The Canadian Art Database

William Wood

Skinjobs: Songs of Experience
The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
[Joanne Tod, Stan Douglas, Jamelie Hassan, Robert Wiens, David Tomas, Sorel Cohen, Joey Morgan, Stan Deniston, RenéeVan Halm, Carol Wainio, Mary Scott, Nancy Johnson, Andy Patton, and Wanda Koop
[including subsequent letters & response]

C Magazine #11, December 1986.
[ 9,629 words ]

Are You Experienced?

Invoking William Blake...

— the opening words of the catalogue essay for Songs of Experience

Sushi. Cold fish. That's what my ex-wife calls me...

— Rick Deckard, Blade Runner

There are few sacred names left, so why do Jessica Bradley and Diana Nemiroff pick on poor old Blake for a title? The wooly-headed paranoid busied about drawing visions and railing against the Reynolds academy, and here he is bent into state service as a victim of 'spiritual alienation' in order to found what must be an alienated academy. Yet his enlistment is heralded as part of a 'new order of representation' based on experience (presumably not the ecstatic type favoured by the poet), and, with mounting irony, the founding and the theorizing of this project is done in Ottawa, happily never the home of a 'new order' of any sort.

Further I read that Blake has been called up in honor of his 'critical voice,' which leads to the question: why just a 'critical voice'? Does not that tend to segregate criticism as a bodiless form, a sort of immaterial afterthought of dominant experience? Is criticality part of the utterance, something that engages the moving voice, or is it merely carried along as a product of expressive breath? This matter is important, since criticism is more than vocal here, is indeed given to be the stuff of the exhibition — critical art bolstered by critical writing arising from the critical 'reassessment of representation.' Even so, in both the works displayed and in the catalogue essay, there is no clear idea of exactly what criticism can engage, achieve or demonstrate, whether it operates on the level of novelty, immediacy or intricacy. Does it merely exist to test and confirm qualities we admire, or, does it potentially perform more irresponsible and engaging sorts of acts?

Perhaps some of the problem can be dealt with through a truly pedantic point. Blake never issued the 'Songs of Experience' in separate form. (1)  They were loosely grouped to mirror those other lyrics, the 'Songs of Innocence'; hence, the poet never needed the knowledge of a binarism to correct his emphasis. It was Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, with no privilege given the latter, no concept of how the two could be conveniently split. The title for this exhibit existed only as a title page on the border between the two sets of poems. So, exactly what is significant to this project: the innocence of criticism or the voice of experience?

That Bradley and Nemiroff ignore the elegance of Blakean symmetry is indicative of what they avoid throughout. For measure, then, some correction is needed. Some aspects of their vocal exercise should be removed and replaced, precisely because the curatorial team lets its innocence and lack of experience go on display. This is the first exhibition they have prepared together, the first contemporary Canadian exhibit at the National Gallery in six years, and the first attempt to institute a national art for this decade. However, it appears that these original conditions produced a crisis of mimetic regression; whether it be because of the dual-headed team, the gallery structure or the mandate addressed. The exhibit trails a long list of credits — correlations in the biographies and bibliographies show what a tiny, tiny, world it can be. Other exhibits, other purchases previously made, other writers who go unmentioned, other unacknowledged discriminations, and an otherworldly autocratic earnestness — these phenomena persist in the exhibition in the form of secured bonds. Such a line of credit inevitably entails the new venture.

Earnestness is forthcoming in the catalogue essay where a whole lot of words are rather loosely used in order to describe a familiar version of postmodernism. This time formalism (described as the 'closed world and detachment of the art object') is abandoned in order to pursue a 'renewed concern with subject matter and content in art.' Like the voice described above, it is difficult to say whether this renewal is a matter of engagement or expression, whether content was somehow expunged in formalist art or just unregenerate. In the essay we read how, 'As artists address the world of things and of power relations...other discourses have come to influence the theory and practice of art,' and the shortlist of disciplines is brought out — semiotics, deconstruction, Marxism, psychoanalysis and feminism. These presumably are the agents of content that clear the ground (or patrol the grounds) for the new order. What this introduction overlooks are the historical and cultural locations of the theoretical movements being dealt with. The studies listed emanate from scholastic (and healing) arts as well as from revolutionary politics, but they possess little overlap with fine art theory. They deal with 'bigger things', like philosophy and social change, things that may help explain why such and such a type of art is produced, but only by placing it within a suitably informed context. Such a form of explanation is virtually impossible to conceive of in a reversed movement, from art to philosophy, as the sentence quoted intimates and as a whole substratum of critical writing assumes.

To suggest that such theories came to be of interest to artists due to a general malaise in art theory is partially correct, but that malaise is deeply embedded in modern life as a whole: feminism deals with women as an unrepresented segment of society, Marxism with class struggle, semiotics with overall strategies of interpretation. Most of these studies provide more than ample arguments against the singular quality of art theory, seeing it as a kind of sideline for the real action, not to mention their common questioning of the efficacy of art production in traditional media and in the museum context. The entrance most of these discourses made in the realms of art theory and practice came as the result of disparities between the two worlds — art and social theory, art and social practice — and not as a 'new' concern theorized out of the collapse of formalist discourse. In order to rectify some of this mess, the sentence could be reworded — 'As artists address the theory and practice of art...other discourses have come to influence the world of things and power relations.'

What this rewriting recognizes is that to be true to any but the lamest 'post-modernism,' one needs to overcome the weakness of putting art first. It is not enough to acknowledge, as the curators do, that there is no 'unmediated representation of reality,' one must delve into the difficult region where such mediation occurs — in particular social formations and in order to develop particular types of subjectivity. Bradley and Nemiroff scurry away from such areas to describe the art as a kind of illustrative venture sustaining its own philosophical arguments and its own interests, expecting that both meanings of 'content' will ring true and they will get a happy / serious reception for both their writing and their exhibit. But, by simply naming a set of 'discourses' and hoping they apply, the duo hang their credentials on theories which they invoke without actually encountering. Following this move, instead of reaping a critical advantage through engagement with theory, they get the sophisticated edge of using the names and merely achieve the naïve end of forming a hollow statement.

