A Kind of Author

Rodney Graham’s books, sculptures, photographs, films, objects, paintings, and music; his artistic involvements with Sigmund Freud, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Donald Judd, Richard Wagner, the Brothers Grimm, and Pablo Picasso; his practice of borrowing from, referencing, turning upside down, and adapting other works and authors; his constant oscillating between quotation and autobiography, between the discourse of the professional and the pose of the amateur, offer, when taken together, such a broad field for critical, interpretive, and theoretical approaches that looking back on thirty years of his work, one sometimes has the impression the artist is merely a postmodern fiction, the protagonist of an art novel related to the late twentieth century’s ambitious zeitgeist by an endless series of references and allusions, a figure who, as it were, goes about in disguise behind his various possible interpretations. This is not to say, however, that the character R. G. in any way disappears; on the contrary, despite all his different disguises, he remains palpably present in the work, so much so that one cannot get rid of the suspicion that this is a person trying to construct a kind of self-portrait, or rather, trying to sound out allusively and theatrically all the possibilities that remain open to art in his time.

Graham appears as a kind of co-author1 on the title pages of his first book projects, only for him to assume somewhat later the (apparent) sole responsibility for the text.2 Even later we see him in person3 for the first time—albeit only half-present, asleep, as it were. From 19974 on, however, it becomes difficult to imagine any of his films and photographs without him being in them. As an actor, he remains readily identifiable behind all the costumes, roles, and periods he appears in, from the eighteenth-century shipwrecked sailor to the nineteenth-century cowboy up to the twentieth-century Bohemian of the nineteen-sixties. Beneath all his disguises, Graham the character plays himself without ever becoming identifiable as an individual, as if he were someone who wanted both to hide and reveal himself in his work, an author to be identified with and at the same time to be doubted. His songs make full use of the forms of popular music, while leaving it unclear exactly on what stage they are to be played , whether at a pop concert or in a museum. They strengthen the impression that one of this artist’s most important genres is the self-portrait, with all the obvious and less than obvious implications this carries.

Let us set aside, for the moment, the more familiar conventions of acting and classical portraiture, and examine one particular work of his. Two objects—that is, two machines—confront each other in all their technical detail, and the action appears to play itself out without the intrusion of any human or psychological element.5 A freestanding 35 mm projector projects a film whose sole protagonist is a mechanical typewriter. The various parts of this archaic but elegant machine are presented in a series of slowly changing shots. Its design, like the film’s highly disciplined camera work, is reminiscent of the descriptive matter-of-factness of the twenties aesthetic of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). The metal plate displaying its brand name, Rheinmetall, also alludes to this—and we might mention here in passing that this firm was and is well-known for producing armaments, while the name conjures associations with the much fought-over sunken treasure of Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold). In the course of the ten-minute film, a fine, snow-like substance falls softly and slowly onto the machine, so that by the end it is almost completely covered. The technical apparatus mutates into a kind of winter landscape. All that can be heard is the mechanical noise of the projector. The typewriter’s streamlined efficiency and its poetic transformation are subverted, if not altogether upstaged, by the sound of the very device that is responsible for bringing them to light, making them visible, and awakening them to life: the projector. This was already the case in the films where Graham shines light over a body of moving water at night6 or explores the dark edge of a wood under the glare of a helicopter’s searchlight;7 the sound in these, as an agent of technology and industry, both constructs and deconstructs the supposedly unspoiled natural world. In the portrait of the typewriter, the body is mechanical and the landscape only a model. Nevertheless, the noise of the projector makes it clear that it is not hidden behind a soundproof wall as in the cinema, but is in fact a freestanding sculpture in the half-light of the screening room, a film machine that relates in a complex way to the typewriter. Two generators—one of images, the other of text—stand face to face, each the distorted mirror image of the other. Optical and mechanical technologies, as sophisticated as they are precise, turn fragments of images hidden in miniature form into moving pictures of a striking size and perfection, and project them into the exhibition space. Like the camera obscura8 and its later transformations into Constructivist cinema9 and historic coaches,10 or like the contrast between the cinematic image and the projector’s playful self-assertion,11 this work presents a staged astonishment at the fact that images become visible and at the manner in which they become visible. As is so often the case, Graham finds the means to represent this almost childish amazement (which nevertheless poses its questions very seriously) in the nineteenth century, and more precisely, in the pre- and early history of photography and film. In the process, he both celebrates these means and disenchants them. His reversion to techniques of image production that seem archaic today is no more to be taken at face value than is his supposed confession that he would most of all like to have been a French novelist from this period; both are the artist’s way of winking at his audience. What might sound or look like nostalgia is not only the re-presentation of problems in easy-to-grasp, quasi-didactic formulations, which have the advantage of providing attractive and seductive images, but somewhere behind it is also a strategy of distraction. Such deliberately arranged camouflage enables him to draw attention to the self-reflection on modernity so dominant in Western culture at the end of the twentieth century, while allowing the figure of the artist, that is, of the author, to emerge in the space between authority, relativization, and trivialization.

