea of remaking something?
KT: I don’t know if I would think of it as remaking so much as returning. At UCLA when I was a graduate student I organized a series of screenings — a 24-hour unofficial film festival — because I discovered a little pocket of money in the graduate program that allowed me to rent some titles.
I had never seen Godard’s television series France/Tour/Détour/Deux/Enfants (1977) and a friend recommended it, so I screened it. I just screened the first two episodes. I was really struck by what happened when this big father of avant-garde film and video (who was a Maoist and tough and rigorous and making images that were often difficult to look at) set out to interrogate this little girl and little boy about heavy political and philosophical issues. The little girl’s responses, which were down-to-earth and sometimes confused, were totally compelling to me. What was it about the presence of this little girl? There’s one point in the video where her face appears — her name is Camille Virolleaud — and over it is the word “Verité” in big letters. And I thought: There’s something accurate about that. We all want to identify with this simple, you might say, Cartesian subject position that says: Yes I know. I’m here. I only exist once. I walk through my life. I understand things or I don’t, even if we know better. I mean, even if feminism, psychoanalysis and critiques of capitalism tell us that this simple belief in one’s own self-identity, agency and autonomy is inadequate, it’s nevertheless compelling. I wasn’t so much interested in specifically remaking that Godard video, or in pointing directly back to it but rather in trying to see what would happen if some of those questions were asked again. At one point, Godard asked Camille about her room. It’s very bright and it’s clean, and who cleans her room? (I’m paraphrasing.) And she says something like either her mother or the housekeeper does it. And he asks, Well who pays your mother to do this? And she thinks probably nobody does. Do you think maybe The State should pay her? And, Is The State a man? Or a woman? And so on. It’s great stuff.
And these are questions that continue to be urgent. And yet in the end, it didn’t seem viable to do that in 2002. When I tried to work the explicitly political questions into the script it just fell flat. It was actually dreadful.
RH: Can you elaborate? What does your piece look like? Read the full interview here.
This interview was commissioned by the Power Plant, Toronto. A longer version will be forthcoming.
More info about Kerry Tribe can be found here.
February 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
We understand what kind of knowledge the photographic image makes available to us. We know about its status as copy, and the technologies that produce it. We intuitively know that an image isn’t real precisely because it is reproducible. So why try to make all of this visible?
Flip’s How to Make a Delicious Tea has an answer to this question, or more correctly, offers a sophisticated articulation of the circumstances that provoke it. A predominate feature of contemporary experience is the dynamic of image proliferation. Like the light of the sun, images may now elucidate the world in such an all encompassing manner that they defy our ability to see them with any clarity. Flip finds a way to embody this dynamic through an ongoing collaborative process. Working with a group of artists, they produce a composite artwork. How to Make a Delicious Tea creates a material analogy for the image and the way today it is more process than singular entity.
Located nowhere in particular How to Make a Delicious Tea exists as versions of itself that take shape according to the context within which it touches down. Working with pre-existing artworks, the project turns them in to images that are printed onto silk for display as an art exhibition.
If every image now exists as a process, this is because images now exist as expressions of the network that circulates them. Reproducibility and connectivity turn the image into endless versions of itself, a veritable chain of impressions with slight variation. Flip uses silk to perform a kind of transubstantiation, one that enacts a mordant commentary on the many potential layers of a photograph’s insubstantiality.
Somewhat intimate, almost embarrassing to the touch, silk could be said exceed the boundaries of its materiality. It is substance with a suggestion of vaporousness at its edge. Similarly, the best artworks slip beneath the boundaries of attempts to define them. And photographing artworks will always exacerbate the problem, in the guise of saying something definitive. Combining these elements, Flip creates an analogy for the essential contextlessness of digital image reproduction. Silk is used here is not so much like the printed page as the fathomless space of the internet.
How to Make a Delicious Tea makes silk into a self-reflexive medium. Silk transforms mere image, so divisible, back into indivisible luxury object. As a material, silk will distort the image reproduced on it. It drapes with specificity, and so undermines the original’s reproducibility as copy. It’s a kind of triumph, to halt the infinite slippage of the digital. But the respite is only momentary. Photographed, the artworks start to circulate again.
The text was commissioned to accompany Flip Project Space’s How to Make a Delicious Tea II by Art Metropole.
More info about Flip Project Space can be found here.