It would not be so sad if they did a bad catalogue essay and a good exhibition, but the 'new order' turns out to be a mostly predictable list of names from parallel gallery boards and certain Toronto gallery stables. Generally those from outside of that network fare better, yet the treatment given each differs remarkably. Thus Joanne Tod, with a wide record of exhibition, displays four canvases from the last four years, each choice sensitive to continuing themes in her work, while Stan Douglas — an artist little shown outside of Vancouver — is limited to one piece, a recent work that is hardly representative (besides, his Onomatopoeia was poorly installed in Ottawa (2) ). The limits of the gallery site were strained in other ways as well, simply by the number of artists involved. As was intended, this show falls somewhere between a large group of single works and a mini-retrospective of several artists, but servicing such a concept invariably appears indecisive. So the installation worked poorly, developing a sub-text of disturbing character. In a sort of shopping mall installation, Jamelie Hassan, Robert Wiens and Stan Deniston, treated as those politically engagé, were given a flow through hallway, while the objets de luxe, paintings, were sedulously held in berths of a more insulating quality. In addition, a sort of obsessives' wing was developed to contain three increasingly moribund memorials — from David Tomas's archaeology of Day-Glo and black light to Sorel Cohen's banal arcade-mysticism and Joey Morgan's surprisingly caustic Souvenir. The central courts of the fourth and fifth floors of the gallery were dominated by RenéeVan Halm's and Wanda Koop's large-scale mural paintings to bad effects for both. The magnified status of the 'big painting' was sadly dwarfed by that space, permitting the viewer enough distance to notice the wide disparities between skill and conception that alternately prove problems for these artists. In sum, the result was confusing and taxing, for there appeared to be no logic involved, just a set of likenesses; no thematic to follow, just imagery extending onward as in yet another PoMo nightmare.

I do not mean to claim some type of inequality between artists included in the exhibit — the sheer gratuity of the insult delivered to francophone and Eastern Canadian artists, by being passed over in the selection process, far outweighs the problem here. Similarly other notable characteristics of the project are suspect, yet not really significant. This exhibit does not travel, despite its 'importance', limiting its access to Ottawa makes the project perform as costly decor. The catalogue does travel, of course, but it is incongruous, overstuffed with words of indifferent quality and with images of work not included. The difficulty I have is with resources and opportunities, both of which were squandered in the attempt made by the curators to provide and describe experience. They wanted a show that had an intuitive air, which sounded like something more than a closely counted ratio of regions and sexes and media, but they wanted to recognize what happened in the past decade as well. What they did not count on is that what went on, in the circles they concentrated upon, was not all that critical, was not all that theoretically informed, and was based in a suspension of disbelief. In such cases 'content' is experienced, as employment and ecstasy are experienced, as second order understanding standing up as the new order.

Such is the queer way things happen around this show, that the question of experience is a matter of curriculum vitae and bibliography and not a quality of some type of knowledge gained. The curators made the error of believing the press given this art, believing that a 'critical voice' stood in for the intentions and meanings produced by the works in context. Which is why I am here to talk about something else, about Blade Runner and types of tests appropriate to try intentions and experience. Here is part of the opening dialogue from the Ridley Scott film: Holden is a blade runner, a bounty hunter looking for genetically produced humanoids. Leon is an employee he is testing, using a device that looks something like a video camera with a breathing set of bellows. The camera is focused on the subject's eye and Holden is looking, significantly enough, for a flat response. After some initial discussion of the test, Holden begins:

Holden: You're in a desert walking along in the sand when all of a sudden...

Leon: This is the test now?

Holden: Yes. You're in a desert walking along in the sand when all of a sudden you look down...

Leon: What one?

Holden: What?

Leon: What desert?

Holden: It doesn't make any difference what desert, it's completely hypothetical.

Leon: But how come I'd be there?

Holden: Maybe you're fed up. Maybe you want to be alone. Who knows? You look down and you see a tortoise, Leon. It's crawling towards you.

Leon: Tortoise? What's that?

Holden: You know what a turtle is?

Leon: Of course.

Holden: Same thing.

Leon: I've never seen a turtle, (nervous) I understand what you mean.

Holden: You reach down. You flip the tortoise over on its back, Leon.

Leon: You make up these questions, Mr. Holden? Or do they write them down for you?

Holden: (with increasing menace) The tortoise lies on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over. But it can't. Not without your help. But you're not helping.

Leon: What do you mean I'm not helping?

Holden: I mean you're not helping. Why is that, Leon? (Leon is very nervous, confused, but Holden notes no optical response) They're just questions, Leon. In answer to your query, they're written down for me. It's a test designed to provoke an emotional response. Shall we continue. (Leon nods) Describe in single words only the good things that come into mind. (pause) About your mother.

Leon: My mother?

Holden: Yeah.

Leon: Let me tell you about my mother. (Leon pulls out a gun and shoots Holden through the office wall.)

Leon 'failed' the test — he has no mother to speak of. He is what they call a replicant, a 'skinjob' in slang. Genetically manufactured, his experience was garnered through an implanted, artificial memory. He has a set of photographs that reassure him that he has 'had' these memories. But the test gives him away — he is nervous about taking the test, about being detected, he has no emotion concerning torturing the tortoise. He cannot imagine what suspension of disbelief is or how it is that experience could be seen as unmediated — he is mediated experience, and the test shows up that he is of the second order.

The art of 'Songs of Experience' is somehow the same, like the turtle and the tortoise. It is neither immediate, as a first order product would be; nor is it truly critical, reflecting on its condition with a complete grasp of its artificiality. Lying between, in this way, it generates a memory for itself that is part art history, part photographic archive, part theatricality. When it engages problems of address, it sinks back into a state of nervous fudging ('I understand what you mean'), and turns the test on the spectator; becoming sincere, remarkable and coy by turns. It may be that this is the rationale for its collection, its ideological efficacy lying in its precious ambiguity, or it may simply be the result of forces of filiation more convincing than those offered in the catalogue essay. This second take is less thrilling than something 'new' would be, but another name may yield more than simple naming would suggest. Like Leon, tests give this art away as mediated and nervous, but, also like him, certain pieces manage to upset the functioning of the test, impeding the process whereby experience is produced and interrogated. The idea that this is 'new' is close to being foolhardy — except for those whose job it is to generate tests to explain what they are doing.

