July 14, 2008

THE PROGRAM: Comments on the Matthew Barney and Ryan Trecartin Pieces

[This post originally contained the schedule for the new exhibition series being presented by the Video Association of Dallas, THE PROGRAM, July 26 - August 30. You can now find the complete schedule here.]

On Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 13
27:45 min. (2006)

In this piece, Barney impersonates General Douglas MacArthur, across from an asian man in formal attire (referred to by Barney as "the Japanese Delegate"), in a scene carefully reminiscent of several chunks of the stories we've been told about our past, which doubtless contain both unintended and intended truths as well as bias. (Photo courtesy of Gladstone Gallery.)

MacArthur's push to re-take the Philippines prior to attacking Japan more directly, in fulfillment of his vow, "I shall return,"
was controversial and proved bloody. He seems to have had some real knowledge of and empathy for asians, however. During the initial occupation of Japan while he was in charge, he left Emperor Hirohito in place, albeit as a puppet; released political prisoners; and encouraged labor unions and other political freedoms. At the same time, he deployed heavy censorship in an effort to "democratize" Japan from the top down.

Barney's re-packaging of history seems to refer to footage actually shot at the time of MacArthur's infamous re-landing on the Philippines – see contemporary footage that I understand was likely shot more or less under MacArthur's direction, here
– and the ceremony that ended WWII (see here); and possibly also to the re-packaging of these events in the 1977 film directed by Joseph Sargent, MacArthur, with Gregory Peck as lead.

Our history, as we remember it, shapes our future; and our remembrance is changing fast. I think we can safely say, the history we allow ourselves to be told is now changing as quickly as our present.

But instead of signing a treaty documenting the surrender of Japan, Barney heat-brands (think cattle, etc.?) and signs the backs of a series of his own drawings, art works within an artwork, and then slides them across the table to the Japanese Delegate, who also signs them (i.e., the "victor" is submitting); and then they are labelled by his gallerist, Barbara Gladstone (referred to by Barney as "the American Delegate"), dressed in vintage civvies.

The scene was shot in Gladstone Gallery, with the front of the gallery open to the street. In the foreground stands an army photographer, on duty to historicize (package) this event.
MacArthur understood the importance of packaging as well as the various meanings of "theater"; and his assiduous, filmic documentations of his own successes for the benefit of U.S. audiences brought him considerable political leverage back home.

In Drawing Restraint 13, artwork serves literally as document. In Barney's version of Japan's surrender, there are fifteen such documents (excluding the video itself). We glimpse each of the fifteen drawings except the last, only the title of which is shown: The Instrument of Surrender. The Japanese "Instrument of Surrender" was the written agreement that ended WWII.

"Instrument" evokes writing, drawing, or musical instruments – tools by which we accomplish goals or make expressions of ourselves that may or may not survive us.

It seems the artist has compelled an aggressor to surrender. Whatever you think of Barney's work, it can't be denied that he has, in some sense, won the art wars. But unlike the signing of the original Japanese Instrument of Surrender, in Barney's ceremony, the artist brands his own "instruments" (with an image of a whale within Barney's own logo, the field emblem), signs before the defeated side instead of after, and as the video ends, remains in the white-box "container" of the gallery and within his own figment, while the Japanese Delegate walks out into the street. Perhaps the Japanese Delegate leaves the scene because the Japanese have been defeated; but apparently he's also in some way more free

Is there a sense in which the U.S. actually lost the war to the Japanese? Has Barney as artist really conquered, or surrendered – perhaps to some (drawing or whatever) restraint? In Barney's version, he entered the scene in a container from which he had to be released by his soldiers. Is it a real restraint if it's one you chose?

Barney has surrendered his work to his gallery, his patrons, to all of us. If he wants others to see his work, he has no choice but to suffer whatever limited interpretations any of us may put not only upon the documents through which he expresses his vision, but upon him personally.

Barney's Drawing Restraint series deals with the relationship between creativity and self-imposed resistance, "facilities designed to defeat the facility of drawing" (see Harper's Bazaar).

DR 13 relates to Barney's previous film, Drawing Restraint 9 (135 min., 2005), much of which was shot aboard the largest ship in the Japanese whaling fleet.

DR 9 opened with the meticulous, ceremonial, several-layered wrapping (packaging) of two halves of a fossil in several sheaths, sealed with a metallic gold field emblem. As this scene unfolds, we hear the song, Gratitude, with lyrics adapted from a letter received by MacArthur, which I can't resist quoting, because I found them exquisite:

July 13, 1946

Dear General MacArthur,

With your permission
I offer wishes of good health,
During this heat
That burns anything.

The words I slowly put together
Do not flow easily, they only fill my heart

Recently, fulfilling
Your heart’s desire
You removed the whaling
Your gesture brings
A much needed food
To our community
And families,

The words I slowly put together
Do not flow easily, they only fill my heart

A million year old fossil
I send to you.
This comes from my family
And the ancient sea.
A prehistoric impression
Of the modern krill,
She feeds the noble whale,
And offers you longevity

The words I slowly put together
Do not flow easily, they only fill my heart

Finally, please take good care in the heat.

