The Canadian Art Database

John Noel Chandler

Vera Frenkel: A room with a view [1979]

artscanada #228/ 229, August - September 1979.
[ 4,018 words ]

Silence is so windowful.

 — Gertrude Stein, What Happened: Act One

In her art, as in her life, she had a hunger for truth — a voracious appetite — and left no leaf unturned.

Cornelia Lumsden, Flashbacks

In her new work Vera Frenkel has opened windows on new prospects, enlightening and freshening the dim and musty salons, galleries and drawing rooms of art. For many years the window has been an archetypal image in Frenkel's work. A window is not only a frame through which we may gain a perspective on the world outside, or that proscenium arch through which we view the life of art. It is also an opening, an interval, or interstice — that space and / or time between objects, things, events. It is a silence and a void.

Most of the intellectual progress of our chapter in the history of ideas has been made by people who have examined those interstices between the various fields and disciplines. Frenkel has said, 'The truth is always in the interstices between things. A piece of evidence is always a manifest ambiguity; what is stated masks what isn't.' She made this statement in regard to her life, but it is equally true of her art and her manner or process of art. In life and art one is both author and detective of suspense thrillers.

For as long as I have known her, Frenkel has been both visual artist and poet. At first her artistic activity seemed to alternate between these two forms, then eventually they came together, not simply by her printmaking illustrating the poems, but rather in a somewhat hybrid form which was neither quite one nor the other. These works became increasingly three-dimensional and environmental over the years, and gradually the participation of the spectator or audience became less and less passive, ultimately depending, in some pieces, upon the involvement of the audience for the completion of the work. String Games was such a piece. She had been using video before this, but thus far the use of video was primarily as a means of recording, printing. In String Games video was used as a means of interconnecting participants of the game who were in different cities.

The series of works called No Solution — A Suspense Thriller uses the familiar format from popular culture, the detective novel, as an armature — a framework for supporting and assembling visual material. In these works, volunteers were required to assume roles. The directions for these performance pieces specified that 'the players must invent all circumstances, personae, sequences of events, motives, etc., based on the information given at the outset by the victim. The result is a kind of absurdity, which makes perfect sense by itself. By invention and improvisation based on this invention, the players...must establish the identity of the Killer.' Improvisation of this kind, where the audience suggests the basic elements of characterization and plot, has become quite familiar to theatre-going audiences in the past 20 years. What makes these performances of particular interest, however, is that this form is being explored by someone coming to it from the position of the visual arts. The series of works titled No Solution — A Suspense Thriller soon arrived at a stage of development in which most of the media and forms of artistic expression were employed. Signs of a Plot, number five in the series, was an extremely successful multimedia work. Briefly, it was the story of someone's disappearance. Foul play was suspected, though there was no body. An investigation took place and various personae were interviewed and gave testimony. Bits of evidence were accumulated. But there was no solution; instead, one of the persons was killed. Nellie, the housekeeper, who knitted her final curtain, committed suicide — with the help of the narrator and her Bunraku (a form of Japanese puppetry) assistants. The narrator manipulates the character, both of whom in this instance were played by Vera Frenkel herself. Pioneering, exploring the unknown, 'is partly suicidal,' she once told me. At any rate, it was curtains for Nellie for she 'knew too much' (was the omniscient narrator?).

Signs of a Plot is not only a videotaped narrative, it is an installation. Most of Frenkel's works of the last few years only completely exist during their exhibition. Only fragments and remnants of them remain, though they may be reconstructed. In its initial exhibition, Signs of a Plot occupied a room. In the middle of the room stood a puppet theatre. Around the theatre was a fireplace 'hearth' of tiles. Between the curtains, in place of a traditional puppet show, was a television screen. The 'suspense thriller' was to be seen on this screen. The 'puppet' parts were played by real people (friends of the artist and not professional actors) who assumed their stereotypical roles and improvised their lines as though they were pros.

What we have here are three analogues of 'windows': the fireplace (which we can look at and through endlessly, dreaming dreams), the proscenium arch of the stage (through which we see enacted works of art), and the television itself (looked at today by more people and for more hours than any other form of window, and with less benefit). Remember how we used to fantasize about what TV would be if only artists could influence it? I for one had stopped thinking that for years, mostly as a result of seeing so many mindless and unaesthetic 'experiments' by 'video artists'. But here, in Signs of a Plot and in subsequent works by Frenkel, we begin to see again its artistic possibilities.

