June 13, 2007


Filed under: Uncategorized — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 9:07 am

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June 9, 2007

Andreas Slominski: Playing with the Viewer

Filed under: Absurdism — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 8:48 am

Andreas Slominsky, Bucket of Water, 1998.

Andreas Slominsky, Bucket of Water, 1998.

Andreas Slominski has created what might be termed anti-interactive installations that, from one viewpoint, serve to highlight the lack of concern for the viewer-reader that has become entrenched in the dominant discourse of deconstructive art. His work is playful, but it is also serious because of the issue of viewer exclusion that it raises.

We can begin with Slominski’s installation Bucket of Water, 1998. The basic aim of this work is simple, to place a bucket of water in an art museum’s shop. But Slominski goes about achieving this task in a most convoluted manner. He commissioned a plumber:

to come install a 15-meter long pipe from the nearest bathroom to the bucket. In no time the pipe, including a faucet, was installed and the artist was able to fill the bucket. After that was done the pipe was removed and all traces of the action were eliminated, leaving only the bucket full of water behind. It is important to mention that this action took place with no audience present. The only thing the audience was able to see later was the relic of the action, a bucket of water, sitting lost and seemingly forgotten in a museum shop as if the cleaning personnel had left it behind by accident. … the only documentation of the activity were photographs in the publication. (Hoffmann, 2003)

One’s immediate response is that the installation would have had much greater sculptural impact if the plumbing had been left. It would have constituted a surrealistic or dadaistic sculpture. But that is precisely why Slominski did not take this approach. It would have been too easy for the audience to understand and appreciate. Bucket of Water is certainly extremely puzzling, but as in Pastor’s The Perfect Ride, Slominski presents the viewer with a puzzle that is impossible to unravel.

In Bucket of Water what is not said, not seen, not known is more important than that which is in evidence. There are several levels to this work and at one level Slominski is playing with the notion of conceptual art—a subset of deconstructive art. In particular, he is showing the potential absurdity inherent in the minimal-conceptualist genre. One thinks here of Sol LeWitt’s famous neo-romanticist assertion: ‘Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.’ (LeWitt 1969). The artist is so different from the ordinary person that he or she is akin to a ‘mystic’ a visionary, one who stands above the herd. One thinks also of the metaphysical absurdity of the blank canvas; or the empty gallery which, in spite of being a cliché by the turn of the millennium, won Martin Creed the prestigious Turner Prize in 2001 simply because he added a timer to the light switch in the gallery to make the lights go on and off (The Lights Going On and Off, 2001). In contrast to Creed, Slominski seems more aware of the total absurdity of a mode of art that rewards the artist for playing whimsical games that take absolutely no account of the general public but focus entirely on the art cognoscenti. This is not a new observation Jürgen Habermas has already made it on several occasions.

Where Creed’s sense of the playful accommodates itself to the Realpolitik of ‘art for the art institution’s sake’, Slominski’s approach is more genuinely deconstructive because he highlights the absurdism of institutionalised transgression and aesthetically conservative, neo-romantic appeals to the ‘mystic’ nature of creative process. In this sense his approach can be compared with deconstructive gestures such as Maurizio Cattelan’s The 6th Caribbean Biennial, 1999, discussed in the introduction.

Like Cattelan, Slominski’s principal deconstructive weapon is humour. As Freud observed (2001 orig. 1905) humour can be taken seriously. More to the point of this chapter we might say that the playfulness of the mind, in particular its capacity to wander from one idea to another and make nonlinear connections between ideas can and should be taken as seriously as its capacity to create coherent and functioning constructions. And after Hume and post-Humean advances in contemporary cognitive science we can confidently suggest that there is nothing mystic about creative process—apart from the ‘mystic’ that is in all of us: the miracle of consciousness which remains inexplicable by philosophy or science. By pointing to imagination and creativity as a fundamental mechanism of mind Hume’s philosophy helps democratise our notion of creativity. And by keeping the audience in the dark Slominsky foregrounds the way in which fine art makes the ordinary extraordinary, he exhibits its strategy of mystification.

Another instance of Slominky’s deconstruction of the romantic concept of creativity is Self-Portrait with Sombrero, installed at the Kunsthalle Zurich in 1998. Patrick Frey reports:

Kunsthalle visitors were greeted only by a pair of photographs (one of the artist’s face framed by the circular opening; the other, shot from the adjoining room, of his arm, camera in hand, poised to take the first picture) and the sombrero itself, the top and brim of which had been trimmed to allow the artist to position his face for the “portrait.” The only additional clue to the elaborate procedure involved was the still visible holes at the top of the wall. (Frey 1998)

Compared to Bucket of Water the viewers to this Slominskian installation were afforded with a veritable plethora of clues. In this case we are most certainly speaking here of a puzzle that takes the viewer into consideration and which could be solved via some ingenious pondering. The only key prop that is missing is the ladder. The viewer-reader would need to use his or her imagination/intelligence to insert this vital missing fragment into the puzzle.

The narrative behind the work is simple: Slominski deciding to take a photographic portrait of himself wearing a sombrero. A seemingly simple goal, but Slominski made it considerably more complex by electing to take the photograph in the corner of the room at ceiling level while standing on a ladder. The fact that he was crammed into corner necessitated cutting a hole in the wall to reveal his face on the other side. This in turn necessitated cutting a second hole for his arm to hold the camera. Additionally, the rim of the sombrero had to be cut to fit into the corner. Everything that Slominski performed for this occasion was functional. His construction of this apparatus forms a coherent whole. It is not even purposeless because the purpose is to take a self-portrait wearing a sombrero. The fundamental problem with this contraption is that it is unnecessary. But it very unnecessariness becomes a commentary on deconstructive art in the same way as does his total neglect of the viewer-reader in Bucket of Water.