The confrontation of the projector with the typewriter casts onto the wall the emblematic image of the twentieth-century writer, a successor to the quill pen of earlier times, and a mechanical instrument that stands both for literature’s turn to the realities of modern life and for the integration of writing into industrial production. With an equally documentary enthusiasm, the camera records in all its clarity and precision the individual parts of this typewriter, which seem to guarantee the quality of the texts that will be produced by them. Then something else starts falling onto this creative apparatus, at first almost mesmerizingly, but soon completely covering it, indeed burying it so that it becomes unusable. While at the beginning we had the infinite possibilities of text, discourse, and criticism, we are left at the end with a beautiful and somewhat mysterious image. A vision of utter stasis is now contrasted with the image machine that continues to operate unceasingly—until the film loop plays the narrative of the two machines’ changing fortunes from the beginning again.

Let us take both objects as representative of different methods employed by the artist. In the nineteen-seventies, when he started working as an artist, Graham experimented with ways in which the world becomes and is made visible. In the early nineteen-eighties, he immersed himself for a long time in the study of Sigmund Freud’s writings, operating as an unusual kind of author, one who uses his own texts/objects to inscribe himself into the works of others. Yet, however much this period is dominated by works based on texts and objects, he never fully abandoned the practice of image-making. Starting with the large photographs of upside-down trees,12 continuing with the film of the artist sleeping in the backseat of a car,13 and heightened ever since his “pirate film,”14 this aspect of Graham’s work returns to dominate again. It is soon accompanied by another practice, already present in latent form, that addresses the public in its own particularly emotive manner—the pop and rock music of Graham in his incarnation as singer-songwriter. However, as his typewriter film suggests, where the image apparatus confronts the text machine, this is not about one practice opposing or supplanting another, but rather about their unavoidable coexistence. If we consider the two images in this work metaphorically as a double portrait, we might perhaps be able to take a further step and think of the surface on which it is projected as a mirror membrane between the two objects, bringing to mind the theories of Jacques Lacan—not only because Graham has been interested in this writer since early on in his career. In particular, it is reminiscent of the mirror stage postulated by Lacan, where the child experiences self-confirmation by looking in the mirror, where it learns to identify itself as an individual, resulting in “the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes [assume] an image. . . .”15 Taking this admittedly somewhat tenuous comparison a little further, we would have to talk about this work in terms of mutual identification and transformation, with the image-generator / visual artist recognizing himself in the text-machine / writer and vice versa, and with both developing and changing by identifying with, and reacting against, the other.