Sincerely yours,

Some of the drawings in DR 13 are reproduced in three catalogues available for viewing at Conduit Gallery during the exhibition there of DR 13 (July 26 - August 14, 2008). The drawings incorporate images relating to Drawing Restraint 9, whaling, or Japanese history or culture: a log of ambergris (a protective substance produced in whale intestines and re-purposed by humans as a fixative in perfumes); prow-like shapes; references to hosts and guests; the Japanese arts of wrapping or tying packages or tea vessels, or of binding sexual partners; a Shinto shrine purported to be the home of a sacred mirror; breaching whales; intercourse; Barney and Bjork after they've sliced away one another's legs; Dejima, a fan-shaped island which, during a period of self-imposed Japanese isolation, was the only lawful place of contact between Japanese and Europeans, with a field emblem serving as sole bridge to Japan; and Barney/MacArthur as a skull smoking a pipe spouting like a whale, among other things.

Like MacArthur and the Japanese, Barney too appreciates the importance of packaging. And through this re-enactment, he transforms both our past and the present, as well as himself.

Remember the Queen's Magician (Houdini-esque) in Cremaster 5, at the bottom of the Danube, his hands shackled, on the verge of transformation: escape and freedom, or death.

And, through this videotaped performance, Barney has re-packaged many different layers of our past and present, in order to transform them as well as to transport them -- in the manner of a thoughtfully purposeful guest (or invader?) -- into our present and future.

Barney's own Drawing Restraint site is highly recommended for more information about the Drawing Restraint series, although as of this writing, it does not include DR 13. His Cremaster site is an excellent source on the works in the Cremaster Cycle, and Gladstone Gallery has some fine images and other info. Finally, Eric Doeringer's Cremaster Fanatic site offers all kinds of fun, as well as serious, detailed descriptions of many of Barney's works.

On Ryan Trecartin's A Family Finds Entertainment
27:45 min. (2006)

Trecartin's Family speaks for itself – frenetically and in the vein of
Pee-Wee's Playhouse-meets-Nirvana.

Trecartin/Skippy's locked in his closet/bathroom, feeling suicidal. "I believe that somewhere there is something worth dying for, and I think it's amazing" -- he sounds deeply sarcastic, yet envious. He polaroids himself, cuts the pic in half, and flushes it down the toilet. He uses duct tape to stick a large knife to the mirror, perhaps to cut away his reflection – his soul, his knowledge of himself? or to divide his knowledge of himself?

In another room, a young man sings, "Show me something beautiful and I will live. Show me something to hold onto and I will hold on." Veronika simpers; the young man smirks with self-satisfaction, "We're planning on going on tour pretty soon."

Veronika screams at Skippy, "open that fucking fuck-door!!"; then the ultimate indictment: "my music friends are leaving because your show is a bore and more."

Skippy accidentally cuts himself on the knife, then pretends to cut himself more dramatically while singing, "it's not that I want to keep things this way, it's just that I may be impersonating some people who are not me." Maybe they aren't and maybe they are: in this piece, Trecartin plays at least six roles, three "female" (Shin, Booty Girl, Snowy White), two "gay male" (Skippy, Closeted Bladerunner monster guy), and one (Video Face) of indeterminate humanity.

Skippy seems to long for something more real; but even feelings aren't always what they seem: "I'll cry for you," says one of Skippy's companions, "– not because I care but because I'm emotional." Contentment is also suspect: "People make peace, and then they fall asleep."

The confusion is compounded by the media in which Skippy and his peers are immersed; it offers quick stardom; but it fosters obsession with appearances and looking good, and if you're not constantly fun, your viewers abandon you. Life is ours to "re-mix"; we're surrounded by choices; but what we mostly possess is not real freedom but, as Skippy exclaims, "free-DUMB!!"

In a dreadful interlude, we meet Skippy's parents, who seem completely unloving, unless you count incestuous lust.

Outside, Skippy encounters video artist Zoey, who's making "a documentary on medium-aged kids all over the world. . . . It's called The Other Version of Me. Life is fun, but we're funner." Skippy, by now an apparition of anger and utter despair, cries, "I am FUN! Tape me, Zoey! Tape ME!" He dashes into the street and is instantly hit by a car – "taping" is temporarily completed as a metaphor through which being filmed is associated with being stuck, cutting, and getting killed.

Trecartin/Shin is less tragic. Her make-up may be clown-ish – artifice in aide of a freedom that feels more real? – and there's still a certain desperation; but she's perky and she's having pretty much fun. When Shin learns of the dead boy in the street, she urges Zoey, "keep filming him!"

As Shin's "Experiments in Music" party unfolds ("Bring everything you own!"), Skippy magically revives – perhaps video art can resurrect us? Zoey's name, after all, means "life." Skippy says, "I hear music"; Zoey replies, "You should follow it." Shin, too, is born again, "baptized" in a child's wading pool, while the partiers sing the same song we heard near the beginning of the "show," now transformed by the sincerity of the singers: "Show me something beautiful and I will live. Show me something to hold onto and I will hold on."

What's worth dying for and what's worth living for are two different questions, but they may have the same answer.

You can see the entire piece on UBUWeb, other stuff on Trecartin's YouTube page, and some good photos of other work at the Elizabeth Dee gallery site.