At Signs of a Plot one could go 'backstage' — behind the puppet theatre — and there you would see yet another television monitor with a silent text, one sentence, or part of a sentence, moving from bottom to top, every ten seconds. Like the narrative on the other monitor, this too has a 'beginning, middle and end'. The installation also included properties, clothes worn by the characters, and a reconstruction of the set where the Nellie scenes were shot — her chair, lamp table and lamp, and a window made up of photographic images used in No Solution pieces, framed by curtains. After Signs of a Plot was disassembled, it remained only in photographs and in memory (both human and magnetic). It was probably thinking about the significance of this transitoriness (which every actor and anyone associated with the stage is familiar with) which stimulated Frenkel's next work, Listening to Video, which, along with another new work, Her Room in Paris, I recently saw at York University's downtown gallery.

In Listening to Video, the monitors and tapes are gone; so too is the puppet theatre. In place of the videotapes are four audio tape recorders, one placed at each corner of the hearth (which remains). One tape is a recording from the soundtrack of the video with the narrative, playing back the voices of the actors. On another cassette is a voice recording of the silent text that had been on the black-and-white monitor. On the other two tapes one can hear the artist talking about the Signs of a Plot — on one she gives us a play-by-play report as she watches the videotape, that is, she describes in words what would be seen if one were actually watching the original. On the final recorder we hear Frenkel reminiscing; it is a 'play-by-play remembering.' The visitor to the gallery can start and stop the cassette decks. I had them all going at once — layering, texturing the air with sounds. For those who prefer (or as the artist put it, 'for those who are visually inclined') there are also typed transcripts of each of the four tapes. As in the original Signs of a Plot, there is a reconstruction of the set with the big red armchair. Where the puppet theatre would have stood there is instead a field of artificial grass, with a video screen on the ground at its centre. On one wall 'where it can be watched' is another piece of artificial grass in the shape of a television screen. There was a slight trace of the funereal in this installation. It was a shadow of someone or something which had passed away. Even the grass reminded me of Sandburg's poem about the grass which grows where battles have been fought — 'The passenger asks the conductor: What place is this? Where are we now? / I am the grass / I cover all.' The gallery handout quite rightly said of this piece, 'Listening to video introduces the viewer into fields of possibilities that suggest that truths hover between acknowledged ways of perceiving things. Located at the meeting point of several disciplines, and using the conventions of these to provide concurrent framings of the same reality' the work establishes new insights. Listening to Video is a significant and major work. Had it been exhibited by itself I am sure it would have generated much discussion and been the subject of considerable controversy. However, it was enormously overshadowed by the work exhibited with it: Her Room in Paris.

Her Room in Paris is the first phase of Frenkel's new major work, The Secret Life of Cornelia Lumsden, 'an extended work in progress using various combinations of media to reconstruct the life of a little known, but brilliant, Canadian novelist who lived in Paris between the wars.' According to the gallery handout, 'Frenkel uses the conventions of several arts juxtaposed in unexpected ways. In Her Room in Paris, these formats intersect, using as a basis the popular literary structures of the Romance and the Suspense Thriller. By these layerings of time, space, and format, Frenkel continues to explore the unknown territory between image and idea, text and speech, fact and fiction, perception and reality.'

Frenkel creates something from nothing. The subject of her art is missing, is not objectified. Yet it is these voids, these hollows, which hold our attention. In Her Room in Paris we never meet Cornelia Lumsden. And yet we leave knowing her, believing in her reality. In her place we are given clues, evidence. Her room is recreated. What we see we are told is a reconstruction of the 'Cornelia Lumsden Room' at the Centre Culturel Canadien in Paris (which itself, we assume, is a reconstruction of her actual room somewhere in Paris between the wars). Frenkel is fond of such displacements of time and place.

We are introduced to Cornelia Lumsden by entering and exploring her room, reconstructed. Her furniture is there, as are some of her clothes and other belongings. When we enter her room we enter a 'set'; we are 'on stage'. Perhaps we have lines to speak but have forgotten them? No matter, there is no audience there, only other actors (and sometimes one is alone). I have been there alone and with others. It is good both ways. When alone I pry and snoop around more. I look at her books, look in her trunk, see the view out the window. When with others, I tend to sit and watch TV. The TV has replaced the mirror in her vanity. But when we look into this mirror we see, not reflections of Cornelia Lumsden, but images of people who know her talking about her. Just as one gets much of one's identity from those who see and perceive one, so we learn about Cornelia from her friends and enemies. From the video we meet various witnesses who give contradictory accounts of Ms. Lumsden and her work. The truth about the novelist must lie somewhere between these accounts.

Soon we discover that the videotape itself is a reconstruction, a drama, enacted or re-enacted, just as the room is reconstructed, to give us clues and evidence as to the identity of Ms. Lumsden. Four of the witnesses are played convincingly by the author / artist herself. The other three are played by Tim Whiten, the sculptor, colleague and friend of Frenkel. The videotape has many scenes in which these characters talk about Cornelia Lumsden. We see her through the eyes of The Friend talking with The Confidant, then from the perspective of The Expert lecturing to the Member of the Audience. In other scenes The Rival and The Lover argue about who she really was, and finally a CBC reporter gives us her cool analysis. As you see, these characters, though individualized in their video representations, are universalized as to types in their conceptualizations. That is, the people we think are witnesses we discover were not actually witnesses but rather represent the types of witnesses possible in this situation.