February 18, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Recent history tells us that the experience cinema offers is excessive. The belief that it is necessary to go to a theatre to see a film is already a thing of the past. Cinema was an industrial innovation. Based on an economy of scale, the commercial premise of the business is that each member of its audience possesses a quotient of popular taste that the industry can replicate and nurture in each new film it devises. The basic assumption of the format used to be that this mass psyche could be unlocked by a film’s presentation in a setting of anonymous camaraderie; in other words, the belief was that people would want to watch movies together in the dark. But these conditions now appear to be unnecessary, or so the popularity of sub-par viewing formats like YouTube and iPod movies would seem to suggest.
In her exhibition, The Castle and other works, Annie MacDonell looks at this history from the perspective of today, a moment when cinema is being eclipsed by newer formats of entertainment. Giving depth to this view, her show looks beyond film to its origins in Vaudeville. Consisting of remnants from this past, MacDonnell’s exhibition offers insights into the wider cultural demands embodied by these continuities, suggesting that the need for diversion, for a parallel realm of spectral distraction, exceeds any of the formats invented for its possibility. It is this need’s ability to conjure up the means of its realization, if not an explanation of its source that MacDonnell’s show evokes..
In The Castle (2006) a sculpture of a chandelier sits on the floor of the gallery as if it had recently crashed there, or, in more grandiose terms, had somehow fallen to earth. A non-functioning replica, the chandelier illuminates nothing except protocols of ornamentation to which we are no longer accustomed. Ornamentation was, however, once thought of as an important aspect of the movie experience; film theatres were after all referred to as “palaces.” This connects the chandelier to MacDonnell’s Untitled Vaudeville Models (2006), which MacDonnell built in collaboration with Rob Shostak. They consist of three scale models of Vaudeville theatres in Toronto, all of which date from the turn of the 20th century. That Vaudeville theatres tended to be turned into cinemas, which are themselves now on the wane, points to the larger theme of the show. The condition of spectatorship was once located in spaces built specifically for the purpose, but it is less and less dependent on physical circumstance.
In The Castle (2006) a portly man in a video projection is seen falling through space. He stumbles down the stairs and then the action is magically reversed. The cycle repeats. By looping the video, the artist arrives at a kind of perpetual slapstick. The artist abstracts the base humor of Vaudeville, its broad physical comedy, to evoke the idea of entertainment itself. The man’s appearance reinforces this impression. Middle-aged and out of shape, his mustachioed visage evokes an archetype: not a leading man or captain of industry but rather an avuncular figure of fun, like Stan Laurel or Fatty Arbuckle, familiar from the early days of the entertainment industry. A likely inhabitant of both smoking jacket and smoking lounges, he evokes the pathos of manhood past its prime, still the beneficiary of male privilege but some years beyond the ability to make meaningful use of its powers.
Art exhibitions tend to consist of discrete objects ¬– whether of the thing itself or of some form of its representation – presented in meaningful combination. The custom is for exhibitions to occur in a definite space, or make reference to that space, which is known as “the context.” The placement into this context of any artwork that takes the form of a real entity (as opposed to an abstraction of such) should be understood as having been removed from the circulation of utilitarian items for a reason. In the same way that the art gallery is more than just a space for the exhibition of objects, the artwork is both a thing in itself and what it represents. The artwork in itself refers to every possible realization of the idea of art, especially those that have already occurred; and the entity it represents refers to the wider world of meaning from which it derives.
Although susceptible to many definitions, the artwork’s ability to incorporate within itself multiple dimensions of significance means that it always in some sense functions as a synechdoche: the work of art or the art installation is always the part standing for the whole. Writing about literature, the critic Terry Eagleton discusses how the reader of a literary work “unconsciously supplies information which is needed to make sense of it.” “All literature is understated” Eagleton notes, “even at its most luridly melodramatic.” The same could be said for art. MacDonell’s show makes use of the synechdochic power of the artwork, and also makes an exhibition that is about this synechdochic power. The artist doubles the synechdochic resonances of her show in the sense that it is about just how little it is that we need from the real world in order for us to imaginatively exist in the spectral realm, and for that realm to fulfill the wish that we could exist there.
