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See this now (before the show closes!) – Rodney Graham’s “Green Cinematograph” in “Canadian Humourist” at Vancouver Art Gallery

Rodney Graham, or perhaps not

Rodney Graham’s fabulous show Canadian Humourist is obviously something of a sideshow for many visitors to Vancouver Art Gallery (where it’s showing through September 30). The star attraction there just now is Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters – The Cone Sisters of Baltimore. In fact, to promote that show there’s an image of Matisse’s 1937 Large Reclining Nude in the lobby that is magnified so many times it’s not much smaller than the floorspace of Mr Graham’s entire show.

Vancouver Art Gallery lobby

No doubt Rodney Graham saw the funny side of that, because he is well attuned to the funny side of things – particularly art things. He is one of the most distinguished conceptual art insiders to have seen the absurdity of its oh-so-earnest introversion and stony-faced pretension. I would admit there was a long period in the early 1970s when the only piece of equipment you’d have found in my art school studio was a typewriter, but like most other conceptualists I eventually wandered off into other areas of more interesting activity. For his part Mr Graham has turned the weaknesses of conceptual photography (which is a Vancouver specialty) in on themselves. So his recurrent themes are ambition and the lack of it, reality and the reverse of it, pretension, vanity, obsession, and (how Canadian!) humiliation. Out of these elements he conjures an art that is at once intelligent, provocative, irreverent, and – how often do we encounter this in a gallery in 2012? – actually funny. (By the way, if you are interested in the sort of work that Mr Graham now lampoons, Lord knows there are more than enough sorry examples of it in VAG’s collection.)

Rodney Graham, "Small Basement Camera Shop, circa 1937" (2011)

Where Mr Graham departs entirely from his conceptual roots is in his glorious unpredictability. I have followed his work for years (an over-edited interview I did with him in 2007 is here) and I am still not always sure when he’s being serious or not.

Rodney Graham, "The Green Cinematograph (Programme 1: Pipe smoker and overflowing sink)" (2010)

The brightest jewel in the heavily encrusted crown that is Canadian Humourist is The Green Cinematograph (Programme 1: Pipe smoker and overflowing sink) (2010) which is a typically wordy title for a technically very simple piece. A vintage movie projector stands in a corner of a darkened room. A small screen hangs in the opposite corner, and as the old projector rattles away and the looped film makes its stuttering way through the gate, we see a green-tinged movie projected there. (The movie projector is also green, though you can’t see that in the dark.)

Rodney Graham, "The Green Cinematograph ... " (2010) (Detail: movie projector)

Or rather there are two movies that were conceived separately and then edited into one. (For this is where technical simplicity gives way to labyrinthine illogicality.) On the one hand there are images of Mr Graham in the guise of some mid-century fellow (graying hair slicked over, heavy rimmed glasses, open necked shirt, sleeves rolled back tightly to mid-bicep) sitting in an armchair smoking his pipe.

Rodney Graham, "The Green Cinematograph ... " (2010)

Intercut with this are shots of a little domestic mishap: a tap is running into an old fashioned sink (we immediately want to assign it the same vintage as the pipe-smoking gent, and perhaps even the old movie projector as well) and eventually soft mounds of soap bubbles billow up and start spilling over the edge of the sink on to the floor. (You can see a video version of the entire movie here.)

Rodney Graham, "The Green Cinematograph ... " (2010)

It’s always tempting to regard the text panels that accompany Mr Graham’s work as an integral part of them. I have in the past actually imagined that he wrote them himself as a further dimension of his conceptual jiggery-pokery, but in this case VAG assures me that they were written in-house. (They might not be telling the truth of course …) The panel here reports that Green Cinematograph was made to test the so-called Kuleshov Effect. It then goes on to explain that it was Lev Kuleshov (1899-1970) who proposed that cinema spectators automatically connect and ‘make sense’ of movie sequences that are edited together. Now, I am no historian or theorist of cinema, and I was rather chuckling at this Kuleshov character, supposedly a Soviet filmmaker, whom I fondly imagined was a figment of the Graham imagination, like many of the characters that Mr Graham plays in his art. When I checked google of course, I discovered that I was dead wrong. Kuleshov and the Kuleshov Effect are precisely what the text panel claim they are. More fool me, the supposed expert!

From Lev Kulashov's wikipedia page

Kuleshov’s theory is a simple one: in film “an isolated scene has no meaning” (!) and that it is in editing different scenes together that movies generate associations and sense. If this piece has been made to ‘test’ the Kuleshov Effect, then it obviously succeeds. The pipe smoker is lost in thought and he’s forgotten about the overflowing sink. Maybe he’s even about to feel water dripping through the ceiling.

But whether or not Kuleshov was real (and I’ll grudgingly concede that he was) isn’t there something patently absurd about this whole set up? Both the pipe smoker and the sink are given the look of vintage silent movies by the exaggerated contrast and green cast of the film print, and the smoker is one in a long line of self-absorbed over-serious dopes that are the perennial characters of Mr Graham’s work. (There are at least two of them elsewhere in this show – the Canadian Humourist himself and the fellow behind the photography counter.) The fact that we’re meant to be reflecting upon the mental connections we automatically make between the two components of the movie, as though we are participating in some sort of art and science experiment, strikes me a wonderful conceit that hints that maybe we too are a bit self-absorbed and over-serious sometimes.

Rodney Graham, "Canadian Humourist" (2012)

(Incidentally, and running alongside all this, there’s a sort of sculptural or installational equivalent to the Kuleshov effect going on: I’ve already noted how we can’t help but make the sink, the smoker, and the projector contemporary with one another. Having read that text panel, I instantly recast the pipe smoker as Kuleshov himself, and reassigned the movie a Battleship Potemkin-ish context rather than a Chaplinesque one. (I’ll admit I even had a close look at the projector to see if it had been manufactured in Russia.) Moreover, I see that when this piece was first exhibited at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich last summer the installation included an armchair very like the one the pipe smoker sits in. Imagine how sitting in that chair while you watch the movie further complicates things.

Rodney Graham, "The Green Cinematograph ... " (2010) as installed at Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, 2011

Ditto the fact that a color portrait shot of the pipe smoker is included on the on the web page for the Hauser & Wirth exhibition. It isn’t actually part of Green Cinematograph. Are we to take it for a portrait of Rodney Graham himself? (For mischief’s sake as much as anything else, I’ve assumed that it is an put it at the top of this post.) Ditto again for the fact that a totally separate work Lighthouse Keeper with Lighthouse Model, 1955 (2010) features exactly the same sink as the one that features in the movie here. I’m starting to get a headache …

Rodney Graham, "Lighthouse Keeper with Lighthouse Model, 1955" (2010)

Mr Graham has several times used the sort of old movie projector with an elaborate looping systems that he has here. In a similar way, he often (though not always, by any means) leaves the wiring of his light boxes visible. This is his version of acknowledging the artificiality of the art work and drawing attention to the mechanisms by which it functions. This sort of thing has been flogged to death over the last quarter century or so by conceptual artists and others who have been over-reliant on theory. (Even typing that sequence of words “artificiality … mechanisms … functions” has me yawning.) But once again Mr Graham can’t take it altogether seriously, and in a little piece included here a light box illumines a picture of a rather beautiful paint can sitting on some rough bricks. Trailing from the bottom of the box is a length of slightly hairy old-fashioned twisted fabric electric cord. It’s much longer than it needs to be, and it’s coiled up unattractively on the floor before it makes it to the socket. It’s called Can of Worms. Wonderful!

Rodney Graham, "Can of Worms" (2000)

Images in this post courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery, Hauser and Wirth, Lisson Gallery, and the artist.

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