Later, the same pattern recurs—only this time with different players, dizzying and hallucinatory. The projector is now stripped to banal functionality, the moving image a body in a trance. It is no longer the drugged artist asleep in the backseat of a car driving through the night, the vivid evocation of that other state of being, between sleep, dream, and the realm of the unconscious.16 Nor does it involve the highly designed introduction of a prose poem by Stéphane Mallarmé into the substitute body of a piece of clothing tailored to his size reflecting the poetic and disturbing points of contact between reality, thought, imagination, and the unconscious.17 It is closer to the uncannily familiar appearance of a film, which oscillates between being an event in the external world that occurs somewhere in outer space and being an optical irritation inside the observer’s mind.18 Rather the emanation of light in this film only partly allows itself to be captured by reality. Shining out of the darkness, a crystal chandelier begins to revolve, slowly at first, and then ever faster, before, slowing again, it comes to a stop, at which point it begins to rotate in the opposite direction, only this time with decreasing momentum, until it comes to a complete rest. The power source for these magical rotations remains hidden; only the peculiar dynamic of its movement in the opposite direction allows us to guess what the title actually refers to. The decorative lamp lends itself readily to this deeply absorbed play with the laws of dynamics (and optics); through manipulation it becomes a kind of dancing body. It throws off excess energy, only to gradually use itself up and come to a halt at a (temporary) standstill. By achieving the extraordinary, the figure overspends itself, then regains its energy in the period of exhaustion that precedes a revived effort. The biological rhythm exhibited by this moving mechanism will be familiar to anyone trying to achieve highly ambitious goals, and not least of all to an artist. Phases of highly energetic production aimed at completing a successful work are interspersed with flat, fallow ones, which can be experienced either as welcome interruptions or as periods of depressive inaction, in a process where—among others—manic-depressive cycles are at work. Faced with the drama proposed here—of the scintillating dancer, of the artist swinging between highs and lows—the machine generating these images remains consistently indifferent, indeed callous, in so far as it continues to repeat the performance without respite. If we think of the typewriter as an emblem of the artist working with and through language, then the pirouetting chandelier’s performance can be seen as a frivolous artistic allegory of the performer, of Graham the actor adopting a series of roles. Both owe their appearance to a mechanism whose technology and design have been minutely worked out and precisely calculated, which at the end of the day allows moving images to appear in the cinema auditorium at the flick of a switch. As in the early works,19 the possibility that images, facts, and questions should become visible at all has lost none of its fascination. Each manifest theme, the ever-present generators of these events suggest, is linked to a phenomenon that is as elaborate as it is extremely fragile, because in the final analysis it is itself ephemeral. For all the clarity that many works superficially possess, there is an unmistakable amused skepticism that anything like images should exist at all, that they should be capable of conveying meaning or indeed of enduring over any period of time.

By contrast, Graham’s more recent, almost ten-minute-long film seems extremely sober.20 It transports the artist almost forty years back in time, to his youth in the late nineteen-sixties, and could be described as a piece of fictive auto-archeology. You can imagine this is how the twenty-year-old artist, still trying to find his way in the art world, might have looked: shoulder-length hair, checked shirt, jeans, work shoes; in other words, mildly anti-bourgeois with an allusion to a quasi-proletarian work ethic. And you can imagine a late Fluxus performance being filmed this way: in black-and-white, in a single take, with an unsteady and occasionally indecisive handheld camera, in a manner that emphasizes both proximity and artlessness, with the end coming abruptly in a welter of scratched film stock. And you can imagine an action playing out in just this way: the actor sitting casually in a chair, motionless except for his throwing arm, aiming a series of potatoes (a reference to the “poor art” of the time?) at a large gong standing several meters away (representing the alternative posed by the Far East?). He only occasionally hits it, and only at irregular intervals, and when he does he seems to hesitate for a moment and meditate on the sound it produces. It is all rather familiar: repetitive actions, an unvarying sequence of events, hardly any climax, and with the audience nonchalant, patient, but showing hardly any visible reaction. An exercise in Minimalism that takes a scornful dig at art and displays just the slightest hint of humor. It is someone standing on the shoulders of others who already did a similar kind of art before, Dada, happenings, and Fluxus. And it is no coincidence, Graham tells us, that his film refers to an anecdote from a Pink Floyd concert in which the drummer played a solo piece in just this way. It was the time period when the aesthetic breakthroughs of the postwar years were seeping into mainstream popular culture. The portrait of the artist as a young man shows him as someone who was born a little too late, knows this, and must nevertheless make his way through a period of adaptation. In the works that accompany the film, he references masters like Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia,21 process-oriented sculpture,22 and Minimalist practices of concentration and intensity,23 distilling the potatoes that hit the gong into vodka, pouring it into a bottle with a concrete poetry label, and presenting it in a vitrine;24 the duds, however, are processed into potato salad (and then probably eaten or forgotten). The whole process becomes a footnote to an ironic commentary on the theme of experiment and failure in his early work.