If early cinema took the basic elements of Vaudeville as its starting point, this is in part because film’s illusionistic qualities were so well suited to the art form’s vulgar comedy of physical mishap. The idea that someone can fall without getting hurt, the basic fact that the moving image finds its origins in release from the consequences of the physical, suggests a number of things: that entertainment is strangely predicated on the misfortune of others, and, more broadly, that the cinema fulfils a wish that the physical world could be more benign than it is. This connects MacDonell’s fallen chandelier and tumbling man to another work in the show, Sunset Signature Lounge (2006). Housed inside a small freestanding cabinet with room enough for only one viewer at a time, the work features a slide-projected image of a sunset as seen from the 96th floor of the Chicago’s John Hancock tower. One of the tallest buildings in the U.S., a centerpiece in a city famed for its architecture, the building’s Signature Lounge provides Chicago’s citizens with a cocktail hour ritual. The image was shot at twilight in the lounge, a bar that features floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows. Looking at the phosphorescent and warm transitional hues of the sun as it sinks below the horizon offers the best accentuation of this, as it fuses the experience of the sunset with its image. It is, as MacDonell comments, “an intensely American experience, ” the impact of which is such that the lounge patrons often break into applause upon viewing the sun’s final curtain, so to speak. It is as if each floor of the John Hancock tower was only the premise for the next one, and this continues upwards until the building was tall enough to create the perfect platform for the viewing of each day’s end., The floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows were installed to more perfectly frame the experience, transforming it all into a two-dimensional picture of itself. Finding that cinematic desire lurks even in aspects of the built environment, the artist points out just how eager we are as a culture to step off into the virtual.
MacDonell designed the installation so that the sound of applause, which is preceded by a soundtrack of ambient noise and soft chatter, subtly permeates the exhibition as a whole. If not actually creating an immersive experience for the viewer, the sound in the exhibition points to the aural aspect of spectacle; its aim is to be thoroughly persuasive. To undercut this, and to indicate that what she is offering is not spectacle per se but the means for a critical reflection on its powers, the artist positions the slide projector outside the cabinet, which itself is left unfinished, and leaves the work’s speakers, amplifiers, and their connecting cables and electrical wires exposed on its top.
The artist’s suggestion about how easily natural phenomena are incorporated into an overall cultural preference for spectacle connects to the show’s wider idea that our culture is constantly looking for the means to make our reality into something that is more free of consequences and more under our control than it is or ever could be. This idea applies especially to how we participate in spectacle today, which because of the Internet and portable digital devices extends far beyond the physical space of the movie theatre. This suggests that it’s not the cinema that is excessive but only the cultural desire for its pleasures. If this fact is more apparent than ever, being able to recognize it still tell us little about what it means. Full participants in this virtual onslaught, cinema and other forms of spectacle have only a weak ability to reflect on the phenomenon. Artworks, on the other hand, exist to be reflective, and in the process can reveal an entirely new dimension to, for instance, the fun Vaudeville finds in misfortune.
Rosemary Heather 10.15.06
This text was commissioned by Gallery TPW to accompany Annie MacDonell: The Castle and Other Works, October 26-November 26, 2006.
February 12, 2012 § 5 Comments
Thinking about Brenda Goldstein’s Hereafter begins with an absent body. The work consists of a 35-mm film loop portrait of a nameless woman preparing an unseen body for burial, presented alongside a slide projection composed of quotes from various people about the experience of death. Everything you see in the film is clinical, austere; the only element commanding a visceral response to the subject matter is a jar of red liquid, embalming fluid, visible on the right of the screen. The work constructs a composite representation of the idea of death, within which the only warm body present is that of the viewer.
Goldstein structures her installation so that one can view the film loop and the slide projection inde¬pendently. Complementing this schema is the work’s third element, its “soundtrack,” which is the ambi¬ent noise made by the slide and film projectors. Hereafter’s sombre topic might cause its audience to disregard this sound in the room; to hear but not hear it. Rather than using recorded audio to reinforce thoughts of death, nailing down that signifier, Goldstein instead allows the ambient sound to enhance one’s experience of the space. Like a mechanical version of sentient breathing, the sound made by the projectors is a reminder for the viewer, however subtle, of their own presence. In this context, the instal¬lation’s audibility also works as a reminder of one’s own mortality; one reason why viewers may be less inclined to “hear it.” As well, Goldstein’s use of sound points to other ideas, implicit to the installation and beyond its ostensible subject matter.
Hereafter has no single focal point because the artist’s intention is to create an immersive environ¬ment; one that, through use of shifting points of interest is, arguably, more actively constructed by the viewer than would be the case if it was presented as a film. Between the two types of presentation, seated film viewing or walk-in installation, there is only a fine distinction: it is debatable whether one or the other provides the more “immersive” experience. Differing means of creating that experience is more to the point.