From the standpoint of an artist constructing an art puzzle that engages the viewer in a creative interaction, however, Self-Portrait with Sombrero is successful. It provides sufficient clues for the assiduous viewer to work out the eccentric narrative informing this work. The fact that the story is bizarre is necessary feature of the work because this challenges the viewer to juxtapose distant realities or connect the previously unconnected. When one puts the pieces of the puzzle together and says to oneself ‘he must have cut those holes in the wall to take the photograph of himself’ then one has to a certain extent entered into the creative spirit of Slominski’s art game. More particularly, one has stepped outside of the boundaries of common sense into the territory of imagination. One has entered a world of play in which silliness, accidents and mistakes are grist for the creative mill.

When we have examined a third work Cough Syrup Transport System, 1998, we will begin to see a nonlinear pattern, or system, in Slominski’s work. Cough Syrup Transport System entailed placing a spoon carrying a dose of cough syrup into a Cardan’s suspension apparatus used to keep mariner’s compasses horizontal. This was in turn placed within a Vibro-Shock safe which is designed to give substantial resistance to shocks and vibrations. The safe was placed in a van (an ambulance may have been better) and carried from one end of Berlin to the other, completing its journey in the Deutsche Guggenheim at Unter den Linden.

As in the case of Self-Portrait with Sombrero a simple action, transporting cough syrup to a destination (one usually transports it in the bottle!) is made extremely complex and elaborate. Like Bucket of Water this work is essentially the artist’s game, all the viewer sees is the spoonful of cough syrup. In Self Portrait with Sombrero the artist let the viewer become involved in the game by leaving clues that made the work a soluble puzzle. But in most cases he deliberately abuses his artistic license and keeps the viewer in the dark.

What then does this say about the artist’s game? In the case of Slominski we can forgive his abuse because unlike many other artists he seems highly aware of the absurdity of leaving the viewer in the dark. In fact this has become the essence of his installation art games. And it is good for us the viewer, because here at least is one artist who is drawing attention to the problem. In effect he is trying to provoke a response from the viewer such as the one I am offering here. But rather than being annoyed with Slominski I find that his work makes me more annoyed at the artists who do not seem to realise that they are ignoring the viewer. They appear to be clouded by a market-driven resurgence of conservative neo-romantic conventions at the turn of the millennium, in sharp contrast to Bourriaud’s claims for a renaissance of the goal of bringing art into life via ‘relational aesthetics’.

Bucket of Water, Self-Portrait with Sombrero and Cough Syrup Transport System all possess the character of witticisms or jokes. But a joke provokes laugher whereas Slominski’s actions produce intellectual, and even politico-aesthetic contemplation. Yet the fact that we do not usually engage in intellectual dissections of jokes is largely due to convention. Similarly, it is also custom that places works of art in a framework that demands serious consideration and analysis such as is being carried out here. Place Slominski’s actions in the framework of a television show with a jaunty title such as ‘Let’s Do It the Hard Way!’ and we would have comedy where the main response would be laughter not intellectual consideration. As in the seminal instance of Duchamp’s urinal Fountain, 1917, we see that the significance of a work of art is defined not by what it is in itself but by its institutional framing.

As in the case of Self Portrait with Sombrero the complex procedures accompanying Cough Syrup Transport System are unnecessary. They serve no pragmatic purpose; but the work does possess aesthetic purposes. For example it points to the way in which doing things the right way is habituated, mechanical and fundamentally uninteresting. Slominski’s contrivances reveal that taking everyday actions apart and putting them back together in convoluted fashions not only makes them interesting it can also be used to construct a creative puzzle that might elicit creative engagement on the part of the viewer.

We can see from the instances cited here that the degree of viewer engagement depends upon the number of clues given to the viewer. I actually think that Self Portrait with Sombrero is more sophisticated, from a deconstructive aesthetic point of view, than the other works by Slominsky we have considered, because it comes closer to the condition of the art game which was put forward in chapter two as an effective solution to the problematic disregard for the viewer evident in deconstructive art at the turn of the millennium.

In the following chapter I will continue to explore the concept of recombinatory strategies and their relevance to the relationship between the artist and the viewer-reader. But the focus will turn more towards the interconnection between authorship and narrative.

Jason Rhoades: Visions of Excess

Filed under: Absurdism — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 8:47 am

Jason Rhoades, Detail, The Black Pussy … and the Pagan Idol Workshop, 2005. Hauser and Wirth, London.
Jason Rhoades, Detail, The Black Pussy … and the Pagan Idol Workshop, 2005. Hauser and Wirth, London.

If the German absurdist artist John Bock projects the manic self-expression of Expressionism into postmodern hyperreality then Jason Rhoades does something similar with the American Dream. But whereas Bock takes something putatively ‘authentic’ and transforms it into simulacral theatrics, Rhoades hyperrealises the already hyperreal. Rhoades’ immersive installations are a theatre of dementia and dissolution; and like Bock, Rhoades’ mises en scène take over an entire gallery space thereby becoming thoroughly immersive. The Black Pussy … and the Pagan Idol Workshop is such an installation constructed in London at Hauser and Wirth in 2005. At the sensory, immersive level The Black Pussy … and the Pagan Idol Workshop treats us to an experience not unlike the regression to childhood evident in Bock’s Klutterkammer. In Black Pussy we find an adult psyche metaphorically hurled through the Lacanian mirror into the polymorphous perversity of the American Dream.


