Oh Canada, laugh, but not too loud

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This is an introduction to the Rodney Graham show at the ICA (image, one of the series “Flanders Trees”):

Story #1

My brother, who lives in Edmonton, once took me on a road trip north of there. It was the equivalent of a shaggy dog story. We rode for hours through yellow canola fields across the flat Great Plains until,hours later, we got to a ferry, which he had promised as our goal. On one side of the ferry was…nothing. On the other side of the ferry, as far as I could see, was…nothing. So I said to the ferryman, where does this ferry go. He said, “To the other side,” as if I was an idiot (he may have been right vis a vis this particular interaction).

Eight hours later we got back to Edmonton. (Oh, we did stop at a small museum along the return trip, but it was also something that might have been a joke if it weren’t so heartfelt and personal to the town, completely uncurated finds from people’s attics–everything they couldn’t sell in a jumble sale, I guess).

My brother had a grand old time. Everytime after that visit, when he suggested we go somewhere, Murray said to him, how long is the ride?

Story #2

My brother, the same guy, told us about a hilarious movie called “Men With Brooms.” So we rented it. We never made it to the end. My brother, however, is still chortling.

What is hilarious to me, however, is that my brother, like me, is from Brooklyn. But somehow, he ended up in the place that has his sense of humor.

Rodney Graham: A Little Thought

When I went to the opening of the Rodney Graham show at the ICA, I just wasn’t enjoying myself. I couldn’t focus. The work seemed thin.

So I went back, hoping to hit some kind of understanding. I got it, I got it, I got it. So what?

These works are mostly jokes or thoughts that, like my brother’s car ride, go on and on and on and don’t give back enough or at least don’t tickle my funny bone. I’m a laugh-out-loud kind of gal. These provoke in me only thin smiles.

I’m not saying they have no content. They do. But I want more. I want an epiphany. I want not to be so tired by time I have the epiphany that I snore my way through it.

I wouldn’t say this is a bad show; nor would I say this is a show you shouldn’t see. What seems fairer to say is that I would have loved this show if I had seen it at a gallery. But the ICA, with its full-bore treatment, raises expectations beyond what the work can bear. The show offers a few truly original thoughts and the rest seems rather repetitive–and that’s one of his main points. He’s the original loop guy, offering words and stories that loop, music that loops, visuals that loop. Since he’s also about the tautology of modern culture, I guess that fits, but I want to be entertained along the way. Okay, so that’s his point. But at the ICA, it feels like this point can’t sustain this much work so lovingly presented.

And here’s food for thought. He calls his show “A Little Thought.” And he’s laughing about it. You know he is.

My favorite piece, and here I have to go along here with my favorite guard at the ICA, is “City Self/Country Self” in which Graham stars as both selves and kicks himself over and over in the butt, until the Country Self loses his hat, and then escapes from the butt-kicking, picks up the hat and starts down the street again until he meets up again with the City Self and retakes his punishment for being such a rube (right, from video “City Self/Country Self”).

Part of why I liked in this piece was the music of the sounds, the rhythm of the man’s shoes and the horses’ shoes on the pavement. Part was the willingness to take the stereotypes and push them to the nth degree, with no mercy in designing the beautiful costumes, especially the trapunto-padded seat on the yellow striped pants of the bumpkin, just waiting for a licking. Part was its focus on clocks and their circularity as well as their referencing of the repeated times. It was all beautiful to look at, with an attention to detail, an attention to how people all feel about themselves some of the time, and an attention to the assumptions of the culture. I liked all of it.

More painful, but also beautiful, with attention to detail, was “Vexation Island,” but it had the too-much-time-to-make-its-point thing going on, and I resented it.

That same willingness to take time to tell a story that has nothing happening is epitomized in “How I Became a Ramblin’ Man,” a guy (of course it was Graham) looping through the wilderness on horseback, a guitar slung across his back, the big action being a pause he takes to sing a song on the guitar. If you’ve seen a lot of old westerns with singing cowboys, this dude is all too familiar. But he’s ramblin’ nowhere. The lyrics deadpan the same sort of familiarity (left, production still from “How I Became a Ramblin’ Man”).