The Offworld

Back there, in a set of ellipsis, I left out some words of the curators. After speaking of 'power relations' (like me), they speak of how the artists, 'try to come to terms with the endless streams of imagery that manipulate perceptions and desires in the contemporary world.' Now 'coming to terms' is an interesting phrase, setting up a balance sheet to follow in pursuing mediation, but also positing a fundamental common goal at the bottom of the term-forming process; the thing they are 'coming' towards. Both partners serve the same end — the world — but where in that end does imagery congregate and to what effect? Somehow the 'endless streams' both lead to and are different from the recurring images on display. Women in gowns, girls bearing flowers, men who are dead and men who killed, submarines and pianos exist in both, indeed their common placement is part of the 'coming' this exhibit recognizes. But what is to be made of the 'manipulation' that the two share along with their segments of a shared 'world'?

In Blade Runner this is made rather blatant: replicants serve out their time in the 'offworld colonies' forbidden to return to earth (where their manufacture took place) and condemned to a four-year life span. That is why there are blade runners to hunt them down when they appear on earth — they are meant to serve humans out there, humans free of the earth and its sordid manipulations. Meanwhile the 'offworld' attempts to seduce those remaining earthbound, sending fabulous ships that float through the urban sky advertising Coca Cola and portraying geisha girls, announcing that 'A new life awaits you in the offworld colonies. A chance to begin again. A new land of opportunity and adventure. With recreation and a genetically-tailored replicant suited to your own needs.' Both replicants and blade runners serve the same end: preserving the 'offworld.'

I can't fool you, the 'offworld' is an image-world, and no one really wants to go there, because everyone knows the difference between images and rhetoric and manipulation and what they want. Yet the elements often coincide, but only in the 'offworld': that is, in the place set aside which is perpetually elsewhere — in the past, in magazine illustration, in theoretical readings, in the Third World, in the art world. In this exhibit, 'content' is found there, enough content to fill two floors of the gallery. By various means, being content comes down to its own terms; those of wanting and mourning that 'offworld,' being intrepid and studious in displaying both the incipient capture of desire and the ultimate lateness of mourning that such terms dictate.

The finest works in the exhibition prescribe both their inability to capture and their propensity to replicate the given structure of memorial recognition. In this way Jamelie Hassan shows us how it was Meeting Nasser, using both videotape and photography, using an implied 'documentary' time frame in both media. There are at least two 'offworlds' involved here, maybe more. In the photos, we see Nasser, the Egyptian ruler, receiving a bunch of flowers from a young girl, surrounded, as every leader is, by aides and military personnel. It is a ceremonial scene, the girl presumably chosen as an 'innocent', chosen to thank the leader for his presence. In the videotape there is a girl (the same?), in a studio, being audibly directed from outside of the camera's view, offering flowers to Nasser's photograph, reading limply from a text. Obviously the scene with Nasser has been a fabrication, and the videotape, the reading and the photographs are the same degraded product. Even the text the girl reads — that she reads so indecipherably that it is pinned on the wall to be read separately — becomes a repetition akin to tautology, speaking of 'unknown forces and day ghosts', and how knowledge of brutality came to the speaker when 'locked hearts were opened to me, explaining the mysterious events.' In the ensemble there is a wealth of relations, between the leader and the young celebrant, between the documenter and the taped celebrant, between the subjection both girls undergo by being seen and believed. The one does not connote what she reads, the other does not convey approval in the presentation of flowers. The piece will not go beyond illustrating incomprehensibility — nor go beyond its own inflated 'offworld' of the Middle East — and Hassan's, along with Dave Tomas's and Joey Morgan's installations, helpfully brings video into the exhibit, into a gallery that recently removed its video curator and programme. Here is the youthful world of belief rendered repeatable, cooptable and almost culpable; a theme echoing from the location of Nasser's dominance in the artist's youth to the youthful idealism of photography and video as liberating technologies. Whether each item has become irredeemably culpable and oppressive is the term Hassan leaves open to further negotiation.

The same territory is difficult going for other participants. When similar double entendres are called for from Wanda Koop, some type of fog obscures the floating sign. Her Reactor Suite assumes too quickly that intention and action meet in the licensed realm of subjectivity. The paintings, four panels over ten by five feet each, depict the most facile iconography of the anti-nuclear movement — reactor towers, American submarines, birds and 'just folks' swimming. In the puerile environment of Ottawa's quick-to-sell Atomic Energy of Canada, and being put on display shortly after the Soviet reactor incident, the suite appeared too sugary, too much of a bad thing blown up to 'poetic' proportions. Koop describes in the catalogue how these images came to her on vacation and, like the rest of us, she should have reconsidered their application away from that 'offworld'. The delicately worked surfaces betray a work-a-day world, a keen sense of pigment 'manipulation' separate from the ugly facts of economic sense and engineered failure.

But these two examples illustrate the problem for 'skinjobs'. The art is intrigued by the skin, by the canvas labour by Koop, by the possibility of simulation by Hassan. Neither technical nor semiotic competence will allay this fascination with the surface — on the one hand it is invested in canvas and paper as the replicated body of the painter / photographer; on the other, it is the signifier's skin as a superficial limit, as the container for meaning. Both approaches do not command conviction, but promise something else — access to a proven power and a lineage of effects.

Pondering this dichotomy Bradley and Nemiroff write of works that function as 'hybrids', getting the sense of an odd match while maintaining that there is a kind of legitimacy involved. But to me it seems like a broken line, as if the work that appears as post-conceptual-object-art-neo-critique is bastard. The heroic lineage was broken on the hard rock of modernity and what we find here, in Ottawa, are the bruised and lacerated skins of those that inherited. They want to be doubted while present in the flesh, they want to be certified forms (painting, photography, video, installation, performance) and also be floating signs of inscrutable seduction.

Where this desire — both a product of mediated sociability and its critique — runs aground is in its attempt to draw on historically privileged bases. When Renée Van Halm expects the poorly rendered volume of a darkened stadium to stand in for both the Nazi-hosted 1936 Olympics and the Central American roundup of subversives, some semiotician's heart must break. (3)  Every sign needs to be articulated, contextualized or at least relieved to assume such ambivalence, but her painted construction, Facing Extinction, develops from an iconographic delirium. The construction mimics a panorama or stage set, but the already-mentioned stadium oval occupies the centre representing nothing other than a void. The pathos of a beach and a tree protruding into that void and a severed head to one side adds little but brushwork to this underdeveloped work. That the curators displayed only this piece of Van Halm's work, when the gallery had already purchased her Anticipating the Eventual Emergence of Form, is an unfortunate call of judgment. It displays, innocently I hope, many of the problems of the belief that art history can teach what images can pretend to mean.