June 6, 2007

Ellen Gallagher: DeLuxe

Filed under: Identity — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 6:47 am

Ellen Gallagher is of interest particularly if we compare her aesthetic strategy to that of her predecessors. Essentially Gallagher takes advertisements and deconstructs them but she does so in a way that is very different from earlier work by artists such as Hans Haacke and Barbara Kruger, and the fundamental difference in her work is due to its autobiographical dimension and its focus on the issue of racial identity. Haacke and Kruger were influenced primarily by the pioneering work of John Heartfield, and there is seriousness in their work that echoes the tone of Heartfield’s work. Haacke also used humour on occasion but what is different in Gallagher’s work is the way in which the humour is foregrounded. And where Haacke and Kruger focused on serious political issues, on the surface at least, it appears that Gallagher concentrates on the topic of hair. As a black American, for Gallagher, the issue of hair is, in fact, political. In DeLuxe”, 2004-2005, Gallagher appropriates black-and-white advertisements from black illustrated magazines such as “Ebony,” “Our World,” and “Sepia”. She has a collection that spans from 1939 to 1972 (Gallagher 2005). The advertisements are for hair products and other products and services. Gallagher deconstruct such texts principally via the application of plasticine. The use of a toy medium in the context of artwork that has political connotations effectively deconstructs the seriousness often associated with political art. The effect is to seduce the viewer using the seduction is a medium for persuasion.

Ellen Gallagher, DeLuxe, installation view 2004-2005 Portfolio of 60 prints, edition of 20 Each print: 13 x 10 inches Photo by Sheldan C. Collins Courtesy Two Palms Press, New York, © Ellen Gallagher

Reportedly, Gallagher was drawn to the wig advertisements because of their grid-like structure and this is reflected in her mode of display. Later she became influenced by the ‘narratives’ accompanying such advertisements. She explains:

But as I began looking through them, the wig ads themselves had such a language to them—so worldly—that referred to other countries, La Sheba…this sort of lost past. I started collecting the wig ads themselves. And then I realized that I also had a kind of longing for the other stories, the narratives, wanting to bring them back into the paintings and wanting the paintings to function through the characters of the ads—to function as a kind of chart or a map of this lost world (Gallagher 2005)

In contrast to Haacke and Kruger, in Gallagher’s work even the issue of racial identity is backgrounded in favour of a more poetic mode of expression. The lost past to which Gallagher refers is her own past which is to say the past of her race. Her work is about both personal identity and racial identity, it is also about imagining her identity. She meditates, for example, on the actual people who modelled for the advertisements that she uses, she notes:

I know I’m looking at someone who was eighteen in 1939, as opposed to somebody who was eighteen in 1970. And even though … they’re now wearing my plasticine form and their eyes have been whited-out … there’s a way in which their specificity is undeniable. And I find that really moving. (Gallagher 2005)

Gallagher appears to be stressing that her manipulations of her appropriated images is not derogatory instead there is a sympathy for the subject matter they are apart the past a sense they are a part of her. Her manipulation of these advertisements is not simply a means of making humourous comments upon them it is also about weaving a personal narrative identity.

June 3, 2007


Filed under: Environment — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 12:03 pm

Michael Ashkin Adjnabistan 2005. Installation view.

Michael Ashkin’s Adjnabistan 2005 is a remarkable landscape sculpture arranged on a tabletop. Exhibited at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York, the work filled the room to such an extent that the viewers had to ‘scrape around the sides of the room’ (Cohen 2005). The simulated ground consists of plasterboard sheets and the habitations are made from recycled cardboard and gypsum. Ashkin notes:

“Adjnabistan” is the name of the anti-nationality I invented with a friend while traveling through the Middle East in the late 1970s. Derived from the Arabic “adjnabi” (meaning “foreigner,” “stranger,” or “other”), this land of impossible origin proved useful, especially in Iran, where, as an American, one needed to avoid treacherous political discussions. If said with the proper lightness of tone, “Adjnabistan” could provoke a smile or even be accepted without question. In any event, we could not be accused of lying or insincerity; in fact, the more I used this word over the months, the more I came to develop mental images of this shadow homeland. These images varied widely and, like a dream, spanned numerous geographies, but empathetically included aspects of the political and economic neglect evident in the landscapes through which we passed. (in Rosen 2005)

Michael Ashkin Adjnabistan 2005 (detail)

Michael Ashkin Adjnabistan 2005 (detail)

Ashkin’s project is of interest on two counts: firstly, because it involves an American’s jouney to a territory which is antagonistic to the American way of life; and, secondly, because of the vast difference between Ashkin’s representation of human habitation in this enemy territory and that of his homeland, America. There is, on the one hand, a significant element of danger in the background to this work; and on the other hand, it behoves us to consider the political connotations of Ashkin’s representation of this other. David Cohen notes, for example, that Adjnabistan evokes an aerial view of a desolate “post-apocalyptic township of shipping containers, caravan, and makeshift observation towers on some prairie or step” (Cohen 2005). The imaginary territory and its habitations set out on large sheets of white plasterboard evoke a sense of desolation. Ashkin no doubt wanted to stress the difference between this land and his own, but there is a distinct lack of humanity in his depiction. Cohen notes the relationship of the work to an aerial view and an aerial view is significant in the way that it turns a landscape inhabited by people into an abstract picture. One can note that the abstraction that accompanies distance is of psychological benefit to the pilots of fighter jets and bombers as their victims become invisible, or are reduced to dots. In short Ashkin does little too evokes sympathy in his American audience and this is because his work is conditioned by the art historical discourse of abstraction and formalism rather than by a narrative sensibility. Ashcombe sought to create a work that was a dissertation upon the theme of “the other” but unfortunately it appears that he tried to express this fundamentally postmodern concern via a modernist vocabulary.

