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Victor Coleman

Vera Frenkel: Likely Stories (1982)

at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario
Vanguard, May, 1982
[ 819 words ]


Vera Frenkel's Likely Stories: Text/Image/Sound Works for Video and Installation, is a survey of six videotapes from summer 1978 to 1981 and a reprise of her installation, Her Room in Paris, which continues to develop Frenkel's parapsychoanalytical investigation of Cornelia Lumsden, a character who very neatly straddles the fact/fiction line, and whose persona challenges the predominantly empirical nature of truth.

All story is a fabrication, something manufactured by an organization of research and imagination. Cornelia Lumsden, for Her Room in Paris, makes tangible knick-knacks and aspects of expatriate life in romantic, if artistically in decline, Europe, whose roots and tentacles go deep into the mystery of pre-tech experience.

Frenkel's videotapes are essentially pre-tech, really an extension of the pen (Frenkel is a published poet and prolific polemicist), but here, with moving images, the scripts and personae form a solution, and Frenkel is the medium through which we contact the deceased Comelia Lumsden. Parts of the tapes have the texture of soap opera, others the tight-shot claustrophobia of low budget cable talk shows. But always Frenkel's image, in a wide range of expository roles, dominates the video screen. From the biographical notes in the catalogue: 'At times she used some form of the Other as a mirror for the self as in this story. 'Despite this, her depictions were rarely self-referential. They escape tautology every time, turning mirror into frame.'

But mise en scène is tautological, i.e., [in film] 24 frames per second of subtly changing repetitions of the same image/statement, and Frenkel brings this to bear on her installation, which amounts to a four-dimensional framing device for the tangible particulars of her vision. Four dimensional because the psyche or imagination of the viewer is presented with so many windows: the specifically labelled 'The View from Her Window', the video screen, the large mirror, and the three doorways leading out into the old Agnes Etherington house, effectively incorporating the outside (or 'other') space in the otherwise tiny installation.

Frenkel has rummaged around the Agnes Etherington house and found a number of significant objects, 'd'art' and otherwise, thereby infusing her installation with the familiarity of home base. And in many ways this underlines the ambiguity of her treatment of the truth, providing us with a duplicitous collection of things real placed in the imagination, and imaginary objects existing in real space.

In some ways the legend of Cornelia Lumsden is the genteel coupling, in allegory, of expatriation and National neglect. Her novel, The Alleged Grace of Fat People, and her stories, are either lost or forgotten.

One of the more operative signifiers in this installation is the old-fashioned stereopticon and the postcard stereo views that accompany it. These double views are essentially two-dimensional photos of the same thing brought together to reveal a three dimensional image with optical depth. The active demand on the viewer to 'complete' these images is exemplary, containing as it does the artist's insistence on the participation of her audience.

'Lies. We had to come to this sooner or later.'

'As a commentator, I do not tell lies because I am obliged to. It is a kindness I carry out for the general good, lies being more reliable than the truth.' (from the catalogue)

But Frenkel's lies are contiguous with her truths. The two are interchangeable antecedents which effectively turn the historical into the histrionic, the facts of life into rumours of our death. Lumsden's charms come out in twice-told stories, as do the personalities in Stories from the Front (and the Back): A True Blue Romance, all of whom are repeating stories told to Frenkel earlier off camera, hence rehearsed, anecdotes. Here she investigates what kind of fuel drives the auto in auto-biography.

'The Storyteller's remorse is infinite.
'Her face is, as usual, masked. She engages, as do all storytellers, in fantasies of rescue.
'She imagines she is needed.'

Frenkel's imaginary novelist has invaded her aesthetic to the point of domination. Details of the installation are executed in a deliberately casual manner. Part of one corner has been painted, part of a door leading out to the Agnes Etherington 'Grey Room' and part of the bureau that is utilised as a convenient TV stand have been painted, but the paint jobs have been 'interrupted' and remain unfinished. The Lumsden tapes do not wholly resolve the mystery of Lumsden's life. Although her death has been alluded to, no evidence has come to light as to how she died. Rumours of suicide are whispered in the clean new foyer of the modern addition to the gallery. The curators and docents deny any knowledge of her whereabouts. A woman in Montreal becomes the embodiment of a name. We are left to anticipate the further unfolding of this epic travelling installation as we get closer, much closer, to the lies which tell the truth in Frenkel's complex fabrication.

Vanguard, May, 1982

Text: © Victor Coleman. All rights reserved.


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