In contrast to the quasi-allegorical “self-portraits” of the earlier two films, Graham positions himself here in a definite historical and artistic context. He gives himself a partial and obviously fictive biography, which nevertheless possesses just enough plausibility; one can imagine his beginnings as really having been something like this. Unlike his text and book works from the eighties and early nineties, he no longer assumes the textual identity of another person from another time to deliver his critical commentary on modernity, a cornerstone for him, which he simultaneously puts into question. Graham presents himself as an actor, but not as the actor of his recent costume films, where he plays the clichéd mass-media roles of pirate, cowboy, or prisoner, and where his persona markets itself in fantasies that are as joyful as they are vain, using these disguises to portray other forms of modernity’s persistence. Instead, he pursues a strategy of self-appropriation, sketching out a starting point that is typical for his generation and milieu, one that seems to be characterized by a particular feeling of stagnation, half-hearted avant-gardism, and boredom. This imagined situation does not only have its counterpart in Graham’s own slow and convoluted development as an artist, in what might be called his period of cautious research. In retrospect, the performance, dated to 1969, points to the start of a period in Western art when the neo-avant-garde of the nineteen-sixties seemed to be running out of steam—in apparent contrast to the political and cultural developments of the time. A period of incubation slowly set in, characterized by a growing awareness of the limits, errors, and dead ends posed by modernity, in the course of which the more thoughtful artists tried to subject modernity to an open and critical reassessment, aiming to define their own position in relation to it in a way that did not involve mere crude denunciation. Well into the nineteen-eighties, Graham was preoccupied with reassessing a particular selection of the founding texts of modernity. He quite literally shut himself in a library to study them, and, by manipulating them slightly, revealed their individual projects in a spirit of astonishment and respect. The resulting works are for the most part those of a reader who represents his own efforts at understanding texts in visual terms. As it happens, this reader’s intellectual curiosity can never be separated from his fascination for those strange objects of desire, the books themselves. He puts them in expensive slipcases and organizes them on shelves whose forms are borrowed from other, eminently material but nevertheless extremely mysterious objects, namely, the sculptures of his older colleague Donald Judd. This floating relationship between content (text/idea) and form (container/object) is distinctly characteristic of the connoisseur, the enthusiast, and the amateur, an attitude that Graham has cultivated as a cover for his many activities to this day. Through it, he not only lends his works an effortlessness tinted with irony, but also proposes bricolage (and in his case, a very precise kind of bricolage) as an intellectual and artistic strategy.