These dramatis personae played by Frenkel and Whiten, improvised their lines as they went along, given certain limiting parameters. And we learn about Ms. Lumsden not so much from what is said as from what isn't.

There is a lot of humour in this work. The characters themselves are delightful. The group of people I participated with in the experience of this work laughed a lot. After viewing the tape, you find that the artifacts in the room were properties in the sets of the video portion of this complex sculpture / theatre work of art. The clothes in the trunk are the clothes worn by the various characters, each having its own typical colour. The cover of the chaise lounge (a 1920s psychiatrist's couch) is the same as the cover on the table at which the CBC reporter was sitting. On the floor before the vanity is a mannequin's arm and hand holding the printed texts of the witnesses' speeches. There are five texts for each of the three witnesses (Friend, Rival and Expert). Each text is in a different typeface: green italics for the Rival, blue serif for the Expert, brown sans serif for the Friend. The mannequin's wrist is encircled with lace and the arm is covered with a black Bunraku sleeve — elements from an earlier work, Signs of a Plot. Visible evidence of a link between this work and previous works, they are also among Frenkel's catalogue of universal symbols, as are her use of X's, windows and curtains — very prominent elements in Her Room in Paris.

Frenkel's video works of the past few years have been compared to the film by Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, Last Year At Marienbad. In Her Room in Paris, as in Listening to Video and Signs of a Plot, people and events are given shape by surrounding voids with words and things: testimony, clues, evidence. Robbe-Grillet, referring to Last Year At Marienbad, Jealousy and The Voyeur, also spoke of their hollows and voids: 'The narrative covers everything as far as the void, and then everything subsequent to it; and we then try to join the two so as to dispose of that disquieting emptiness. But the opposite happens; the emptiness spreads, it fills everything.' (Robbe-Grillet in 'Last Words on Last Year.') The same thing happens in Frenkel's video work. She does not conceal Cornelia Lumsden, she reveals through omission. Through omission we can imagine many things.

But though there are similarities between Frenkel's work and Last Year, there are also decided differences. Alain Resnais wanted to somehow include the spectator more directly in the work but found the nature of cinema made that impossible. They sit there in a darkened room, isolated. 'The real world would be introduced by the spectators themselves as they watched the film,' he wrote, but later added, 'It is impossible to include them in it.' With Frenkel's use of video, however, the possibility exists and is realized. The video monitor and its tape are objects among other objects in a room. The spectator does or does not watch, comes and goes, moves about the room, becomes part of the work itself. More than that, the spectator becomes implicated in the drama itself — at times a detective, examining the clues and evidence, attempting to unravel the mysteries; at times a co-conspirator, conjuring up with the author / actors the identity of the unknown; and sometimes even becoming, in the detective suspense thrillers, a possible suspect in an unknown, communal crime. In these ways, Vera Frenkel's work has more in common with avant-garde theatre than with either the new novel or cinema.

The students of Hesse's Glass Bead Game were required to write 'Lives' — fictional autobiographies set in any past period with its surrounding culture and intellectual climate. In so doing they learned to regard their own persons as masks, 'as the transitory garb of an entelechy.' Hesse wrote, 'To study history means submitting to chaos and nevertheless retaining faith in order and meaning. It is a very difficult task, and possibly a tragic one.' And Vera Frenkel adds, 'Art can kill. Never imagine otherwise.'

Those of us who 'do' philosophy, mathematics, literature, history, art, are all players of the glass bead game, and believers in order and meaning amidst the chaos. We invent new moves, alter the rules, explore new ground, 'use the familiar', as Frenkel said, 'to arrive at the strange and unknown.' 'Artistic creation,' Leon Trotsky wrote in Literature and Revolution, is always a complicated turning inside out of old forms, under the influence of new stimuli which originate outside art...The effort to set art free from life, to declare it a craft unto itself, devitalizes and kills art. The very need of such an operation is an unmistakable symptom of intellectual decline.' It is your move.

