"Rodney Graham: A Little Thought," Mar. 31-June 27, 2004, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario M5T 1G4
In Hitchcocks To Catch a Thief, Cary Grant plays the role of a reformed cat-burglar, described by Rodney Graham as "accused ofrobberies of which he is innocent, yet which bear his unmistakable signature." Graham goes on to say that "this role spoke uncannily to me of my own life." This comment might, perhaps, offer some insight into the repeated elusiveness of the artist in his own artworks. All of his elaborately orchestrated work begins with a "robbery" of sorts, which he then manipulates within itself in a manner that deftly deflects attention from the artist while still always requiring his signature.
Grahams unique reworking of convention appears in every piece in the exhibition, showcasing his notably inquisitive mind. He deals with psychoanalytic theory (Freuds repetition compulsion), the mechanics of photography, musical and literary compositions, the screenplay of a James Bond film, the invention of LSD and in his filmic trilogy, characters such as the shipwrecked pirate, the Edwardian dandy and the lonesome cowboy.
In Toronto, the sprawling exhibition filled 14 galleries, including eight projection rooms, and provided a sense of Grahams multifarious repertoire, which tends toward one of two general concepts. One is an interest in the origins of photography, in particular the introduction of light into darkness as a metaphor for understanding. The other, with which the exhibition opens, is the insertion of a "loop," bringing together the beginning and end of a film, or reworking a text so that the end constantly leads back to the beginning, effectively trapping the viewer within the narrative.
The show opens with his film trilogy. First is Vexation Island, a work created for the Canadian pavilion at the 1997 Venice Biennale. Graham appears in Technicolor splendor as an apparently shipwrecked pirate, who we encounter asleep on a desert island underneath a coconut tree, a wound visible on his forehead. As time passes, the soothing sounds of the waves lap the shore, a nearby parrot begins to squawk and under the intense sun he slowly wakes. The pirate begins to shake the tree to dislodge a coconut, which eventually falls and hits him on the head, rendering him unconscious and restarting the entire sequence. Through the simple reworking of the seemingly traditional Treasure Island-style genre, our assumptions are thrown off balance.
In the film City Self/Country Self (2000), a comedic period piece set on the streets of a French village, Graham plays two characters, a city dandy and a country bumpkin. The film consists of an elaborately timed sequence wherein the clock strikes 12 as the dandy, complete with one ominously pointed shoe, kicks the bumpkin in the derriere of his well-padded trousers. Country Self falls, dropping his hat, and as soon as he bends to retrieve it, the sequence begins again.
The allusion to passing time is multiplied by several filmic devices, which in turn create layers of overwrought suspense -- the ticking clock, a circular camera shot, a tapping hand, the sound of horseshoes clopping as the shoeshine brushing City Selfs boots speeds up and blends with the gait of Country Self, the suspended instant replay after the kick occurs and finally the flip of the top hat as it falls. Beyond its reference to class struggle, the title of this piece posits a fractured self, perhaps representing more broadly a sense of post-colonial guilt. It also brings to mind parental warnings that one should treat another as one would wish to be treated oneself.
The final film in the trilogy is How I Became a Ramblin Man (1999). In what could be an outtake from a classic Western, Graham appears as a lonesome cowboy; emerging from the brush on his horse, he dismounts and in an idyllic pastoral setting proceeds to play a song on his guitar. He then remounts his horse and disappears into the sunset, reappearing a few moments later to take his place and sing his song. The song itself is a loop within the looped film; it begins with the lyrics, "City life just got me down" and ends with the promise of telling the viewer, "How I became a ramblin man."
Midway through, however, the lyrics twist and it is his father who makes this promise, not the ramblin man himself. We therefore wonder at the identity of this person. Is the singer actually all that he claims to be? Costumed as a lonesome cowboy, he appears to be the ramblin man, but the longer one listens, the less certain one becomes.
Though Graham does not direct these films, he appears within them almost to the exclusion of any other actors. But he seems to hide within the films, despite the accompanying wall text, which states, "These works are conceived more as Hollywood style star vehicles and less as auteur films." Even though Grahams films have the trappings of typical Hollywood genres, they are experimental in form, and comment very directly on the human condition. The ultimately bleak circumstances of the characters brings to mind the plight of Sisyphus, forever condemned to push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll immediately back down. Grahams subjects remain unaware of their plight, unable to be moved by the striking allegories of which they are a part.
The notion of character is further explored in several other works. The photograph Fishing on a Jetty (2000) portrays Graham as Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief at a point where Grants character is hiding from the police after having been mistakenly accused of a crime. Graham quotes the actor, who was originally named Archibald Leach, as having said, "Even I want to be Cary Grant." This photograph en abyme thus appears as a kind of loop, representing Graham posing as Leach posing as Grant posing as a cat-burglar posing as a fisherman. . . .?
Aberdeen (2000) is an understated but tremendously thought-provoking series of photographs, shown in slide show format, taken on a pilgrimage to the hometown of the late rock-and-roll performer Kurt Cobain. The images are accompanied by Grahams own soundtrack, alluding to the influence of the singer on the (considerable) musical ambitions of the artist. The work emphasizes Cobains aspirations toward both a figurative and literal "Nirvana" that would take him away from his despised hometown. That the band provided the singer with all the trappings of success except for spiritual contentment is a cruel irony and one emphasized here by the slide carousel, which goes round continually yet never takes us out of Aberdeen.