Sorel Cohen and Carol Wainio also face historical bugaboos. Each shows a dependence on a footnoting strategy that they seem unable to acknowledge. When Cohen solves the problem of having the female appear as artist, model, work of art and voyeur at once, I am left wondering how they got Zhora's replicant snake to look so life-like in Blade Runner? Maybe it was a trained snake in the actual filming, just like it is a trained eye's pastiche of Velazquez, Delacroix, Goya, Ingres, Manet...(you get the point) which keeps An Extended and Continuous Metaphor going. Read Laura Mulvey instead — at least she can teach you to watch Rear Window and Body Double to get the full repressive strength of scopophilia. Wainio plays it less directly, in terms of readable imagery, but puts higher stakes on the names she pulls out. Her 'offworld' is quite remarkable, for, when bulldozers, cartoons, Dali-like paranoid-criticism, Nietzsche and designer colours come together, expect a heap of explaining to pour forth. Unfortunately the colours came foremost for me — reminding me of vegetable terrine — signaling a form of sensual gratification removed from the sobriety of a referral strategy. Somehow the wipes of paint and simultaneous visions are to be taken as a history of consciousness, but the plain fact that only one of seven works remained in the artist's collection told me that contemporary consciousness was receiving its history right on time. Wainio's palatable works centre on a smorgasbord of the finest the West has to offer, but she captures merely the sauce of discourse and leaves out the joint. Neither Cohen nor Wainio seem capable of digging in and assimilating the historical discourses they appear to consider of such grave import. They are historicists without apology, contemporaries by default — displaying evident skill and knowledge while going by the book and by reliable techniques. Kudos to Ms. Cohen's photogravures — only drawing from the model could outdo such a feat!

To this cautious and fetishistic manner of working, Robert Wiens proves a discomforting pendant. His six-piece work from 1982, The Tables, is the oldest piece of art in the exhibit, a work whose stark tales of oppression and violence directly contrasts to the luxurious technical finesse of others. Its straightforward anecdotal and representational strategy is significant for the notational gaps it leaves. Wiens is caregh sculptural configurations that play at positional feints. The Tables, as title and motif, draws on particular notions — specifically domestic and social — and on an under-privileged history of artisanal labour that Wiens wants partially to be allied with the histories of refugees, subversives and victims he recounts. The whole has the moral air of documentary, but is anything but transparent. The matching of text and table, the repetitions inherent in the six-piece installation and the sense of modeling required to fit the 'table-top' space, these factors turn back towards the artificial to make the works apparent as vehicles for a deliberation on how one must fall short in pursuing representation and constructing meaning.

Unfortunately Wiens's new piece, What You've Got and What You Want, possesses an odd relation to The Tables. He returns to the table as a motif, and repeats an interest in suppression and subversion, but displays a very strange representational conviction — the table of the domestic interior seems to have become bureaucratized. This new table is hand-carved from planks, mimicking mass production in a redundant, laborious effort, and is set to match the chiseled 'look' of a pair of bird-wings framed and placed on the wall behind. In addition to the wings are photos — one of a bald eagle's head, the other being a composite of photos of public demonstrations shaped into a pictograph of a human form. The endangered species part I get, and the related notion of carving as a 'resistant' practice, but there is something missing here, something extravagant about reviving artisanal labour as political action. Carving down a plank does not portray much but the luxury of metaphorical involvement; presenting photos merely suggests that the sinister were watching while the dissidents performed. The piece either resolves into a mash of watery ethics, or remains unfocused and sanguine without articulating any care in the world. Acuity, in this piece, is only skin-deep.

Faced with such disparities in approach and result, I am lead to ask whether political (and contextual) depth has disappeared from art, or whether Wiens has temporarily lost touch with it. There is related matter, here, one that may run parallel to the accession of depth and which casts light back on Wainio and Cohen, Van Halm and Koop. In The Tables, even given the niggardly space afforded by the NGC, the work organizes a close-held space, developing from the domestic scale and from the durational act of reading, an intimate and devotional context. This includes a certain security as to what can figure forth from its dichotomized representational limits. What You've Got and What You Want functions as a relief with a table attached, as a set of framed images cordoned off by a judgmment seat. It convincingly alludes, through its unclear articulation, to a politics of another scale and of another cast — one of exhortative and spectacular address which fills a void of history and content with a shrill questioning, with a nervous demand for testing. Insecure in what it represents, it calls for approval for what has been done, ironically, for 'what you've got,' but it does so by keeping its meaning away and by calling on you to tease it out. In other words, you can't be disappointed when you have to supply the answers all alone.

Cover Girls

Mary Scott offers a respite here, for she seems less than intent upon imagistic communication. Her textual paintings, with their characteristic nomination — Untitled (followed by a list of authors and artists either textually, visually or inspirationally related to the piece) — perform much better than Wainio's as receptacles of 'historical consciousness'. In a skin-job world, Scott is fully determined to accentuate the canvas without sublimely assuming that there are viscera to stuff the gut. Her paintings have the look of hides, as she routinely slicks them up with gels, varnish and stiffening shellac, and she gums up the image as well, forcing spray painted and vinyl-coated text onto this ungainly, unstretched surface. Perversely, her quotations (high-minded graffiti) never amount to much of interest and her imagery is indistinct; neither bad enough to be expressionistic nor good enough to seem optically 'there'. This quality, shared by Nancy Johnson for that matter, has the potential to produce a counter-discourse of some merit — a sort of low-grade conceptual work wherein all the allusions to sexual and political power relations deal in double time with the image presented to the spectator. If successful, the simultaneous provocation of drives to seek imagery, meaning and pleasure can achieve forms of play with more than slippery reference and less than mimetic veracity. It can work out a test that it is impossible to fail. In such an atmosphere, ambiguities that are headed towards intelligibility or some collapse of the apparatus could take flight and become motes in the eye which start to sting. But I cannot explain such matters now; at this point that should be taken as a compliment. As Deckard says to Rachel at one point, after she shoots Leon for him, 'I owe you one.'

