mercredi 23 juillet 2008
Harry Dodge & Stanya Kahn (Elizabeth Dee, NY)
This new body of work, which unites the spontaneous with the tightly scored, continues to develop a performative strategy that combines forethought, action, and acute attention to the present moment. Here, the risk-taking, vulnerability, and fearlessness which have customarily played a central role in Dodge and Kahn's practice constitute an urgent appeal to reinvigorate our sense of agency as citizens. I See You, Man takes place on a cold and foggy beach in California and features the character Lois (Let the Good Times Roll) as she scouts a beach location with Peter the cameraman, ruminating on the physical and psychological detritus they discover along the way. A one-take revelation in improvisation, the video skirts a line between found footage documentary and an exposé on process, revealing the complexities, triumphs and fractures of communication. Masters of None and the epic All Together Now mark Dodge and Kahn's departure from the dialogue driven, narrative nature of their earlier work. Ambient and textured, Masters of None captures the domestic life of a hooded tribe whose mundane activities coexist with the surreal. All Together Now presents a more complex universe set in a post-apocalyptic moment hauntingly close to the present. The twenty-six minute video, with a richly layered soundtrack, follows various "clans" as they forage for resources, develop interdependent relationships, and negotiate what's left of civilization. The threat of extinction looms alongside a sense of liberation from consumer trappings and corporate ownership, while an unanswerable question persists: how will we survive? In both pieces, facelessness and the absence of language push the artists' ongoing interrogation of communication, meaning and the possibly inextricable relationship between words, thoughts and forms. A deepening of their meditation on the collaborative process, Nature Demo is a partly choreographed, partly improvised piece in which the pair appears as an amateur film team attempting to make a "How-To" video about post-civilized life, but without any of the real skills needed for the task. Their methodical journey hovers between document and orchestrated farce as it poses questions about the average citizen's claim to competency in an unregulated landscape.
“You’re not saying humans are bad, you’re saying things go wrong, right?” Stanya Kahn says to the cameraman (Harry Dodge) at one point during the Los Angeles–based duo’s video I See You, Man, 2008. Kahn draws out the sentence so one expects that it, too, will be punctuated with a man. The peripatetic camera, its path as winding as Kahn’s improvised monologue, follows her goofy jaunt along the beach and into and out of the ocean. Dodge and Kahn have wooed audiences since 2004 with this kind of idiosyncratic storytelling, which hinges on Kahn’s sharp comic timing. Here, the duo also stretch into new territory; two of the four new pieces on view completely eschew language. All Together Now, 2008—titled after the Beatles song—is their most ambitious work to date. Apparently set in a postapocalyptic near future, it features several tribes wearing color-coded hoods, most of which bear comically crude faces delineated by tape or marker. They gather supplies, forage for food and water, make out, cook, and enthusiastically watch one another on surveillance cameras, while an unmasked contingent is staked out in a grubby modernist hotel room. The editing and sound track here are also fractured; funny bursts of pop songs are interspersed with ambient noise and backward-running audio loops. A touch of Yellow Submarine–style loopiness prevents this from being a bleak vision. The new society Dodge and Kahn envision offers the possibility of interdependence, resourcefulness, new family structures, and modes of emotional expression in the midst of dwindling resources. Human beings aren’t bad, they seem to suggest, but things have definitely gone wrong.
An artist duo puts the id in idiocracy.
I’d missed Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn’s debut at Elizabeth Dee Gallery in 2006, which is why the work of this Los Angeles–based duo was such a surprise to me at this year’s Whitney Biennial. In a show that was otherwise meh, their video, a sort of lo-fi tour de horizon of L.A. titled Can’t Swallow It, Can’t Spit It Out, was a true standout. In it, Dodge and Kahn excavated the psychological terrain beneath Tinseltown’s urban landscape and found, not surprisingly, that the place was a psychotic mess. Judging by their latest exhibition, so is the rest of the country. Dodge and Kahn offer up a quartet of videos, three of which (I See You Man, Nature Demo and 2006’s Masters of None) run around ten minutes long; the show’s centerpiece, All Together Now, clocks in at just under 27 minutes. Taken together, the pieces are as insightful a look at Bush’s America as anything I’ve seen in the past eight years. Not that the works are overtly political: They’re too surreal and caught up in their own nuttiness for that. But in its own way each paints a portrait of a body politic that’s all but brain-dead—if not completely headless. In Masters of None and All Together Now, this last punch line is telegraphed quite literally, as both offer images of groups of people wearing hoods over their noggins like hostages in a Hezbollah video, or prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Dodge and Kahn take the irony that both sides of the War on Terror have adopted this device, and leverage it into a symbol for the post-9/11 state of mind—which, as they apparently see it, is a tabula rasa, as if the shock wave of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers wiped away all critical thought in the home of the brave. Masters of None focuses on what’s evidently a suburban family wearing orange jumpsuits and bright pink sacks over their heads, each with a different, crudely drawn expression, from happy face to sad. They do everyday things, like squirting each other with hoses in the backyard, or mashing food into their “mouths” while watching a python devour its prey on television. At one point, a female member of the clan leads everyone in a game of charades. None of the others get the clues she’s signalling, and soon, her frustration grows until she finally collapses on the floor dead (we know this because after a quick edit, her cartoon eyes become Xs). She’s then carried outside and solemnly buried under a pile of leaves. This narrative, if you can call it that, is conveyed wordlessly; the soundtrack is filled with mumbles and grunts and voices distorted electronically beyond all recognition. The far more elliptical All Together Now is similarly “silent”: It begins with Kahn at the scene of what we can only presume is murder, since she’s covered in gore; as the video concludes, she’s naked in a pond, scrubbing blood off her bruised body. In between, her character takes a long strange trip that might be in flashback—or not. Once again we see a family, or maybe it’s two families, it’s hard to tell. One group, relaxing at what seems to be a spa, is covered in grime and dressed in matching purple pants and shirts (like Kahn, in fact). The other group seems to be in an unfinished basement or attic; they wear hoods and busy themselves, filling small sacks with dirt, or breaking up furniture or checking surveillance imagery on a laptop. These activities seem pointless and nefarious in equal measure: Imagine the Three Stooges in a bomb factory, or members of Heaven’s Gate running a supremely inept bed and breakfast. Kahn drifts in and out of such scenes and others, including a clam bake at the beach with a pair of kids, and an afternoon of pulling weeds from an abandoned highway. Both point to a peculiar leitmotif that seems to occur in all of Dodge and Kahn’s work—the environment’s total indifference to man. This subtext becomes text in Nature Demo, which follows two would-be survivalists (Dodge and Kahn) as they bumble around the woods and natter endlessly about building a “windblock” (a word that gets repeated like a mantra), without ever managing to do so; the best they can come up with is a sad, site-specific driftwood sculpture. I See You Man features Kahn at ocean’s edge, dancing into the water while shouting “I see you man!” and “I’m going to vote for you!” before ending with “I feel like I found what I was looking for.” Would that we all had. But, as this work suggests, we’re permanently trapped in an imperial idiocracy. If you think real change is coming this November, this show just might disabuse you of that notion.