'There has to be an element of wondering for art to be art for me,' said Frenkel. Yet as for the means, the 'artifice', she wants that to be clear. Her work, more than most radically new work among art today, is accessible to people, at least potentially so. She is working on a piece now that might be telecast, and / or performed in a 200-seat theatre. It will be a 'musical' of sorts. 'I'm beginning to call it a musical although the songs are just extensions of narrative, but intensified from the insistent poetic cadences to something both lighter and edgier, using popular formats for songs / dances of the recent past: the tango, the fox-trot, the ballad, the dirge.' This new work, of course, will be the second in the Cornelia Lumsden series. In Her Room in Paris, one of the characters on the video is a CBC reporter, doing a series on 'Our Lost Canadians'. Cornelia Lumsden is one of these 'lost Canadians', relatively unknown in her own country, who worked and lived in voluntary exile in Paris between the wars, as did so many other expatriates during those years. Like so many others, she found the intellectual climate there for her art more vigorous and permissive.

Cornelia Lumsden and Gertrude Stein, both of whom I quoted at the beginning of this article, as among those precursors of Frenkel's own work, were artists in exile. They lived not far apart in Paris. When Gertrude first moved into 27 rue de Fleuris with her brother Leo she promised herself an annual trip back home to America. She did go that first year, but then not again for 31 more years. On a Saturday evening you could find many of the avant-garde at their salon. They came to talk about art. Especially the other artists in exile would be there. An American's study in Paris would not have been thought complete without at least one visit to the Steins, and some of them, like Marsden Hartley and Max Weber, were regular visitors.

There is, however, another sense in which an artist can be in exile, and this is even more disquieting and disruptive of practicing one's art, since one is not quite certain what one is homesick for. This is to be an advanced or avant-garde artist and to be unrecognized, misunderstood or not understood at all. How many such artists are appreciated by their parents, their countrymen? Artists have always been attracted to centres like Paris between the wars to escape isolation, to be among those who know who they are and what it is that they are doing. Such nourishment is necessary to art.

In re-creating Cornelia Lumsden, Vera Frenkel has created an archetypal 'lost Canadian' and an archetypal 'artist in exile'. She discovered that she is herself an example of this 'entelechy', a potentialization of this actuality. Pioneering is exciting but lonely. New ideas cry out to be shared. 'I have an enormous faith in staying where one is and doing one's work as one can,' she wrote. 'It's just that I need the other half; the viewer who is a peer. One gets a bit tired of inventing the forms and then inventing the means of sharing them and then inventing the audience. Especially if all of that needn't be so lonely.'

Of course, though Toronto itself is an art centre of sorts, attracting artists from all parts of Canada to work there, it is not the same as Paris between the wars. There are avant-courriers there, but no avant-garde. Its advanced artists rarely see each other to talk about art. There is no salon there like the Steins'. Hence the isolation felt there. As Gertrude said of Oakland, California, 'When you get there there is no there there.'

An artist's self-image, like anyone else's, depends so much upon how he is seen by others, upon recognition. For an artist this means having exhibitions, getting reviewed, getting bought and collected. In Canada, as in the United States, the tax revenue people place all the emphasis on sales and income generated from one's art. If you don't sell, they claim, you are not a professional artist (entitled to deduct expenses from gross profits like any other businessman) but rather a hobbyist, a Sunday painter merely dabbling and spending free time. You can't deduct the cost of your new fishing pole and outboard motor unless you make a living from fishing, they say. What a blow to an artist to have the revenue people say you aren't an artist after all. Talk of identity crises. For the past two or three months, Revenue Canada has been questioning Vera Frenkel's status as a professional artist. Meanwhile, other arms of government are also scrutinizing her work, trying to determine what is art and what is collectable. Art Bank has never purchased a major piece by Frenkel. They have valued her opinion enough to have had her on purchasing committees, but they have missed all her major exhibitions, and recently have joined the revenue people in her once-private and intimate studio, looking for signs of art. Vera wrote to me: 'I'm in this strange, post-coital, pre-trauma state in which, on the one hand a section of the world is telling me that the most essential part of me doesn't exist, and on the other, a supposedly benign section of the world is coming to my studio to see what (if anything) of mine is art. Well, it is more than enough...'

In preparing for the visits of these people, she cleaned out her studio. Her description of it is like, on an intensified scale, Her Room in Paris: 'It is a midden. There are layers and layers of reality, sloughed off, transformed retroactively, and now surfacing in the form of letters I wrote twenty years ago or more, or received; photographs I'd forgotten existed for more than half my life; working notes, drawings; posters for shows — mine and friends'. It is like the most elaborate version of my most elaborate work...' Her Room in Toronto.

But whatever Revenue Canada, the Art Bank, and anyone else in Toronto and elsewhere decide about Vera Frenkel's work as an artist, there is among peers no doubt at all. She is an artist of extraordinary perception and insight. And though she has been an artist for many years, I feel that in her new work all the previous potentialities are becoming manifest. She raises other fields of possibilities, still other views outside still other windows.

artscanada #228/ 229, August - September 1979.

Text: © John Noel Chandler. All rights reserved.

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