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 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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