Cohen, David. 2005. Michael Ashkin: Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York Sun, 16 June. Online version hosted by accessed March 2007:
Rosen, Andrea. 2005. Michael Ashkin: Adjnabistan. Andrea Rosen Gallery, May 6 – June 18, 2005. Press release, accessed March 2007:

Doug Aitken at Hamburger Bahnhof 2007

Filed under: Environment — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 11:20 am

Doug Aitken (b. 1968, LA, USA) exhibited Eraser at the ‘Beyond Cinema’ video and film art exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof (29 September 2006 – 25 February 2007). Eraser was certainly the most elaborate installation of the entire exhibition consisting of seven twin screen projections which the viewer progressed through one by one. The aim of the installation was to immerse the viewer in what Aitken refers to as a ‘linear journey, north to south, of the active volcanic island of Monserrat, West Indies’ (so stated a text written on the wall facing the viewer entering the installation). Each twin screen segment of the installation produces a disorienting effect due to thunderous soundscape and the dislocation between two views of the same subject. The following video of just one of the twin screens should be listened to with headphones to get an idea of the power of the soundscape.

June 2, 2007

Hannah Starkey: Simulated Self

Filed under: Simulation — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 8:09 am

Hannah Starkey, Untitled (October 1998), 1998. C-type print, 122 x 152 cm. Courtesy Saatchi Gallery.

Hannah Starkey’s work destablises the association of photography with realism evident in the discourses of photo-journalism and social realism which are such key players in the sphere of photography. One of the keystones of the discourse of photography as opposed the discourse of fine art is the claim to being an imprint of the real. The concept of capturing the moment this fundamental to so-called “straight photography”. Starkey’s work is of interest because it appears to be straight photography but isn’t. when we look at Starkey’s works we appear to be looking at moments captured from everyday life, in particular the everyday life of women. In fact Starkey’s photographs are constructed, the people we are looking at are actors. Her work is indebted to that of Cindy Sherman and to cinema due to its implementation of the notion of mise-en-scène. Moreover, it is possible to identify a narrative dimension to Starkey’s work; for example, Elizabeth Mahony notes that, like Sherman, Starkey’s photographs: ‘are not cosy images of a caring, sharing sisterhood of women. Starkey is superb on the dynamics between women, often … shaped by curiosity at best, envy, paranoia and competitiveness at worst. … loneliness, boredom and unreadable stares throughout’ (Mahony 1999).

Hannah Starkey, Untitled, May 1997, C-type print 161 x 123.5cm. Courtesy Maureen Paley/Interim Art

Another commentator suggests that Starkey’s work is more objective using a ‘vocabulary of codes and signs culled from contemporary urban culture’ and ‘fragments of a generic urban environment’ (Fisher 2003). But Starkey’s work is not simply an exercise in semiotics. Two deconstructive features destabilise the notion that her work is purely objective: firstly, the focus on women; and, secondly, the fact that her slices of everyday life are essentially fabrications. The suggestion that the fabricated nature of Starkey’s work connotes a level of fabrication within female interpersonal relationships is intriguing. But rather than thinking that this reflects some innate feature of the female psyche one can suggest that it is a characteristic of life within a late capitalist, urban environment. Fabrication of Starkey’s work introduces a coldness which is antithetical to the humanism inherent in social realist photography.

One can compare Starkey’s approach with the Dusseldorf School photography that begins with Hans and Hilla Becher’s taxonomic photography and is continued in the flat objectivity of Thomas Ruff, Thomas Demand and Andreas Gursky. Such photography puts forward a lack of emotion as the essence of modern and postmodern existence. This notion is quite widespread, for example, the Italian art critic Germano Celant has put forward the notion of ‘unexpressionism’ as a key feature of postmodernity (Celant 1988).

Hannah Starkey, Untitled (September 1999), 1999. C-type print, 122 x 152 cm. Courtesy Saatchi Gallery.

This is not to say, however, that Starkey’s work can be reduced to the influence of the Dusseldorf School. Her work is more complex, in particular, she has superimposed the unexpressionism of the Dusseldorf School onto the much broader discourse of social realism. More than that, social realism is not simply a genre of photography it is an intrinsic feature of photography. It is arguably the most important feature of photography because it functions as a social mirror, it shows us the truth about ourselves. Contrast this with the work of Thomas Demand who selects an image he finds a newspaper or magazine and meticulously reconstructs the scene portrayed in his studio using craft card. He then photographs the construction and presents a blowup colour photograph mounted in between glossy acrylic sheets as the final product. Demand’s work is highly simulacral in the Baudrillardian sense which suggests that our physical environment is becoming increasingly artificial. The difference between Demand’s work and that of Starkey is that Demand focuses on things whereas Starkey focuses on people. But the simulacral thesis still remains shifting into the theoretical space of alienation and anomie.

Three features of Starkey’s work are of interest: firstly, her concern with female identity; secondly, the fabricated nature of her work; and thirdly the mise-en-scène she chooses which can be characterised as urban ‘non-places’, which is to say spaces of transition and alienation.


Celant, Germano. 1988. Unexpressionism: art beyond the contemporary. New York: Rizzoli International Publications.

Fisher, Elizabeth. 2003. ‘Hannah Starkey’ in Sodium Dreams, an exhibition curated by Elizabeth Fisher at the Center for curatorial studies and art in contemporary culture, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 29 June-7 September. Online resource accessed April 2007:

Mahony, Elizabeth. 1999. Life As We Know It? The Independent. London. 4 May. Online version accessed March 2007:

June 1, 2007

Nan Goldin: The Self as Photo-graphed

Filed under: Identity — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 2:33 pm

Nan Goldin, Rise and Monty on the lounge chair, NYC, 1988. From the series Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Colour print, silver dye bleach (Cibachrome) process, 39.4 x 59.7 cm. George Eastman House, Still Photograph Archive. © Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin, Rise and Monty on the lounge chair, NYC, 1988. From the series Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Colour print, silver dye bleach (Cibachrome) process, 39.4 x 59.7 cm. George Eastman House, Still Photograph Archive. © Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin is best known for her snapshot-like representations of subcultural explorations of gendered identity. Goldin notes, for example, that her work is ‘very political … it is about gender politics. It is about what it is to be male, what it is to be female, what are gender roles…Especially The Ballad of Sexual Dependency [which] is very much about gender politics, before there was such a word, before they taught it at the university.’ (in Mazur 2003). But perhaps the reason why she has become celebrated as a fine artist is due to the autobiographical character of her work. Goldin has lived most of her life with the gay creative community beginning in Provincetown, Massachusetts (three hours east of Boston) which was a community of gay artists in the 1970s. Goldin recalls that it was “incredibly wild” (in Mazur 2003) and it is the “wild” creative lifestyle to which Golden is attracted and which helps explain the allure of her photographs. Goldin suggests that her work is about memory and this is certainly an important facet of her practice. But one can suggest that the theme of identity is more central, in particular the theme of gender-liberated bohemian identity, and the identity of the creative personality who can find it difficult to fit into conventional society.

This is not to say that Goldin is preoccupied with the romantic vision of thecreative individual, there is too much rawness in her work for that.Nevertheless, her work is not reducible to documentation because there is a narrative element to her work and this is evident in the use of the slideshow as an exhibition medium. Few artists have managed to be successful with this medium, the clatter of the projector is off-putting and its mechanical appearance is unaesthetic. On the other hand, slide projections are of significant interest because they lie on the boundary between the still photograph and the narrative possibilities of serial and moving images.

Mazur, Adam; Skirgajllo-Krawjewska, Paulina. 2003. ‘Nan Goldin interviewed by Adam Mazur and Paulina Skirgajllo-Krajewska ‘ Fototapeta, Poland. Online resource accessed March 2007:

Eija-Lisa Ahtila: Narratives of Self

Filed under: Identity — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 1:58 pm

In Ahtila’s works we discover a remarkable instance of the conflation of a literary subjectivity with visual creativity. By literary subjectivity I mean one less inclined towards self-obsession than with intersecting self-insight with knowlege of others in  order to formulate narratives about people, which is something art is not very good at in comparison with literature. The object of this account of Ahtila’s work is the large survey exhibition of Ahtila in Tate Modern 2002. In the ante room of this exhibition we were able to read one of the artist’s textson the gallery wall. It informs us that she is interested in stories, how they begin as fragments then combine and interweave. She also mentions plot but it might be better to ignore that because that would place her in the space of film. She is certainly within the space of fiction but to say that she is in the space of film would detract from the fact that her work is most often shown in the context of the art gallery. And if her work is not cinema then it is not painting or photography either. She, like Bill Viola, is one of the most outstanding practitioners of the relatively recently matured genre of video art.

Ahtila is an outstanding pioneer of multi-screen video, dark rooms with their multiple screens in various arrangements are most typical of her work. The Tate Modern retrospective provided five black rooms within which one could walk from one dark fictive space to another in a manner akin to the way one can walk around an exhibition of paintings. The ability to move, to be released from fixed viewpoint of the cinema is extremely important because it introduces an embodied mode of viewing.To be free to walk from one dark room to another allowed a discontinuous interaction with Ahtila’s fictive obsessions that created a hypertextual, viewer-oriented and anti-cinematic mode of viewing that mirrored the the way in which Ahtila weaves both her narratives and her montages of images across multiple screens.

Two key approaches are evident in Ahtila’s work: documenting the everyday and poeticising it. Her oeuvre appears to begin with a rugged realism that turns towards visual poetry to chart the relationship between filmic expression and hallucination. One could understand this as a recapitulation of the nature of human cognition which can swing from pragmatism to poetry and back again, overlapping as it shifts. In the context of video art Ahtila’s work is more narrative oriented than most, but like video arts in general here work is fundamentally antithetical to classic, Hollywood, cinema.

‘Classic’ cinema is a visual extension of literature, providing a story with a plot. In contrast with this approach Ahtila’s work can be considered as a mode of visual poetry. Indeed poetry and video art possess a natural affinity, if poetry is deconstructive literature then video art can be considered to be deconstructive cinema. Poetry has always been a time based form with its meter and rhyme and rhythms so it shouldn’t’t be surprising that it intersects so smoothly with video. And like most of the best video art Ahtila’swork is short, like much poetry.

Eija-Lisa Ahtila, Consolation Service, 1999. Twin screen video installation.
Stills from Consolation Service, 1999 (read in columns).

Consolation Service, 1999, begins as a harrowing documentary about divorce and transmutes into poetry. First we see the couple shouting at each other in the presence of a marriage guidance counsellor. The shouting is heard by the counsellors other clients in the waiting room begin entering the counsellor’s room to form a surreal audience accompanying the deconstructed couple. We cut to the divorce party, the final occasion the couple would do something together, which metamorphoses into a dramatic walk across a frozen river while a woman recounts the danger that lies beneath the ice. In a counsellor-controlled psycho-drama the couple had spoken of the coldness that followed their mutual acrimony and subsequent distance. Now they are walking over a concrete manifestation of the coldness. As they walk across the ice the woman recounts the precariousness of their position citing the fact that if they fell through into the ice cold water it would feel like burning and even the massive adrenaline surge would not be sufficient to propel them upwards away from their fate—three minutes for a man, a little longer for a women. They would breathe in the water as if it were air to cool down the fire and mercifully drown.

After the protagonist’s account the party of people dutifully fall through the ice and we follow their underwater journey across the two screens. The female protagonists survives whereas her husband does not. In the final scene we see her alone looking considerably less harrowed than she was in the counselling room. Suddenly a digital ghost of her husband materialises as if beamed down from another world. He disappears, and reappears on disappears again. In his final appearance he teaches her how to bow, this is their reconciliation, their escape from the coldness that once surrounded them.

The more one walked from one darkened room to another in the Tate Modern survey exhibition the more we find that Ahtila’s fiction functions as a species of hallucination in a manner that distinguishes itself radically from the American dreams that Hollywood predominantly purveys.

Anne, Aki and God
In the strangest of darkened rooms we encounter Anne, Aki and God, 1998, which tells the story of Akia psychotic man who worked for Nokia’s virtuality (virtual reality) department.The Anne, Aki and God installation especially interesting because it was a successful break from the big triple screens. It was darkened rather than blacked out and contained several different forms of display: a large angled and suspended screen flanked by five television monitors with a couch beneath the large screen. On the six screens different men audition for the part of Aki.The large screen must have been the winner, his voice had a Russian-like rhythm that reminded one of the poet Yevtuchenko. And all six candidates spoke the lines not quite simultaneously creating an appealing cacophony that fitted nicely into the theme of madness.

The cacophony was amplified by the fact that Anne, Aki and God was adjacent to an accompanying installation consisting of a six by three foot vertical screen facing an armchair with a standard lamp. This showed women auditioning for the female part of Anne, telling us what kind of personality this figment of Aki’s feveredimagination would have. The women answered an advertisement placed on a university notice board.

An information plaque tells us that Aki was told by God that a man’s destiny is to marry and that this was the ultimate test in life (which seems reasonable) but his wife had already been chosen and he simply needed to find her. Next God sends Aki to execute a man on the Finnish-Russian border after which the hallucinogenic Anna put a fur coat over him in an appropriately supportive fashion. After this mission God decreed that Aki take over Hollywood because it was the factory that projected the American Dream across the face of the earth.

Clearly we have something quite different from classical cinema here, which self-consciously references classical cinema. The story is unfinished and all we see are the auditions but the cacophony the multiplicity and the freedom to wander from one version to another is a wonderful expression of a disintegrated state of mind making Anne,Aki and God both one of the most successful of Ahtila’s works and also one of the most experimental in terms of stepping away from the static viewer position into what might be termed, with due deference to Deleuze (and Guattari), schizocinema.

Living, moving people are key to any cinematic narrative but, of course, cinematic people are not actually in life, they are actors inhabiting mises-en-scène. In addition, they are not embodied, they consist of light and shadows, they are hallucinations. This somewhat clichéd observation is very relevant to the hallucinogenic element in many of Ahtila’sworks.

And the hallucinatory aspect of Ahtila’s work melds with its narrative/counter-narrative play. By making the audition the work of art Anne, Aki and God allows the constructed nature of Ahtila storytelling to be totally exposed.

Think about it: how can a set of auditions actually work as a coherent whole? Yet they did, they were gripping and possessed presence, especially the women on the vertical screen: the perfect format for framing a single person, especially when life-size. And when and the auditioning women were instructed to stand up walk towards the camera and back to the chair turn and walk back again their illusory corporeality was considerably heightened.

This survey exhibition drew attention to the advantage of not following the rules of the cinema game and having specific start times and insisting upon the viewers sitting down. Trading the videos like an exhibition of paintings means that the viewer is significantly liberated, and this condition is a key feature of video art. It is also potentially more embodied, for example, if one looked from the side quite close to the screen one had the illusion of entering the illusion. Field painting such as the work of Barnett Newman was intended as a means of immersing the viewer and what one might refer to as the “field effect” is all the more potent when the field moves.

May 17, 2007

Candice Breitz: Identity in the Cutting Room

Filed under: Identity — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 4:17 pm

Candice Breitz, Father + Mother, 2005. Multi-monitor video installation in two separate rooms.

The 51st Venice Biennale, 2005, commissioned a work from Breitz and she created the double video Father + Mother, 2005. The two video installations were exhibited in totally blacked out rooms conjoined by light and sound trapping doors. Each piece consisted of six wall-embedded monitors in a sculptural semi-circular array. In each work Breitz took six films that dealt with issues concerning mother or fatherhood and extracted scenes in which the principal actor makes significant statements to camera. Accordingly, in each case we are confronted with six major female and male actors, and to intensify the aesthetic effect Breitz blacked out the background leaving only the actor and, if necessary, a significant prop (e.g. a wine glass in the case of Diane Keaton and a beer bottle in the case of Harvey Keitel). The clips are short, sometimes so very short that the loop becomes obsessively repetitive: ‘God damn her … God damn her … God damn her …’ (Dustin Hoffman).