I have not spoken of those two yet. Rick Deckard takes over from Holden, after Leon has his test, returning to being a blade runner under pressure from his old boss. His first move is to administer the test Holden gave Leon (called the Voight-Kampf empathy test) to the new series of replicants, the Nexus 6, the kind Leon and his pals are. The head of the firm manufacturing the replicants, Dr. Tyrell, wants to see the test work on a human first and demands that Deckard use his niece Rachel. The test goes ahead, for a long time without conclusion — reams of questions, scenarios involving torture, sexual embarrassment, envy, etc. — finally Deckard comes to realize that Rachel is a skin-job but does not know of her artificiality. Unlike Leon, she believes completely in her implanted memory. The atmosphere after taking the test, and after a teary visit to Deckard's apartment, informs her of her misapprehension. As part of a progressively detailed plot, she kills Leon just as he is about to finish off Deckard, our hero.

Rachel is an interesting figure because her allegiances are so confused. With her cocky assurance that she is human and the sudden revelation that she is not, she can assume no 'authentic' manner to follow. In the most wrenching scene of the film, Deckard seduces Rachel by telling her things to say to appeal to him, parodying the implantation of memory / motivation and fulfilling his ignoble desire. She presents an available model for such manipulation, for she embodies the requisite film noir reference to the woman who finds the man she needs when he provokes a crisis in her femininity / humanity. It is a known role of self-hatred and hoped-for redemption that she plays, being the whore who wants to become virginal again, but she assumes it in a context of programmed victimization.

As an artist's parable, the role of Rachel offers but one advantage. After all the other replicants have been eliminated, she goes on living, her real redemption lying in her full-proof longevity programmed as a model improvement by Dr. Tyrell. Both her implanted belief and her ingrained doubt serve the oldest form of knowledge — suffering. I see analogies to Jana Sterbak's work and to her catalogue statement where the personal pronoun features so adamantly: 'I use . . . I look . . . I choose . . . I think . . . I favour . . . I believe . . . . . I like . . . I want,' such runs a word frequency in context analysis of her statement. As always, the question of such direct avowal becomes a matter of ascertaining the resulting effects. The two works on display, I want you to feel the way I do...(The Dress) and Artist as a Combustible, continue the repetitive allusion to herself, as being and artist, and the works successfully flesh out in other ways as well. The dress in I want... is made of chicken wire with a live coil of electrical wire adhering to the torso, seconding the dress with a further intimation of an envelope for a body. The heat of the coil is intended to be sensible, but the NGC intrudes again, placing the dress on a pedestal of boards in order to sufficiently adhere to fire regulations and protect the carpet. Even so, the wrapping is enough, combined with a text that suggests a terrifying admixture of adulation and resentment, to extend the rivalry contained in the title-sentence and turning on the trope of doubling. The parts, text, object and image, form a complement; revealing forms of capture, bondage, ache and release at once. And it is all done on a tailor's mannequin, attentive to the need to develop both distance and presence, no matter how forced that relation might be.

I missed the performance of Artist as a Combustible, but time barely matters in this case. The documentation was installed beforehand, an ironic allusion to simulation if I ever saw one (4) , and the performance only lasted the blink of an eye. In a darkened theatre, Sterbak enters naked and, with attendant persons and apparatus, sets a lump of gunpowder alight behind her head. The effect, as witnesses attest, is like that of antiquated flash powder followed by a retinal after-image. I picture it as a moment of glory, as a kind of deep-structured debunk of the notions of originality and celebrity, as a paradox of a mechanically documented instance almost beyond physical apprehension. The paradox, of course, comes not in the documentation alone, but in the perverse circus of threatening self-immolation and in the acceptance of a barely perceptible light-trace as a work of art. In the context of so many materially coherent, and directly consumable, works of art, Sterbak's performance burns in the light of another day — when artistic labours were highlighted as effects worth interpreting, when the moment of an event connoted something other than reporting could offer. Would that I had made it.

Sterbak's works foreground the skin as well; it is metaphorically burned in both, and in the performance it is brought forth as the privileged site for action and import. Given the milieu of her presentation, she cannot go deeper (for the moment she must not combust), but what if the artistic skin were established as the medium itself, and the interpretation of that skin (in canvas form) were accepted as a site for interactions with artistic practice as subject? On one hand there is a retreat to the ambiguities of Scott and Johnson, following from the withdrawn but seductively readable image. On the other, is Joanne Tod, but this does not presume that she is 'beyond' those others. If anything, her relation to Sterbak lies in her knotting into the need for impeccable image-presentation and for an ambiguity that looks like clarity. This need is intimate with the concern for artistic practice because of the complicity required to produce works that both suggest the theme and works that defer the tautological closure of being 'about art.' In the end it must be a matter of 'coming to terms' through a mediation that survives longer than an insulated instance recorded once and displayed before the event. Yet the display before the event is a major part of Tod's work. Her Self-Portrait as Prostitute, shown in Ottawa, directly refers to her Self-Portrait, as its image appears on the wall of a dining room. A curious aside is that the referenced work appears as an apparition on a wall painted a hue of blue not at all contrasting with the original piece. Any patron knows the value of framing, but Tod allows her impersonated portrait to be installed unframed, ideally deported without the bracket. Other images share the same conceptual clarity marred by a incongruous fault. Does the reference to critic Jeanne Randolph in Miss Lily Jeanne Randolph perform other than as a cryptic supplementary gesture? Does the cropped 'C' referring to this magazine in The Magic of Sao Paolo perform any other function than to parade this magazine as a forum for celebrated instance? To appeal to the incestuous dealings of the Toronto art world is to limit one's effectivity to that sphere — if this is the strategy then Tod can afford her insider trading for here she has proved a successfully marketable property.

But every strategy has a specific body to inhabit. The tale of Tod's Self-Portrait and subsequent works is more intricate. That picture launched her, making the cover of Vanguard — its subsequent celebrity confirmed her cognizance of the role of commodity prostitute. Hence, when she turns up with The Magic of Sao Paolo, pretending to another instance of cover-girl status, the gesture instigates a sense of both desert and deferral. The painting is unusually ideal for Tod, the only incongruity being her own self-portrait for once obtained with semblance rather than ideality. The bittersweetness of being placed within a celebrity market with recognizable features tells of a wealth of desire and its denial. I can only think of street-side shrines for divine intercession as a similar index of the need for recognition ultimately displaced.

So, if to date her role has been in ascension, her new role is parodied in the title for her latest work: Eclipse: in Light of Fashion. Astronomy is further referenced by the dispersion of the piece. Tondos flank a rectangular canvas, a pair to the left overlapped as if in eclipse. The one covered in part copies the single tondo to the right, portraying leopard skin — kitsch and nature together as ruin — while the one occluding shows the legs from Manet's Dead Toreador. Death is determined in each instance. In the central canvas, veiled death heads abound — a cafe scene with mouths gaping, mouths ready to chew ice cream, aging women growing less useful towards the grave. The whole is rendered in a doubled scene of mirrors and plate-glass, the doppelganger and its death image coming into play. But, for all the deathliness, the chosen composition — merging Degas's Absinthe Drinkers with Manet's The Plum, and suggesting other scenes of 'modernity' — signals the death-in-life of instituted boredom. What is remarkable is the articulation held here, peddling between historical allusion and contemporaneity without allowing the spectator to rest an eye and test the veracity of assertion or allusion. It comes forth as bombardment — as a cleverly simulated image-world — breaking the canvas into parts and breaking vision into items held and reneged before significance can be ascribed. If anything, it is the position of the cover girl, perpetually elsewhere when she is present, never here except under duress.

The Magic of the Memory of the Musical

This last sub-heading comes from an advertisement for the musical 'Cats', a sort of mild allusion to the type of appropriation we will be dealing with. The revival of Eliot's mediocre Old Possum's poems in a media-musical approaches the odd profusion of degraded replays in this group of artists. These replays tend to be volatile, however, invested with anxieties and artificialities suppressed or rendered relatively transparent in the previous work. Allusions to the past here are fraught with problems of access, intimating libidinal drives that block tradition from becoming renewed. Meanwhile, access to the present seems destined to be subsumed under conspiratorial thinking that suggests amnesia as a final solution. This is a lugubrious stance. For, if deducing musical and memorial allusions, given the title of this exhibit, may not be surprising, the recurrence of sound and the types of memory catalogued suggest the music of the dirge and memory as anatomized challenge. Blade Runner, always a rich text, has a place here, for the first music in the film is an ambient synthesizer hymn punctuated with explosions of gas torches — meanwhile the role of memory for the replicants is a continuity of betrayal; they always remember the falsity of their implanted experience.

Stan Deniston is seriously in pursuit of the gist of this memory / music dialectic. With his reference to Orpheus and Eurydice in Dealy Plaza: Recognition and Mnemonic, he conflates the two with generous favour. The last glimpse of the great lyricist and singer places music in a Hell of regret and — conveniently enough for Deniston's doubling of the Kennedy assassination with the murder of George Down, a homosexual — Orpheus thereafter disdained women: 'His love was given / To young boys only.' (5)  The music is incidental, but the weave will hold with the Orphic cults of assassination fans and their paranoid belief that each frame of the Zapruder film puts them at the source of the last sight and its significance of lost identity. The homoeroticism generated by the 'perfect' dead leader is still sensible in the attraction the Dallas event holds — even resulting in Deniston's exercise on its mutability. For it is the minor acceptance of the fanaticist's delusion that sustains this piece; the collocation of photos from the whole continent serves to demarcate a fluctuating unknowing around the simplicity of the plaza's continuing existence and the discovery of forms representing its panoramic stature. In one way, it is simply the discovery of historical memory on this one site, on this continent — and the coagulation of morphological and kinetic reminders around this wound — which engenders this piece. Two games are involved, 'Blind Man's Bluff' and 'Pin the Tail on the Donkey', but both are played very well, the photographer becoming extensively removed from association except as witness and compiler, becoming in last resort the elegist indicating the sad deeds done in his time.

Deniston is interesting because he continues the theme of doubling found in Tod and Sterbak, but he does so with a neat twist. In his work the subject chooses him, rather than vice versa, and his search for mnemonics perpetuates a neurotic passive / aggressive tension which supposes the constant presence of tests in the visual world. As with Leon's test, and his collection of photos, so long as the subject is relatively conscious of the work to be done, anything can challenge or provoke an urgent questioning of implanted presence. While Dealy Plaza... specified two places — Dallas and Deniston's hometown Victoria — his new work in progress, How To Read, seems to have exacerbated the possibilities of the doubling strategy by having no specifics to present. True, only the first section, sub-titled The Hallucination, was on display in Ottawa, but this section is embroidered in loose ends; spinning off double readings of street signs and slogans, bringing in Europe as a further field for mnemonic study, and construing militarism and surveillance as linked phenomena. Most of this comes off as an eclectic feat, perhaps because it lists total history and semiotic skill as reference points. Where the earlier work maintained a break between childhood memory and adult recognition. How To Read's pedagogical title is the only childish intimation here; I ascertain that it is intended as an assumption of adult concerns. But the elegist can never enter his own time; he lives off the time of others, and, because of this The Hallucination is an unmoving instance of inflated purpose and seems the driest of phantasms.

More moving, in one sense, is David Tomas's installation. Mirrors, black light, a surveillance camera and too much unreadable text pose the problem of physical vertigo in EYEs of STEEL / EYEs of CHINA. This environment, formed in the shape of an eye (I presume), is intended to be a magical and, historically conditioned by Vertov and nineteenth-century photography, a corrosive interrogation of the spectator's role to the producer. But the funhouse mirrors and oxymoronic black light threatened to bring up breakfast prior to more thoughtful ruminations. More musical and memorial is Andy Patton's painting, dwelling also in 'black light' and mirrors with its deep-coloured grounds and luminous, often doubled, imagery. The replay here is that of a re-turned painting but one which passes over affective gesture to pursue mediated sentimentality. The traced images continue to propound the lineage of painting, but their substance is flattened, invested in a no-man's land of effusive, resonant absence. The result is readable in a cushioning manner, setting up relations between frames and figures, first and second generation images, but being homogenous in the end as the ground soaks it all up with a corruption of trademark style.

With a measure of irony this could be somewhat interesting, but Patton is clearly involved in concepts of the cool splash of water (Thirst), the domestic dance of the family (The Architecture of Privacy), the harmonious sanctity, of church interiors (Projection in Their Time). The homespun version sustaining such reference tends to see the magic of the image in a release of yearnings for completion, as if repeating a sense of ruinated consciousness might, this time, accomplish the fulsome recognition of responsibility. It is always a plea for empathy, testing the spectator as a sensory device to be played upon. This is all too clear in the doppelganger I Never Dream About Anyone, wherein the image from an album by The Smiths is doubled and reversed so that a male model faces his own cover image. The title comes from a lyric on the album, completed as 'I never dream about anyone, except myself,' intended by band and artist as a Laschian case of 80s narcissism. The Smiths provide a specious route around this image, for on one hand the singer's name is Morrisey, and, with Andy's handle, leads back to a Warholian lineage of sincere nullity; on the other, perfectly appropriate for my case, the song's title is 'William it was really nothing.' Blade running is difficult work, but there are only two left, and these two call more for traditional detection services than for repetitive testing. Perhaps it is because they set up conditions for viewing in a durational scheme so that the total is not visible in one look or read — it is a matter of chasing down the works in question rather than interrogating them in plain sight. Stan Douglas's Onomatopoeia is actually organized around a projection schedule, most of the time it is not operating. The piece is contained in its own booth-like space, contained as well in a series of projected slides and a player-piano roll. It is more like a programme of instructions than a realized object, existing somewhere between theatrical presentation and technological manipulation, Joey Morgan's Souvenir has a more locatable structure, being marked out in three 'stations' of sited viewing, but variations between each site suggest dispersion and replication rather than any containerization.

Both works use pianos and do so in intriguing ways. I once wrote of the piano as 'that peculiarly bourgeois instrument that combines the clerical dexterity of button pushing with the mechanics of cushioned hammers and the amplifying properties of a large box. It is keyboard, factory and broadcast at once.' (6)  Morgan and Douglas echo such musings. The player piano in Onomatopoeia is the instrument become anonymous broadcast tool; Souvenir's audio tape, in the section titled Oratorio, narrates the destruction of the instrument in a context that succinctly represents its domestic and regulatory function — the ruined piano is also visited, set among shards of glass. The factory is revealed in both works; in Douglas' slides, triggered by parts of the music played, a textile mill is described, concentrating specifically on the punch rolls that control the pattern of the fabric and the working looms themselves. Morgan's factory is more oblique, being visible in the remains of the destroyed piano and aural in the sounds of its deconstruction. It is curious that these are the only instances of labour being presented in the exhibit, and equally curious in that the subject is broached only in the light of remains — in the uninhabited mill and in the ripped-apart carcass of a precision product.

Given the musical aspect, what is played should be considered. The score of Onomatopoeia is an altered version of some bars from a Beethoven sonata, Opus 111, full of rhythmic hammering 'sounding like' machines at work, followed by a passage of pattern work performed in the composer's precognition of ragtime. Oratorio is improvisatory and rambles about between lyric interludes and violent excerpts from the process of destruction. In her catalogue statement, Morgan mentions receiving some musical training as a child; she also offers the blithely humourous notation that the tape contains instances of the instrument 'played underwater, played by rats, by heat, by fire and by a bullet.'

After such description, what of the works sense? Well, Rachel plays the piano, believing for a time that she was taught it as a girl; Deckard fingers his own photographic archive that lies atop the piano in his apartment. Like the punched roll and factory of Onomatopoeia, Rachel is the altered version of corporate labour presented as romantic product; like Deckard's photos, the mill contains something archaeological — the endless encoding of production and the perpetual absence of anything but abstraction and traces of production in resultant commodities. Coding provides technical process with an adaptability that is a preeminent condition for post-modernism, reorganizing economic and cultural interests around strategies for manipulation. Douglas hits on the repeatable structure and metaphoric richness of this development, bringing together the conditions of syncopation and structured coherence required, while basing the work in the past of romantic creativity and the seminal interaction of machine and programmed instruction. The piece is goading in its own repetition, images running in a sequence that is repeated as the music is repeated, out of context from Beethoven's score, and playing on the gallery code by being sometimes on / sometimes off, but fully scheduled, determined and intended to repeat in sequence and within each 'performance'.

Morgan's work attends less to schedule and has a bit of trouble with repetition, but then her situation is not overtly theatrical. Oratorio is but the third section of the piece; the others are, VideoPerfume, being a videotape narration concerning a familial memory (and legacy) revolving around a perfume bottle, and Murmurings, a set of six doors with slide images and the narrative text of VideoPerfume written out through the series. The three relate in a somewhat ungainly but compelling manner, as the memory narration has cloying passages of disclosure — read in a monotonous and underscored insolence — while the doors are ample allegories for the impossibility of direct passage away from or through the complex matrilineal relations established in the narrative (the textual repetition here seemed to blunt the point). Oratorio, audible throughout the installation, would seem to be a synthetic codicil, but the theme of lyric destruction ingrains the ineluctable memory. And, at the end, the ruined piano lies akin to Morgan's contemplated destruction of the perfume bottle, 'as a small act of destruction without any real purpose.' But that very lack of purpose is akin to Rachel's and Deckard's piano exercises, representingano being the sacrificial object. Both confer power on determining, replicating structure — the punched out code, the itinerant memory — and intend to make this determinant aspect luxurious, bathing, sufficient. If they hold out other possibilities, it is as distilled and inculcated parables of entrapment.

Such a notion of entrapment is easily assignable to the entire collection assembled in Ottawa. I isolate these two as prime instances when the sense of being trapped within the current status of the art object leads to an intense ambivalence. For Douglas' piece, unlike the other highly structured works of subjective speculation (Deniston, Wiens, Hassan), projects no attainable subject; it merely posits, and enacts, a rote process of coding. His is not a distinction of a 'new order' of representation; if anything Onomatopoeia attempts to capture the disappearance of representative categories in the supremacy of coding technology. Morgan goes another way, toward confessional release, like Tod, Sterbak and Patton, but denies its fruition by being oblique and centering on the deposits of memory rather than the act of 'doubling' in representation. By default, in a kind of falsely-transcendental move, she suggests that the double is always a strategy for denying the trap of being in place and at attention — the double is a project of the 'off-world' while we have to go on living here. Many of the other works in 'Songs of Experience' seem unable to grasp, or are disabled to the point where they cannot entertain such a concept. They remain trapped in their makers' fantasies of powerful illusion, echoing rote-learned historical motifs and sustaining decrepit (if not terminal) ideologies of artistic practice. With such a sense of place, the works provide alibis for going on reflecting power relations instead of contesting their arena. Their relations are obfuscated by being issue-oriented rather than territorially offensive, and the result is a thinly informed commentary rather than a 'critical' analysis.