Mid-way through the exhibition, in a display case, sits Casino Royale Sculpture de Voyage Deluxe (1993). This work consists of a spy-like customized suitcase (identical to that used by 007) fitted with a first edition of Ian Flemings novel Casino Royale, an odd glass shelf with hardware and an instruction manual. The idea is that one would take the briefcase to a hotel room, install the shelf at the correct height above the bed and place the book face down at pages 138-9, lying on the bed while reading a sadistic passage describing Bonds torture in a similar hotel room, effectively entering the reader into the text in a possibly agonizing confrontation of fantasy and reality. In the Toronto exhibition, the shelf and book are installed on the gallery wall along with a diagram, though no bed is provided -- as if a partial involvement in the work might suffice. Nonetheless, both this work and Aberdeen cast an idiosyncratic light on societys relationship to the mythical hero.
Six of Grahams Flanders Trees (1989), perhaps his most iconic photographs, are dramatically represented in floor-to-ceiling black and white -- though upside-down. These glorious images emphasize the significance of the mature tree as symbol of growth and time and as a fundamental subject throughout the history of art and in particular early photography. The camera obscura, essentially the first camera, consisted of a dark chamber with a small hole in one wall, allowing for an image outside of the chamber to be reflected, upside down, on the opposite wall. The result was that for the first time the artist was able to control his environment, to capture reality.
Grahams citation of the camera obscura reflects an interest in extending the relationship between light and darkness towards an allegory of enlightenment and illumination, an interest that is evident throughout much of the remainder of the exhibition. This is particularly true in Edge of a Wood (1999), a film that begins with the sound of an approaching helicopter. As the sound becomes louder, the double screen suddenly springs to life and a sweep of the aircraft lights illuminate a slice of forest, half on the black-and-white screen and half in color.
The viewers position becomes that of the pilot, and of theater audiences who rely on the light of the projector to illuminate the screen. The film is directly influenced by Grahams 1976 work, 75 Polaroids (not included in this show), wherein the artist used the flash of his camera to navigate his way through a night-time forest. By introducing light into darkness, these works effectively create a metaphor for vision, clarity and a new understanding. Light is shown to equal knowledge.
An interest in the mechanics of photography has allowed Graham to draw attention to the camera in relation to the oculus, creating an effective allegory for the eye itself, for seeing. The enormous Victoria 8 projector becomes part of the installation in Rheinmetall/Victoria 8 (2003), where a fine dusting of powder slowly, seductively coats an antique typewriter and the early Corruscating Cinnamon Granules (1996), a film screened in a room the dimensions of Grahams own kitchen where he filmed his experiments sprinkling cinnamon over an electric stove-top. As the spiral shaped burner heats up (echoing the loops in the film trilogy and foreshadowing the acid trip of Photokinetoscope), the cinnamon sparks brightly, creating a pure "spectacle" (reminiscent of the short films the late Jack Goldstein made in the 1970s) through the mediums negation of experience. Only visual echoes of the heat, smell and environment remain -- a thoroughly distilled experience. The projector sits in a Perspex box on the outside of the screening room, clicking as the tape runs through, unifying the cause and the effect.
The curators of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Vancouver Art Gallery have chosen the works well and distributed them evenly to create a balanced show. Together with the storyboards, costumes and other props, the retrospective seems exhaustive indeed, and is one that requires repeat visits. One piece with much welcomed support material is Photokinetoscope (2001), the title of which derives from the kinetoscope, the earliest motion picture camera invented by the Edison laboratories in the late 1800s. ("Kineto" comes from the Greek for "movement" and "scopos" from the Greek for "to watch.")
Graham rides a bicycle endlessly (thanks to the loop) around a park, having ingested LSD in an imaginative recreation of the legendary first-ever acid trip taken by the drugs inventor, Swiss scientist Dr. Albert Hofmann, when he bicycled through the streets of Basel in 1943. At the same time, a soundtrack recorded by Graham in homage to the father of psychedelic acid rock, Syd Barrett, plays separately on a spotlit turntable in the corner. The record is meant to be started randomly, running out of synch with the film. At one point in the movie, Graham clips a playing card to a peg which he inserts into the spokes of his bicycle wheel, creating an effect that echoes the click of the camera/projector. The soundtrack, image and camera are thus simultaneously separated and unified.
Both the exploration of light and dark and the use of the loop in these works, along with the element of the ignorance of the character as to his own entrapment, brings to mind the Allegory of the Cave from Platos Republic, in which a group of prisoners are chained before the back wall of a cave. Behind them is a fire, by which a puppet show is acted out, leading the prisoners to believe the actions of the shadow puppets in front of them as "truth." In the vaudeville-style film A Reverie Interrupted by the Police (2003), the character -- Graham again -- sits at the piano, wearing prison stripes, handcuffed and sombre, playing a disjointed John Cage-style melody, anxiously looking over his shoulder where he seems to sense a police officer standing. Unaware of the presence of an audience, the prisoner acts with immense gravity, which only amplifies his lack of awareness. As he is led offstage, the film loops and he returns yet again, rendering the handcuffs almost superfluous.
Plato suggests that if the prisoner could free himself from his chains and venture out of the dark cave "into the light," he would become "enlightened" and would recognize true reality, freedom. The progression of the exhibition from the looped works, which suggest entrapment, towards the black and white pieces, representing possibility, is thus a most welcome and successful curatorial strategy.
"Rodney Graham: A Little Thought" is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, July 25-Nov. 29, 2004. It subsequently appears at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Feb. 5May 1, 2005, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, opening in September 2005. ANDREA CARSON is a writer based in Toronto, where she works at the Monte Clark Gallery.