The film of the potato-lobbing artist presents, in visually condensed form, the beginnings of a career, and in a strange way it corresponds to other works made in recent years that place Graham the artist-actor into the role of an outsider in a similar manner, namely, in the private sphere of an amateur or dilettante, whether as a music lover25 or as a dandy of hard-edge or color-field painting.26 The apparent marginality of the tentative, “potato-lobbing” beginnings returns as a camouflaged, mellow, artistic exercise, as an ironically comfortable niche world. Does he want to frame the work that made him famous and brought him from the nineteen-seventies into the new century with works like these? The work as a whole would then stand, as it were, between quotation marks, with the proviso that its author worked not so much as an author in the common sense of the word, but as “a kind of author.” The beginner and the amateur would then be rhetorical figures who flank the work and identify the individual works as models in the sense of investigative aesthetic experiments, as models of thought. As if, that is, everything were being said in the open, equivocal form of the subjunctive. If that is the case, a fine and unsettling contradiction emerges between this artistic approach, subject to its “proviso,” and the artist’s own unsparing dedication to his art, the aesthetic and material precision he pursues in the individual works. Every apparently ephemeral but carefully produced book object, like the films finished to the professional standards of the industry, deliberately encourage the viewer to forget how tentative, fragile, experimental, and contradictory the bases of the project really are. This is not merely a case of a primarily intellectual artist wanting to achieve objectivity through craftsmanship, or—if one thinks of Graham the musician—social acceptance. With the successful objet d’art, and its material presence, attractiveness, and durability, the artist enters the world of luxury goods. He seizes hold of the solidity of the realities and dreams of a bourgeois society that continues to exist—not in order to disavow it a second time by affirmatively infiltrating it, but in a highly dangerous attempt at illuminating something of the original Enlightenment ideas of modernity amid all its failures and self-doubts. For this, he does not need to take on the role of the fool, the outsider, the poète maudit; the mask of the contemporary artist, which shimmers between student and amateur, is enough: it is just the “kind of author” that is required. 

From the literary adaptations and manipulations of the early book objects, through the objectification of Freud in the forms of Donald Judd and his inscriptions into the genres of Hollywood cinema, to the borrowings from the visual language of Jeff Wall, Graham has pursued a strategy of adaptation, seizure, and transformative appropriation. “Appropriation” was the artistic slogan of the nineteen-eighties. However, in Graham’s works, the emphasis on the object used has gradually shifted. If Graham started by appropriating other people’s works and ideas, he eventually transformed this into a project of self-appropriation, in which open, disguised, hidden, and allegorized self-portraits play a central role. Such a procedure is, however, only tenuously connected with such things as psychology, self-analysis. Taking oneself as a character and playing around with it is, in Graham’s work, more a way of continuing to observe an unfinished project of modernity, one that strikes a balance between statement and presumption, authority and hobby, and is as precarious as it is joyful. For him, participatory observation is the only way ahead.

1 Lenz, 1983

2 The System of Landor’s Cottage: A Pendant to Poe’s Last Story, 1987

3 Halcion Sleep, 1994

4 Vexation Island, 1997

5 Rheinmetall / Victoria 8, 2003

6 Two Generators, 1984

7 Edge of a Wood, 1999

8 Camera Obscura, 1979

9 Millenial Project for an Urban Plaza, 1986, and Millenial Project for an Urban Plaza (with Cappuccino Bar), 1992

10 Camera Obscura Mobile, 1996, and Millennial Time Machine, 2003

11 Coruscating Cinnamon Granules, 1996

12 From 1989

13 Halcion Sleep, 1994

14 Vexation Island, 1997

15 Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York, 2002), p. 76.

16 Halcion Sleep, 1994

17 White Shirt (for Mallarmé) Spring 1993, 1992

18 Coruscating Cinnamon Granules, 1996

19 75 Polaroids, 1976; Illuminated Ravine, 1980; Camera Obscura, 1980

20 Lobbing Potatoes at a Gong, 1969, 2006

21 Still, 2006

22 Potatoes Piled up to Block My Studio Door 1968, 2006

23 Lead Gong R57/4B 1966, 2006

24 Bottle of Potato Vodka with Vitrine, 2006

25 3 Musicians (Members of the Early Music Group “Renaissance Fare” Performing Matteo di Perugia’s “le Greygnour Bien” at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, Late September 1977), 2006

26 The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10, 1962, 2007

Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott