A little Rodney Graham goes a long way, and this can be a beautiful thing. I find his 1991 insert into the James Bond book Dr No both delighful and inspiring. It's a bookmark the size of a page, designed just like the page, with a piece of text that flows in and out of the story. Bond is paralysed from some drug and a centipede is cralling on his face. Graham sends the insect travelling down Bond's whole body and back up to where it started. It's a sexy little story! Hilarious. I'm very drawn to this gentle form of intervention, and I see it as part of a larger(ie: beyond Graham) practice of piling art ideas into pop culture and vice versa, packing together a bunch of ever-morphing cultural snowballs. Unlike my big-picture snowball model, however, this project is based on a strict loop structure, which is Graham's usual form. The story makes a sort of self enclosed narrative bubble that blips out the side of Fleming's narrative like a friendly hernia.
I went to the opening of the AGO's major Rodney Graham exhibit on Wednesday night. When I saw "Phonokinetoscope" in Liverpool a few years ago it had me completely charmed. I've always been a bit of a sucker for conceptual formalism (Ed Ruscha, David Askevold) (hm...mostly men). If you throw in some fetish gadgets with moving parts, like film projectors and bicycles, I'm sold. However, I think Graham's work loses impact when so much of it is shown together.
Catherine Osborne's column in the National Post today takes issue with Graham for being cryptic, and making work "geared exclusively to the very few who have the time to decipher all the innuendo and in-jokes." I don't really agree (but if true, what of it? There is nothing wrong with artwork that requires a little thought or time investment). This show is no more obscure than a bunch of work by Donald Judd or Janet Cardiff. It has easy narrative, easy form, and spectacle. What more hand-holding does an art-going audience need? "Vexation Island", for instance, is a long slow one liner packed with a visual irony that comes more from Gilligan's Island and vacation advertising than from any esoteric art vocabularly. It's handed to us on a platter and all we have to do is invest the time to watch. But then the work, so tightly packaged and perfectly contrived, falls just a wee bit flat. I do agree with Catherine when she says that Graham "forgets to break out of his own circular thinking" and " leaves us out". As I wandered from projection to projection, watching one hermetic loop after another, I started feeling pretty dis-engaged. I think I understand the work, but I'm not sure how rewarding it really is. My summary of the big show: a lot of Rodney Graham goes a little way, and this can be a somewhat sad and empty thing.
I don't know Graham's work that well, but I saw Photokinetoscope in Paris and here in New York and wrote about it in this post and update. I didn't know looping was such a big thing for him.
In defense of the Graham retrospective, no artist makes work thinking about how it will look as a whole. If his work made you and Catherine feel dis-engaged, perhaps it was the curation at blame.
You're right Joe, I think in this instance seeing all the work together gives it too much weight. Another point I agreed with Catherine about is that Grahamn's work is not meant to taken as heavy or deeply important. It's formally tight and discursively relevant and all that, but the mental impact is fairly light. Seeing one after another made me question his style of maximum effort for miminum effect. They did have, "How I became a Rambling Man", and Catherine liked it too. I didn't watch it this time around but I remember liking it in the past.
" the backwards bike-riding (an amateur stunt that Graham performs in real time)" ...thanks for this quote, Tom. There's been some debate in my workplace about this.