Sunday, March 05, 2006
Rodney Graham: Sincerity and Delight
This fall, the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal will host an exhibition of works by Vancouver-based artist Rodney Graham.
Two years ago, my daughter and I took our weekly Saturday morning trip to the Art Gallery of Ontario, also known here in Toronto as the AGO. Art galleries are at their best on a Saturday morning. It’s usually quiet, just you and whatever you happen to be looking at, and it’s a good time to take a child, as they can ask questions and linger at the works they enjoy, something I’ve discovered kids are more apt to do than adults.
On the façade (now just a memory) of the AGO was a giant poster of a man in a convict’s outfit playing a piano. It looked goofy, and given my own conception of modern art at the time, led to a bit of an eye roll and I thought to myself, “I suppose we can always go downstairs and look at the Group of Seven paintings” (my daughter loves them).
So we went upstairs to this new exhibition, and found nearly the entire second floor consumed by Rodney Graham's work. As you enter, the main walls were covered in the wallpaper at the top of this post (image from the Donald Young Gallery website). A man kicking another man in the ass. Things were looking up!
As we walked down the hallway, we could see that there were a number of small, dark rooms playing films.
Like many encounters with new works or events, it was the first work I saw that had the largest and most favourable impression on me. It was a short looped film entitled City Self/Country Self. It involved Rodney Graham playing both of the central characters, a bourgeois gentleman and an ambling country bumpkin.
When I walked in, the gentleman was getting his shoes shined, looking at his pocket watch. The bumpkin, walking down the street, looks up at a clock tower. The bumpkin starts to walk up a street, as the gentleman approaches him on the sidewalk. A carriage passes the bumpkin, who walks out into the street directly behind the carriage. The carriage drivers look over their shoulders, to watch the gentleman kick the bumpkin squarely in the behind. The kick is played slowly, over and over and over again, and then normal time resumes, the bumpkin picks up his hat, the carriage drives away, the gentleman walks up the other side of the road, and the bumpkin walks along and looks to a window where he fixes his hat, while the gentleman gets his shoes shined, and looking at his pocket watch. The bumpkin, walking down the street, looks up at a clock tower. The bumpkin starts to walk up a street, as the gentleman approaches him on the sidewalk…you get the picture.
I do not know how to describe this work any better than this. It is something you have to encounter to fully appreciate the richness, the initial humour and ultimately, the power of this film as a work of art. I sat there with my daughter for about 20 minutes, just watching it over and over again. There was no beginning and no end, just endless repetition. The moment you inserted yourself into the work was the moment the narrative started. You laugh the first time he gets kicked, but then the humour begins to fade, and you start to see it all as an elaborate trap, where both the viewer and the characters are locked in a struggle to come to terms with their place in the world.
Am I making too much of this? Perhaps, but his other works bore out a similar message.
It’s easy here to invoke Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence, keeping in mind Graham’s recurrence in his looped films is immediate, adding a kind of ruthlessness to the concept that I don’t know Nietzsche himself envisioned. The gentleman and the bumpkin know what’s going on, they are both players in this drama, and yet they never give you that winking eye, that twist to let you know that this is all bitter irony. I suspect this is because it’s not meant to be ironic.
This is what I believe both separates and lifts Graham’s work above many other contemporary artists. He is sincere. He wants you to laugh because you'll think about the arid, abstract things he wants you to think about more easily. However, he doesn’t wink, and let you know that you don’t have to take any of it seriously, even though his every work nudges you to laugh, to take it all lightly, to chortle in knowing amusement. Graham refuses to let go.
We are bathed in irony these days, and like God, despite rumours of its recent death, it corrodes our ability to judge or to know, and so it refreshes the spirit to see someone, as nonsensical as it may sound, do irony straight.
Nonetheless, his works are a delight to watch, to look at and be a part of. Graham hasn’t fallen for the trap that many contemporary artists do, that in depicting reality, we have to show the seedy or gritty side of things. Instead, works like City Self/Country Self finds its ultimately nihilistic message in a lovely medieval French town.
This is another thing about Graham’s work - it is beautiful. From his upside down trees, to his reading stand for a loop he discovered in Georg Buchner’s Lenz, Graham strives for his works to look beautiful. I wonder how this reconciles with his constant engagement with, broadly speaking, Romantic artists such as Wagner, Buchner and, dare I say it, Freud.
I wonder this because his works strike me as beautiful in a classical way, in the way a period staging of a Baroque opera is. The figures stop, they pose, and in that pose they represent our deepest feelings and thoughts. The realism in Graham’s work is formalized, idealized. (Only when talking about art can one talk about an idealized realism and mean it- logical positivists need not understand my words here, although they’ll get what I’m saying if they see Graham’s work.)
Rodney Graham’s art managed to recode my understanding and appreciation of modern art, and what it can be, how it can reconcile itself and negotiate with earlier periods and yet stay entirely modern in its mode of expression. These days, the Group of Seven or the impressionists no longer intrigue me the way they used to, and I’ve come to instead look forward to the latest works by living artists. I encourage anyone who is in Montreal this fall to visit one an exhibition of one of Canada’s greatest living artists. You may even want to pick up his latest rock CD, but that’s for another post.