2016: Issue 1: Jacobus Capone: Volta

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Jacobus Capone, Volta (installation view) (2016) – 5 channel FHD video and 2-channel audio, 53:00 Photo: Dan McCabe

SUCCESS, the vast gallery space under Fremantle’s old Myer building, has so far cut up and divided its cavernous space in order to separate audio-visual works from one another. With this latest installation by Jacobus Capone, a new dynamic emerges: an encompassing engagement with the whole of the main space. The great width and depth of this gallery makes this an important move – and one that fulfils the potential of the space. The screens, previously dividing works and blocking views of one another, are turned inward to create a broken rotation of the central stairwell. The work’s subject is also different from the ostensible interests of SUCCESS’s previous shows – which have orbited around pivotal political and cultural ideas. This show is by contrast, and despite its scale, incredibly intimate. The artwork, Jacobus Capone’s Volta, features the artist’s family, particularly his father, and his father’s remembering and re-learning of the accordion – an instrument he was adept at playing in his youth. The work appears to be an attempt to redress the pain and loss that occurred during the artist’s father’s depression, and that occurred though the process of electro-shock therapy, and the familial repercussions of the illness.

The work is not easy to approach – it is one of the few artworks that I would say is usefully framed by a gallery text, yet even with this it is sometimes difficult to understand the poetry of Volta. Volta seems to be aimed at achieving poignancy through a poetic gesture, yet it often appears at odds with itself. It is not as concise as many of Capone’s works, his father struggles to perform from time to time, the other figures are silent, and the video cuts out and cuts in, people’s eyes rarely meet the camera, they often appear to shy away from it. Against the boldness of Capone’s previous works, such as 2015’s Dark Learning, this work creates a much more difficult and faltering representation. Yet this faltering is part of the nature of the subject of the work. The subject is indeed a series of breakages – a series of damages occurring among a family – the most internal, fragile, and dangerous of institutions.

It is also a work replete with sentiment, and it does induce tears. This is not necessarily a sign of great poetry though – I was moved to tears by a trailer for the new Star Wars film – whilst not even having watched more than episode 1 before that – as it was so steeped in sentiment and nostalgia, something reciprocated in Charlie Kaufman’s admission that he ‘can be moved to tears by these commercials that these people [sneaker companies] put out.’ (http://guru.bafta.org/charlie-kaufman-screenwriters-lecture) This is to say that there is a fine line between the sentimental and the purely manipulative. In Volta the camera’s shallow focus and zoom enlarges and enriches the smallest of details. It brings us as close as a touch to these people we see on screen. Against this, the pacing and staging of the scene is important to deepening our engagement with the work. The strength of Volta is that it does hold back. It does not play into sentiment in what is already an extremely laden subject, like Steven Spielberg or his ilk. It is not, in the end, a tear-jerk response. The stillness and solidity of the camera is part of this, the macro shots become much more about details and elements that take on significance and become very physical and invoke a presence, rather than attempts to seduce us, as Luca Guadagnino’s I am Love, or any other number of audio-visual and film works attempts to do.

Although Capone’s Dark Learning even outshone Ragnar Kjartansson’s multi-channel installations for last year’s Perth International Arts Festival, there is one of Kjartansson’s work, Me and my Mother, that seems appropriate to contrast with Capone’s Volta. Kjartansson’s work presents a more visceral and potentially antagonistic image of a familial relationship – where every five years Kjartansson asks his mother to spit on him. Volta is quite different – an attempt at some kind of redemption, yet unlike Kjartansson’s work, it perhaps falls into the trappings of triteness and quaintness. This work seems to be a continuation of Capone’s interest in the family in his body of work, with 2010’s for now forever, for the time being forever, while it lasts forever, where he listened to his father’s heartbeat for a day, and then his father listened to his, and 2013’s I am my mother’s son, yet in all these works, there is a valid reservation to be had: that there is not always poetry in the family. Unlike Kjartansson’s Me and My Mother, which cannot help but be an antagonistic image to a relationship that is so often romanticised, or Anri Sala’s Intervista, where Sala’s mother disagrees with her son’s findings, which are found despite her, Volta is a much more agreeable vision of familial redemption. While not a great problem, there does not seem to be a great deal that is in question in this work.

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Jacobus Capone, Volta (installation view) (2016) – 5 channel FHD video and 2-channel audio, 53:00 Photo: Dan McCabe

The origin of this difficulty with Volta is how aware the subject is of the process, or rather, how aware they are of their role in what the work hopes to achieve. Capone’s father plays a part in the gesture, and is well aware that it is meant to be ‘poignant’. The problem is, more precisely, that the work appears to have always meant to be poignantly moving and poetic, and plays into its own narrative, and narratives of redemption and reconciliation within a family. It is, however, difficult to take poignancy back from this sort of self-awareness – it begins to appear contrived. This causes a splitting within the work: though the principle gesture (of Capone’s father re-learning the accordion) has a clear poetic potential, the words of Capone’s father, and his faltering playing, break through the gesture, and open another space. As Capone’s father states in the work, it is the struggle that is being made visible here. The origin of difficulty is in this struggle, and the final richness of the work is achieved in this struggle. Though the work is difficult, and a document of faltering and fractured memories, and whether or not the gesture was a successful one, it does finally leave a deep impression.

Despite my misgivings, I feel the work is a work of poetry. It finally arrives there through various elements, but especially its installation, where you find yourself, after watching the two screens featuring Capone’s father for a time, standing in the middle of the rest of his family. They are silent, tearfully or opaquely watching something else – presumably the video being played back to them. A field of influence is made visible, and the other figures outside of the principal relationship on display become one of the strongest and yet most subtle elements of the work. The absence of the artist from this work is also something of central importance. A large amount of Capone’s artwork is focused on his own performance, both endurance and durational, and a series of powerful poetic gestures. Here Capone is not the central figure, he has ceded his space on screen to his family, and remains hidden behind the lens. The limited framing of particular details complements this hiddenness, and the work maintains a visual charge in the limited visibility we are afforded. All of this makes the work something quite powerful.

The family is a difficult relationship to navigate in art, but Capone moves through it with care. Though it is not an artwork that resists the narratives we are often fed of the family, it is an empowering instance of healing, as much as the subjects are aware of how they are meant to respond. The work overcomes these factors though, and shows the process of re-learning and regaining what was lost to a finally redemptive effect.

written by Graham Mathwin