The overall effect is to offer the viewer a new perspective on film. We do not usually watch six films simultaneously. In addition, Breitz takes us out of the narrative stream of any of the films (and the concomitant suspension of disbelief) giving us instead an opportunity for a cross-genre comparison. There is an intentionally analytical, semiotic empiricism to her work. We see for example the similarities across the array of films, sometimes to comic effect when each of the six actors appears to be speaking virtually the same line. Typical generic statements include ‘I can’t take any more of this’, ‘your mommy has gone away’, ‘you’re marrying who?’, ‘haven’t I been a good mother?’ etc. Individually they are not especially significant, but when we see an array of a half a dozen screens presenting material from different films uttering similar sentiments via similar phraseology the viewer’s response becomes more complex and self-reflexive than when transfixed by a single narrative.

The reaction of the audience was interesting, and as I sat in these works for a quite a while I am able to report that it was probably the most popular piece on exhibition as well as being intellectually, technically and aesthetically sophisticated. There were bursts of laughter, but some of segments provoked thoughtful silences reinforcing the generality of the human situations being treated in these filmic snippets. Which leads to another level of her work: the fact that this method enables Breitz to synthesise several screenplays creates a formidable reflection of contemporary values that is not limited to America alone, but to contemporary Western culture in general. The viewer is invited to consider to what extent such media art is transmitting moral propaganda, and to what extent it provides constructive, theatrical reflection on contemporary circumstances. Mother and Father provide us with a meta-semiotic experiment which, in an archaeological-anthropological fashion, avoids any definitive stance on the data it presents; yet, because of its sophisticated presentation, it guides the viewer towards more complex understandings of mass media and mass culture.

The next work I will examine is Breitz’s Becoming, 2003, is of interest because it combines an intense application of deconstructive nonlinear narrative with a mapping of fine art onto the field of mass media. What results is interesting, because it shifts away from the resolute rejection of mass media evident in the work of artists such as Barbara Kruger and Hans Haacke and points instead to a more fruitful interaction between the deconstructive dogma of nonlinear narrative that is a defining feature of contemporary fine art and the everyday culture of the postmodern world permeated with mass media and consumerism.

In Breitz’s Becoming the notion of multiple points of view comes to the fore, as does the idea that the viewer is presented with so many viewpoints that taking any definitive point of view is made very difficult. Becoming is also of interest because it is almost a nonlinear narrative, creative game that viewer-readers could play.

To construct Becoming Breitz selected seven Hollywood feature films of the romantic genre in which the principal actor—Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Meg Ryan, Neve Campbell, Reese Witherspoon and Drew Barrymore—plays a woman whose identity is entangled in her relationship with a man. Breitz’s basic method of processing these seven films is similar to her earlier works Soliloquy, 2000, and Diorama, 2002, in that she extracts a clip wherein the actor delivers a monologue to camera. In each instance the actor is expressing intimate feelings that intensify the effects of empathy and identification on the part of the viewer. Yet, of course, in each instance we are witnessing complete fabulation, a fact foregrounded by Breitz’s addition of the processes of extraction and looping.

In the Becoming installation an arrangement of seven colour monitors display the actors delivering their monologues. But this set of monitors is doubled by the addition of seven black and white screens that show the various scenes re-enacted by Breitz. Breitz is shown miming the facial expressions and gestures of the various actors in the various scenes but, in each case, she retains the original soundtrack. As in Sherman’s Film Still series Breitz steps into the shoes of an actor thereby partially erasing herself. Yet, in contrast to Sherman’s Film Still series, Breitz does not dress up and make up to resemble the particular actress she is mimicking. Instead we see a row of images that are identifiable as the same person—Breitz—only the voice and the gestures are different. Through this tactic Breitz situates herself as a viewer-reader who is deliberately resisting narrative immersion in order to appropriate the Hollywood gamespace, altering the rules so as to make the game her own.

One can compare the operation Breitz performs on Hollywood films with Barthes’ demonstration of a distinctly radical approach to reading Balzac’s short story ‘Sarrasine’ offered by Barthes as an instance of the ‘writerly’ text: a text that challenges the interpretive-creative capacity of the reader. Graham Allen describes Sarrasine as a ‘disturbing twenty-page story existing somewhere between Gothic intrigue, comic tale of ignorance and psychological study of the illusions of love’ (Allen 2003: 84). Barthes takes the challenge of this writerly text seriously, and his approach is not unlike Breitz’s surgical deployment of the scalpel to Hollywood film. Barthes’ analysis of Balzac’s story lasts over two-hundred pages and entails breaking Sarrasine into units of meaning that Barthes refers to as ‘lexemes’ and classifies according to a number of ‘codes’. His analysis of ‘Sarrasine’ takes creative involvement in the writerly text to a level of obsession comparable with creative labour. Yet one can question whether such analysis can be creative.

From the point of view of romantic aesthetics an analysis such as Barthes offers in S/Z cannot be creative because creativity arises out of the unconscious whereas analysis is fundamentally a conscious thought process. Also analysis tends to be linear whereas the flux of desire that allegedly motivates creativity is rhizomatic (Deleuze 1987). We have an issue here because if we cannot call Barthes’ analysis of ‘Sarrasine’ creative then neither can we call Breitz’s Becoming creative due to the fact that it possesses several analytical features, the extraction of specific information from a corpus; its arrangement into a series and a critical intervention. In a sense one can describe it as an exercise in film studies transformed into an art game. But we can remember Rikrit Tiravanija at this point and his declaration of everyday life as a work of art. If eating pad tai can be a work of art then perhaps film studies can be creative too.