Trips are a theme in this work that like the video loops, play over and over.

Here I’ll mention that this show is on a trip, too, curated up in Canada, a joint venture organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Vancouver Art Gallery. This is the show’s final venue.

The trips within the exhibit include the video, “Halcion,” of him sleeping in p.j.’s (ridiculously the p.j.’s are on display in the exhibit, draped on a clothes valet) under the influence of the sleep-inducing drug “Halcion” in the back of a cab. It’s suitably soporific and might work better than the drug (right, the pajamas).

There’s the film “Photokinetoscope” of him bicycling through a park in Berlin and taking LSD–a sort of “Rainbows Keep Fallin’ on my Head” sort of sequence, stretched to the point of endurance–but for some reason I liked this one. To be perfectly fair, Graham’s loops are not overly long for the most part, and they rarely challenge you to sit beyond seven minutes or so.

The music, the jokey lyrics like “Who is he that does not love a tree, I planted one, I planted three,” the return over and over to the same old-fashioned, Germanic statue of a woman that occasionally syncs with “You’re the kind of girl that fits in with my world,” the card (queen of hearts) attached with a clothespin to chatter as the bike wheels spin–I loved it all (left, image showing beneath the statue in “Photokinetoscope”).

He’s also got a John Cage thing going with the music on a turntable and the visuals on a projector, the timing deliberately randomized by having the music be separate and a different length than the movie, so that what is utterly predictable becomes somewhat unpredictable. Okay, let’s not make too big a deal about this. It’s another mild joke.

The installation “Edge of a Wood,” was great. It was total immersion in fear as a helicopter flies over a projected, full-wall two-screen nighttime woods edge, the moving searchlights and the beating of the propellers creating a scenario at once familiar and suggesting trouble. Although it loops and refers to all those scenes on cop shows and in the movies, it seems different to me in its preoccupations and in its use of physical space, similar to the way his “Flanders Trees” immerse with their surprising size.

By time I left, I was listening closely to his music, which plays in so many of his pieces, and had a feel for its deadpan, pastich-y sound.

Some other things I enjoyed about the show–

1)the dumb, bad-taste modern unfinished plywood box in which “A Little Thought” (the video) is screened, the video itself being a compilation of kitsch imagery of swans and ducks on water, a red guitar and a white pouffy feather duster. This piece brought to mind Roxana Perez-Mendez’ Puerto Rican Airlines installation at Vox Populi (see post), and served as a reminder of video installations in general, and how the art world has been shameless in accepting boredom in video as a given. I’m rebelling.

2)”Casino Royale,” a Donald Judd-like wall tray containing the James Bond book opened to two pages of S&M, the tray to be placed over a hotel-room bed or chair so the reader can look up through the red tray and read the two pages over and over again. This one deserves some lol kudos for its reliquary qualities, its own S&M suggestiveness, its choice of red glass, its Donald Judd furniture reference (can those boxy things really be comfortable), etc. The poster demonstrates how the piece works hung on the wall over a bed (right, “Casino Royale,” the contraption and the poster).

3)The upsidedown “Flanders Trees,” especially the one with the road that takes you straight to heaven. These are so iconic and beautiful, with their floating details, they seem to defy gravity, yet they are so grave. I also liked how the installation of a model of a camera obscura installation in a plexiglass vitrine created a camera-obscura-like upsidedown image of the original but now right-side-up camera-obscura image (left).

Everything else I sort of liked. It all was rich in cultural references and art historical references for which the ICA provided a kind of road map in the gallery notes. But honestly, if you need a roadmap for a loop, it spells trouble.

So to loop back to the beginning of this post, the ferry ride to nowhere, I think you need a certain kind of sense of humor that is not mine for this sort of thing. Oh, Canada. (Did I mention Graham is from Vancouver?)

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