One inescapable precedent for Hereafter is Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971). The film is shot in a morgue and documents a number of autopsies (the title is a literal transla¬tion of the Greek word, autopsia—to see for oneself). Brakhage’s immersion is more confrontational. By viewing the film, one is witness to an experience, that of seeing human bodies dissected, that few would actively seek out. Brakhage made the film as part of his larger project, the exploration of a number of themes that were central to avant-garde film at the time. Over his career, he made a slew of films in which various techniques of abstraction—such as variable focus, asynchronous sound, scratching and painting on the negative, and disjunctive editing—were used to create a poetics of perception. All of his works were predicated on the idea that the film material itself constituted a form of embodied perception and this is perhaps the reason Brakhage worked so hard to make its materiality evident. And if sight is an analogy for being, looking at the body as a starkly mortal entity gives this poetics its ultimate form of expression.
This digression into the world of 20th century avant-garde film is necessary because of what it tells us about the different set of assumptions guiding Goldstein’s work. For one, it gives us a clearer understand¬ing of the 21st century’s comparatively diminished faith in the visual. Hereafter’s visual component is diffused by the atmospherics of the text elements that accompany it. And it suggests that while intuitively a filmmaker like Brakhage understood the visual to be an aspect of embodied experience, Goldstein can make no such assumption. Her concern instead is to construct a different kind of body, one that is, among other things, a decidedly non-poetic being. In addition to the viewer in the room, the body Goldstein summons is the one that is typically elided by technologically mediated existence—especially because liberation from bodily constraints is the specific form of satisfaction mediation can offer. You could argue that locating the body is always the goal of the immersive artwork. It is why such works require an active viewer, one who can orchestrate an installation’s material synthesis simply by walking into it. (It is also the reason why the term “viewer” now reads as something of a misnomer; artworks today solicit a much more sophisticated kind of intelligence.) In the end, Hereafter is less about dead bodies than it is about living ones. The further we as a culture move into the everyday time and space travel of virtual technologies, the more we need to be reminded of who we are; sentient beings, limited and mortal after all.
More info about Brenda Goldstein can be found here.
February 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
By Rosemary Heather
I happened to find myself in Grande Prairie, Alberta. I had never heard of the city before. In Canada most urban life hugs the border with the United States. Canadians commonly refer to this border by its latitude: the 49th parallel. Grande Prairie sits just north of the 55th parallel. If you were driving from Montana, it would take over 12 hours to get there. Call me ignorant of geography. I didn’t know Canada had cities that far North.
I live in Toronto and it cares little about what happens in Grande Prairie; the centre of Canada’s media universe, news emanating out from here barely mentions the place. For the people of Grande Prairie, I’m sure the feeling is mutual. After all, Grande Prairie is booming. In part due to the dirty economics of the Tar Sands, Alberta is an exceedingly prosperous province.
Driving the streets of Grande Prairie, you can draw a map of Globalisms’ franchising coordinates. Starbucks is one outlet we are happy to find. Good coffee is progress, says my companion. Context is everything. In the absence of better coffee, Starbucks is good. Like the prow of a ship breaking ice, Starbucks opens up new markets for capitalism while setting better standards for coffee taste. This is the progress we like, one that caters to our urbanite selves. We can thank the Tar Sands for this, along with its disastrous environmental effects. History is always experienced as a lived contradiction.
At lunch, I read a BBC story on my phone about Lady Gaga. How does she do it? Various experts weigh in on the Gaga phenomenon. Like Starbucks, I don’t doubt that Lady Gaga is popular in Grande Prairie. Shuttling through stations on the car radio I hear Bad Romance and then Classic Rock. I want to understand the changing landscape of mainstream culture. In Grande Prairie, I find myself in the changed landscape itself. To me, it looks like a city that has popped up overnight, the spores of Globalism taking root in the form of big box stores. Seeing duplicates of chains I know from elsewhere makes Grande Prairie a place I both can and can not recognize. Thriving, it still seems to barely exist. It is simulacral, to use that old word.
At Starbucks I had picked up a flyer for a local historical society. This is what culture is in Grande Prairie, I think: Lady Gaga and historically-accurate reconstructed log cabins. Grande Prairie upends what I thought I knew about the world. Globalism redraws the map of the globe, and Gaga looms large on this horizon.
At the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards, Gaga wore a meat dress. Thinking about this, I make the assumption it augurs something new. Not the meat dress itself – that is an artwork made by Jana Sterbeck in 1987 – but the meat dress as an object of mainstream consumption. Claiming to be an artist, Gaga uses the shock tactics of the avant-garde, but not to any avant-garde end. As John Ashbery wrote in 1968, “the artist who wants to experiment [today]…is now at the centre of a cheering crowd. Gaga serves a structural purpose, not unlike that of Starbucks coffee.