In order to allow a work such as Becoming to be defined as ‘creative’ we have to allow an element of analysis into the creative process. It was argued in chapter four that unless creative process takes place in a hypnagogic trance then conscious analytical judgement will inevitably play an important role. An artist always has to pass their own informed judgement as to the quality of what they have produced. Every artist is, therefore, an interpreter/reader of their own work. Moreover, if an artist uses appropriated, readymade works of art for their source material, as is the case for Breitz, then interpretation plays a role at the beginning as well as at the end of the creative process. She employs judgement to select her raw materials, which are creative products to begin with, and then interprets her own treatment of that material. What we are examining here is the interface between interpretation and creativity. And this is critical to an examination of the writerly text or what one also might refer to (with less stress on literature) as the creatorly text: which is to say a text that requires creative engagement on the part of the reader.

But although Becoming can be described as a text that demands both a creative and a critical response from the viewer-reader the cinematic texts Breitz uses as her source material are not. In Barthesian terms they are ‘readerly’ which is to say they would be defined by Barthes as demanding only passive immersion with little requirement to be critical on the part of the reader. In order to shift Barthes’ literary concept of the ‘readerly’ into the field of art theory we might call such texts spectatorial because they do not require intellectual engagement. But that does not mean that they preclude such engagement. What Becoming shows—and what Cindy Sherman showed in her Film Still series—is that active readership can be applied to any text whether it is readerly or writerly, spectatorial or creatively and critically engaging. The entire field of media studies is based on the fact that apparently simplistic, readerly texts can be approached in a critical and intellectual manner.

What distinguishes Becoming from an exercise in film studies is its release from academic protocol and the fact that it is practical rather than theoretical. Barthes’ response to ‘Sarrasine’ does not step outside of the genre of literary criticism. In contrast, Breitz’s response to the films she chooses is articulated in a different category, that of the work of art—more specifically the video installation. We begin to see that the difference between whether something is called creative or not-creative depends largely upon convention and institutional framing. Take the pages Barthes S/Z out of their binding and exhibit them on the walls of an art gallery and it becomes an instance of installation art. S/Z is as creative as Breitz’s Becoming, but we do not call it creative because we reserve that word for artefacts that obey culturally constructed rules of presentation.

The suggestion that creative practice cannot be intellectual would probably be challenged by many artists. It is certainly possible, however, to have art that is not intellectual; but this is not the case for deconstructive art. Assuming a romantic-aesthetic stance once again, we could argue that S/Z is not a creative text because it uses a pre-existing work of art—it is not original—but that argument was shot to pieces by the postmodern appropriation movement of the late 1970s and 1980s in which Sherman was a leading figure. Indeed that argument has been undermined since the arrival of the Duchampian Readymade in the early twentieth century.

And reference to the Readymade is pertinent to a consideration of Becoming. Earlier I suggested that Breitz takes the Hollywood narratives apart and reconstructs them as an alternative game that becomes her own. It would be more accurate, however, to note that she takes the Hollywood narrative and transposes a readymade game onto it. Breitz’s Becoming was, in part, inspired by the eponymous MTV series. In MTV’s Becoming ‘ordinary fans’ are transformed into their favourite artists (e.g. Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, Nelly Furtado, B2K, *NSYNC). An advertisement for MTV’s Becoming notes that ‘our “stars” will get every bit of the glitz and glam afforded the celebs themselves, and to top it off, they’ll even recreate a classic video by their favorite artists’ (MTV 2006). Breitz avoids the ‘glitz and glam’ by dressing simply against a neutral background shot in black and white. She deglamourises the representation of herself thereby underscoring the fact that her version is not an uncritical, unquestioning mapping of self onto the hyperreality of celebrity. There is also an element of surreality in seeing the same person ‘talking’ in so many different voices, which intensifies our sense that all the ‘people’ in Becoming are simulacral. The normal mode of reception for these films is one of emotional engagement (identification) in the characters portrayed on the screen. Breitz closes off that avenue of reception and forces the viewer to engage in a more intellectual, reflective engagement.

Experiencing Becoming we begin to understand what is entailed by the ‘writerly’ text: it requires intellectual rather than emotional engagement. In 1846 the aestheticist poet Charles Baudelaire explained: ‘Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling’ (in Honour, 1979: 14) [emphasis added]. The shift from a romanticist emphasis upon emotional involvement to intellectual involvement is one of the key features that distinguishes deconstructive art from its romantic-aestheticist predecessor.

But there is another facet to Breitz’s Becoming, which pertains to its relationship to the game that is karaoke. Becoming is essentially video-karaoke and one can note that she created another installation entitled Karaoke in 2000. In the current configuration of Becoming the game is played only by Breitz, however, it is not hard to imagine adding another layer wherein the viewer could face a ‘karaoke camera’ and join in. What is most interesting here is considering why a fine artist would not consider this. One reason is that the fine art frame of reference conventionally demands a focus on the individual artist creator. That is a legacy of patriarchy that demands as much interrogation as does the portrayal of female stereotypes in Hollywood cinema. We may also feel that adding a participatory dimension would make Becoming less ‘serious’ but Breitz makes the point that she uses mass media to create accessibility (Breitz 2004).

One of the reasons why Becoming could easily morph into a game is due to the technology Breitz is using: it is a relatively short step from video art to interactive video art. The next instance of contemporary installation I will examine steps even closer to attaining such a goal via its use of computational video.


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