2016: Issue 1: Susan Flavell: The dog’s artist; Kiana Jones: Freakmo; Sarah Poulgrain: bust construction

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Sarah Poulgrain, Bust construction (installation view) 2016 Photo: Dan McCabe

Jacques Rancière, in The Future of the Image, compares Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s masterpiece, to the French television quiz show Questions pour un Champion. Rancière states that Au Hazard Balthazar is a work worthy of attention as an artistic image because it ‘shows us images that refer to nothing else, which are themselves the performance’ as opposed to questions pour un champion, which displays an act that is ‘foreign’ to the set and camera of the television studio. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these artworks are categorically not ‘artistic’ images, the issue at stake is that they seem to allude to the potentials of an audio-visual media without fulfilling them. Yet the issue that Rancière addresses is relevant here. To generalise, these artworks are mostly recordings, rather than any sort of ‘performance of images’. In this way, they utilise video in its most basic register – as a record and document of something else, without sufficient engagement with what it is to present images in sequence.

Susan Flavell
Susan Flavell, The Dog’s Artist (2016): Left to right: One, Two, Three, Four. Video, duration: 2 minutes. (Installation shot). Photo: the author.

Firstly, I would like to talk about Susan Flavell’s choice and use of video. Primarily, it is worth stating that in the world where the Internet obsession with the ‘doggo’ and the ‘doge’ has taken hold, art that does not surmount or alter such representations of these creatures appears superfluous. The human love of dogs, though not shared wholeheartedly by the author, is something nearly universal, and the dog is omnipresent – online and in the world, in all its incredible form and movement. Flavell’s videos are beautiful, with expert focusing and a very well trained and rather pretty animal at their heart, but they are especially beautiful when the common trait of dogs and the camera – i.e their propensity for movement through time – is made visible. Unfortunately, this happens very little in a work where the dog in question remains still, rather than performing the role that dogs often do: of alertness, activity, and play. It also leaves the camera almost immobile, and the cuts are simple fades and the images that are cut to are of exactly the same shot as before. The static nature of her videos also seems more appropriate to the solid forms that surround them than their own material. Yet the principle reason that these works are addressed here is that the videos do not fulfil the potential of video, nor of its subject. They record, rather than play.

Of course, the camera need not always move. The wonder of film is often to leave the camera still and let life move on the other side. Doreen Massey, for instance (who has sadly passed away only a few months ago) writes eloquently about the potency of static shots in Patrick Keiller’s work  in relation to the local and the global mobility and immobility of people. Yet Keiller’s work is an important foil for this artwork as it gives us a vision of the power of play itself – every static shot that is cut onto the next produces the poetry and power of his work, and it is this factor that Flavell’s work seems to neglect: that film is, at heart, a sequence of images.

I would also like to contrast Flavell’s whole show, not just her use of film, with the most impressive work I have seen that was about, or perhaps was, a dog: it was at the Musée Pompidou in 2013 – Pierre Huyghe’s retrospective. There, ‘Human’, an Ibizan hound, took on the aspect of an occasional, unselfconscious performer in the space. It was a relationship that existed to be unscripted and undirected. Human acted as an uncontrolled vector, altering the flow of people, changing their behaviour within the museum to startling effect. Human was also presumably chosen due to the museological heritage of her breed: those admired by the Egyptians, and the model of the Egyptian ‘Anubis’ – she became, in her re-insertion into the museum, a kind of living parody of the Louvre and the solid stony bulk of her visible ancestors. The dog’s pink leg breaks the form of the dog, creating a creature that is somehow different, a cyborg made of food dye. It alters her shape, to allow us to reflect on it, and her separation and very animal relationship to us. This is a different approach to Flavell’s, which appears to be an attempt to admire what is already present, and represents it in as fixed manner as possible. The fact that Human operated on her own terms in the gallery, as dogs often do, is a particular point of difference to Favell’s work. There is no particular problem with this methodology except that there is not the generosity of Hugyhe’s rather simple gesture, which allows the dog its freedom, and gives us a mysterious symbolic and animal presence to consider. Flavell’s work attempts to give the dog a place alongside the human in portraiture and sculpture, without any criticality of the very forms of sculpture and portraiture that inform it.