Writing about the Pepsi Corporation in the New Yorker, John Seabrook notes that Pepsi products have a dual nature. Every bag of Doritos offers flavour combinations that are the same every time, fused with something more abstract. As Seabrook says, “PepsiCo grafts taste with desire.” The same could be said for any contemporary brand. In Gaga’s case, she embodies the culture social media makes. Gaga is the best example of its aspirational narrative: self-transformation is just a costume change away. This is why the music she makes can be merely adequate.
Art and pop culture are like languages. The parts of speech remain the same, while meaning is generated through the logic of substitution. If history’s substitutions always move from tragedy to farce, Gaga is definitely the farce. She wore the meat dress for the purposes of a photo op, nothing more. It was but a salvo in the arsenal of costumes changes she uses to keep her publicity machine churning. When Jana Sterbeck put the meat dress in an art gallery its point was decay. Not an irony for which Gaga can spare the time.
To claim pop cultural novelty is new is merely to betray my own biases. I am naive like every Liberal Arts student. Study of the modernist canon defines the scope of my formal education. Figuratively, modernism is reducible to clean lines and white spaces; pure abstraction and an absence of embellishment at one time signified a break from the past. It’s a legacy that lives on in the white cube of contemporary art today. And seeing the world from inside the white cube nurtures certain assumptions about what’s important.
The problem modernism always had with kitsch is that it is not remarkable to be a fan – and fans are what popular culture creates. Today, it is unremarkable to be on Facebook; most people participate in the new culture the digital era creates. At the same time, Facebook is not merely the contemporary version of an older form. Facebook, like the internet, is genuinely new, in the way that collage and television once were. This suggests is that nowadays it is more notable to be on Facebook than it is to have an interest in modernism and contemporary art. In the popularity of Lady Gaga and Facebook and Starbucks, we find the cultural formats of the modern era’s irrelevance. Viewed from the perspective of Grand Prairie, Alberta, this becomes clear to me. Not the literal phenomenon of modernism’s end but rather the loss of its importance as a way to understand our culture.
Thanks to Ann Dean for her comments on this text.
This text was commissioned by Animate Projects’ for their Digitalis series of film commissions, which premiered at the London South Bank, December 2011.
The Digitalis catalogue can be downloaded here.
January 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Curated by Kevin Rodgers
Artmaking is always in some way an arena for subtle thought experiments. If everyday certainties fall away and audiences are left to re-think what they thought they knew, the experiment is a success. It is a commitment to the activity of thought, as opposed to its ossification in “knowledge”, which drives artist Kevin Rodgers’ curation of the Fox.
Setting the stage for the performance of thought, Rodgers’ quotes Hannah Arendt from her book, The Life of the Mind (1978), who warns not to “mistake the need to think with the urge to know.” Thinking, Rodgers’ notes, can be bottomless. The art gallery provides an apt metaphor for concept of a bottomless space; or in Arendtian terms, an interval in time between past and future. Rodger’s curation fulfills this ambition, primarily by being more enigmatic, and more successfully so, than your average art exhibition.
The figures of Arendt and her one time lover, Martin Heidegger, frame the exhibition. Giants of 20th century thought, their romantic liaison stands in contrast to key aspects of their respective philosophical positions. Heidegger, the eponymous fox, pulled the thread of his thinking through the holes provided by the meaning of certain words, such as ‘being’, which are central to the edifice of language. Parsing meaning into ever greater depths of subtlety led the German philosopher, in Arendt’s view, into a trap that suggests reasons why he could disavow culpability for his association with National Socialism.
Today Arendt’s thought enjoys ruddy health, in part due to her glamorous theorization of the public sphere as a realm of authentic living. In the exhibition, Rodgers’ presents the two figures in poster format. A scaled-up portrait of Heidegger is hung close to the ceiling so that he casts a dour gaze down onto the exhibition. As in his philosophical writing, Heidegger exists as a remote presence. For its companion piece, the artist prints a poster of Arendt’s parable about a fox in his lair, who is happily cunning but probably amoral as a result. Thinking about the trap of your own presuppositions offers a potential for release from it, by mere dint of thinking about it. By the same token, historical figures presented in visual form can only stand at the threshold of the ideas they represent. Onus for elaboration of those ideas is a job for the viewer.