Of course this exercise in writing just barely steps across such lines. Criticism as blade running, as bounty hunting, is equally trapped in notions of placement, illusion and interrogation. Thus, for a conclusion, I can no longer look to Blade Runner. The last question there is implicit in the tone of this essay — does the tester retain any sentient empathy of greater 'authenticity' than the replicant? After watching the last replicant self-destruct, Deckard sums up the picture in a speech that could have come from Bradley and Nemiroff: 'All they wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. "Where did I come from?"; "Where am I going?"; "How long have I got?" All I could do was sit there and watch him die.' I cannot afford to see the end of these skin-jobs, so I will follow the initial epigraph above and dip into Blake:

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil'd among the winters snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe

And because I am happy & dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & His Priest and King
Who make up a heaven of our misery

As Deckard's rival cop Gaff puts it once the running is done: 'You've done a man's job, sir. I guess you're through then. Finished.'

C Magazine #11, December 1986.


From C Magazine #13, June 1987.

Dear Editor:

Cover Girls?

...some correction is needed.

— William Wood, 'Skinjobs,' C magazine #11.

It's an inflexible — or authoritarian — critique that becomes a corrective...

— Liz Magor, in discussion with Ian Carr-Harris, C magazine #11.

William Wood's cynicism, whether or not tempered by naivety, is a luxury that neither he nor C magazine, nor the Canadian artcommunity at large can afford. One could quarrel with the interpretations and evaluations he offers, or with his comments on the installation of the show, or even explain why it couldn't travel, but none of this would address the real problem, which is the central metaphor of the article, drawn from the intellectual's cult-film Blade Runner.

It is hard to believe that Wood would think he could dismiss the implications of the blatant machismo in this metaphor of critic as policeman with a weak disclaimer at the end of his review. When Wood links artists he ostensibly approves of to Rachel, the most convincing of the humanoids in the film (yet artificial for all that) the sexism of the Blade Runner analogy becomes clear.

Where the other replicants know of their programmed mortality, revenging themselves on those who created them so limited, Rachel is deluded, completely identifying with real people. Proof of this is her desire to please Deckard, the reluctant but still serviceable cop, whom she rescues towards the end of the film. Before they head off into the empty blue yonder (unlike the others, she's made to last so what does it matter if she's a replicant) they go to bed together. She is the image of the woman who sizes up male desire and tailors her response to fit, the 'whore who wants to become virginal again' in Wood's words.

And that's what Wood-Deckard, the critic-cop apparently wants from artists: he makes it plain that Rachel is the type (of artist) he likes, whom he ' telling her things to say to appeal to him.' Even when this desire is self-acknowledged as ignoble, is it not an appalling prescription for the critic-artist relationship?

Artists as cover girls and whores, and critics as cops make up a self-indulgent scenario whose damage is not limited to the artists in Songs Of Experience. If this review is 'a man's job' as Wood says at the end, however ironically, women's work looks good.

Yours truly,
Jessica Bradley
Diana Nemiroff
Associate Curators, Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Canada


William Wood responds:

What's the damage?

My metaphors may be beyond repair, but I hardly expected to be branded an enemy of the people. It appears Bradley and Nemiroff are blaming the messenger for bad news instead of dealing with the problems of their inconsistent, inconsiderate and ill-formed exhibit.

One of the problems with Songs of Experience was the curators' difficulties in delivering subtle readings of the art represented. They have repeated this in their letter. The quote from Liz Magor runs in context as follows: 'If you're using a critique based on certain criteria, and you can't flex that to consider what the artist has assumed, then it seems to me that it's an inflexible — or authoritarian — critique that becomes a corrective rather than an analytical critique (my italics).'

Rachel came into my piece as a device, but in connection with artists whose work assumes the possibility of being formed by male desire, by the desire to be 'tailored' and seductive. After all, it is Joanne Tod who raises the question of prostitution and the issue of media celebrity. Similarly, Jana Sterbak's flame-throwing and chicken wire dress address the envelope the artist fits into as a woman, as a communicator and as an 'entertainer'. I 'flexed my criteria' to include them, to produce the critique that was lacking in the exhibit and catalogue. I did not tell them to parrot back what I wanted — they did it under the aegis of the curators. Meanwhile Bradley and Nemiroff do me the injustice of blaming me for liking work they presented and for taking the artists' assumptions to heart. It is hard to believe that curators who present such a weak apparatus for interpreting an exhibition could strongly censure whatever value I distilled from their production.

As for cover girls, just who promoted this exhibit by appearing on the cover of Canadian Art (Spring 1986)? Our curators literally stand ahead of the art they are presenting, detailing an obnoxious version of their relationship to artists. (Unfortunately the whip of ideological correction stings both ways.) They call me self-indulgent but they practice self-aggrandizement, as can be deduced from the pompous tone of their missive. It is in this light that the comment about 'women's work' should be read.

So to my critic-cop, the captious curators want to be commissars and prison guards. Yet the policemen-critic is not something to dismiss, but an issue to take up and make into a discursive problem — as all authority is problematic. Such is what I did fiddling with metaphorical address, but I did so without acknowledging that what criticism lacks is demonstrative power and coercive force. That is what Bradley and Nemiroff possess, and my posing has not taken it away from them. All I did was to try to make readers realize the tenuous grasp the curators' have on the art under their authority and how they disabused their power in presenting such a show as 'Songs of Experience.' Their 'Canadian artcommunity' may be damaged by that realization. Mine isn't.

One further note: In discussing Jana Sterbak's Artist as a Combustible, I failed to indicate that the bowl of gunpowder was placed on the back of Sterbak's head rather than behind it.

C Magazine #11, December 1986.

Text: © William Wood, Jessica Bradley and Diana Nemiroff. All rights reserved.

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