Huyghe’s work is also an interesting comparison for the accompanying exhibition of Freakmo by Kiana Jones. Here, horror make-up is demonstrated in its application and production, and then modelled by the artist. Yet what is skipped in the show is what is at stake and what could be at stake. For horror is clearly a genre with interesting ramifications, being a cultural force with the denigration and destruction of humanity at its core. The comparison is in Huyghe’s work The Host and the Cloud which parallels Freakmo’s interest in cultural figures and formats (although its breadth includes such things as Ronald McDonald and Michael Jackson, it also includes a fairly prominent prosthetic-nose-wearing witch) yet Huyghe’s work has at its heart an investigation of the roles of these fantasies and cultural figures in our lives, something that Freakmo shies away from, in favour of presenting us with something that is merely informative, and at best a deflation of the elements of horror that exist in it.


Kiana Jones Freakmo (2016) (installation shot). Photo: the author

There are even intriguing practical effects in the world that Freakmo has purportedly come from – in such instances as Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and the weeping angels and ‘the silence’ in Doctor who – the monsters in these televisual and filmic works have within them something that is important to their respective media and our lives: the nature of seeing and visibility. Del Toro’s eye-in-hand monster seems like a strange parable of consumerism and material existence – what is seen is possessed or desired; yet the implied blindness of holding what is finally grasped presenting a more interesting critical reading of the ravenous monster. The two monsters from Doctor who, among some of the most interesting from recent television history, also have visibility as part of their basic function: the weeping angel always covers its eyes, and appears to be solid as rock as you look at it, then, upon blinking, moves instantaneously – an idea I always associate with the very function of old art in museums: perhaps not as benevolent as we assume, and always at work in the back of our minds; or the silence: a creature that you simply don’t remember if you don’t look directly at it, which seems to uncannily resemble the operations of ideology. These monsters have within them something more interesting than the illusion of gore – yet also use similarly flawlessly photographic practical effects. There are also such popular and well-ingrained critical examples as David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Even the monsters and characters of Mary Reid Kelley’s Priapus Agonistes could be drawn upon here in a separate comparison – where the masks are much less photographic, operating symbolically, yet amplify the power of the work. Freakmo relies only on its photographic quality, its aesthetic shock, but it is not enough to carry it to the realm of interest. The fact that it draws on such a rich and fertile field of filmic visuality as the horror film only compounds its shortcomings.

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Sarah Poulgrain. Bust Construction (installation view) (2016) – single channel HD video. Photo: Dan McCabe

Sarah Poulgrain’s work is similar in that it also is a documentation. In this case, of the construction of one of the busts featured in her artist’s book Characters from the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. There is a paradox here, though. The sculptural work this video depicts the creation of, presented as an artist’s book, is highly successful. It is interesting that these sculptures, in photographic form, possess a powerful connection to the relationship of film to the world that the actual film work does not. The video does become interesting as a screen – as a site of visibility, but also hiding what is behind it. Yet this is indicative of the strongest aspect of this work: the sculptural. This is true of both Poulgrain and Flavell’s works, where the busts and photographs have the power that the filmic works lack. It is strange that, with the richness of Poulgrain’s sculptural works, the construction of these works is presented. It forms a document, whereas the sculptures embody an engagement that is much more interesting. The sculptural works speak to the ability for television to become an iconic part of our lives – yet the strange, twisted models that Poulgrain makes of these characters are a presentation of the mock sweetness and simplicity of vision of the world informed by popular imagination. There is an element of particular interest in the almost sacrilegious presentation of her mother’s busts alongside those of television characters: that the influence of television on our lives is one that is as pervasive and powerful as our maternal and paternal influences. The sculptures do more to examine the nature of video than the video itself does, as it is a video that does not play with any of the ideas that the sculptures do.

These three works contain video elements that are not the strongest elements of their exhibitions. They are examples of video used not for any appropriate purpose, but to merely record. The nature of video, and what it does, extends far beyond such a use. There is little of the seductive potential, of the troubling falsity or fluidity of video in these works. They rather use video at its most basic and least interesting register. Film and video stretches far beyond the realm of merely appearing to resemble something and acting as a stand in for it – it can cause great alteration in the substance of the world, and transform our vision. While there is a large amount of powerful video work on show in Perth now, video is not a deus ex machina that solves all problems – it has its own difficulties and challenges within the operations of images in sequence.

written by Graham Mathwin