The idea of an interval is given literal form by Yam Lau’s A-fold-in-two, in memory of Gordon Lebredt (2011). Lau’s work is a reprise of a collaboration he made with Lebredt, who died of cancer earlier this year, for the now defunct Toronto space Cold City Gallery in 1997. Originally accompanying Lebredt’s series of architectural interventions at Cold City, Lau here presents two off-white metallic slabs hung high up on the wall across the room from each other. Both slabs are bent at a right angle at one end, so they slant out from the wall. Implying sight lines that slice the room in two, at the same time Lau’s work brackets’ the gallery inside the legacy of contemporary art’s rhetoric of forms.
German artist, Oskar Hüber, takes a different approach to the encapsulation of space. Gute Nacht! (2011) presents a luscious, tightly-framed, video of the moon turning on its access that is hidden at the bottom of a cardboard box. By virtue of this simple spatial manoeuvre, a whole world is contained for the benefit of our mastery. Looking down at the work, however, also has the effect of relativizing our own place on the planet. Like David Bowie says, “It’s lonely out in space.” Hüber creates an effective portrait of the limits of our world.
Belgian Sophie Nys’ presents a large-scale reproduction of the cover of Heidegger’s Die Kunst und der Raum (1969) that hangs from the ceiling, and a video shot in the German countryside that features a still photograph of the philosopher and standing in front of his summer hut. Without delving into the content of the book, its title alone, which translates as Art and Space, makes for a nice précis of the exhibition as a whole: art plus life equals the steps we take to negotiate the interval between them.
In his book about photography, Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes formulates the concept of the punctum. Derived from the Latin word for wound, punctum can mean the tiny opening the eye has for the tear duct. In Barthes’ terms, it means the part of the photograph that punctures you, bringing on unexpected emotional associations that may be unrelated to the meaning of the picture as a whole. Although not a show about photography, The Fox has a punctum in it; specifically, a rustic toilet seat once used by Heidegger that Nys’ reportedly spirited away from the philosopher’s summer retreat in the Black Forest.
Making reference to the punctum to talk about artworks is to misapply Barthes’ concept. And yet to say I am pierced by the presence of this particular toilet seat in the show is accurate. Like a pebble thrown into a pond, the implications ripple outwards. For one, it invites unwelcome thoughts about the German philosopher’s ass and its related functions. Elevating the discussion a bit, the toilet seat also prompts thoughts about real things and their relationship to art. The toilet seat is a real thing and yet its effect depends on the story that comes with it. Nys’ piece is a powerful example of the type of experience the art gallery is uniquely capable of creating. An interval in Arendt’s sense of the term, it offers the viewer a chance to participate in a thought experiment of the truest kind.
More info about Yam Lau can be found here.
More info about Kevin Rodgers can be found here.
More info about Sophie Nys can be found here.
January 17, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Ever the rigorous practitioner, Maura Doyle made sure to try the new ‘Unidentified’ flavour of Doritos’ tortilla chip when it was debuted recently by Frito Lay. Deciding they taste like a “ketchup taco”, she imparts this information at the end of a letter she has written to the Universe. Giant in size, like everything in this show, the letter asks after the fate of her DNA sample, which the artist had previously entrusted to a rocket ship.
Querying the Universe on any manner of topic provides a good analogy for art making. In both cases you can ask questions and propose a solutions, but without any hope of definitive reply. Doyle’s practice benefits from a non-didactic approach to questions about our relationship with nature. Her work helps clarify its human component. As she once reminded us: “Sticks [are] made from dead people”. What we understand about nature is a reflection of what we understand about ourselves.
For her show at the Paul Petro Gallery, Doyle presented beautifully wrought bones made of unglazed porcelain. Made in a generalized likeness of the femur, the bones are an end (of a life) product that also make a sly commentary on the redundancy of sculpture. Elaborating on this point is a giant Tim Horton’s coffee cup, slightly damaged and ‘tossed’ on the floor. In a previous project, the artist proposed using a helicopter to drop thousands of empty chip bags into Toronto’s Sky Dome. A funny take on the idea of recycling, the work suggests the city’s premier sports stadium can double as a waste bin.
Seeing the landscape – natural and man-made – as a gigantic found sculpture is one way to overcome our alienated relationship to it. In Doyle’s practice we find a reason for the increasing interest contemporary art practice takes in the world outside itself. Like her notes to the Universe, scaled-up to help them get noticed, Doyle suggests that finding reconciliation with the world we’ve got begins with giving value (and sending notes of appreciation!) to all of its elements.