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Contemporary Art Gallery

555 Nelson Street
Vancouver, Canada
Open from Tuesday to
Sunday 12 pm → 6 pm

Admission always free
11 Sep 09until1 Nov 09

Playing Homage

Kerstin Cmelka, Christos Dikeakos, Andrea Fraser, Rodney Graham, General Idea, Martin Kippenberger, Mark Leckey, Evan Lee, Martha Wilson, Ming Wong

B.C. Binning Gallery, Alvin Balkind Gallery and CAG Façade

A black and white photograph of two people sitting face to face. They wear identical suit and hold cigarettes to mirror each other. Behind them, Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture titled Bicycle Wheel sits on the floor.

Christos Dikeakos, Puis-je-fumer, 2008. Courtesy of Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver

One white cube, regardless of scale, can signify the aims of Minimalism, or the use of a particular blue can encapsulate the entire practice of an artist. Direct reference to art movements, individual art works, artists, philosophers, architects, musicians or other key historical moments is a common strategy in contemporary art production. The reference is a useful tool. Formal references are often used to establish the artist’s line of research, situating their thinking in specific art historical discourses and within a larger economy of meaning. The artists in Playing Homage employ the reference in a considerably different manner. Instead of drawing on formal references, the artists situate themselves as the referent, beginning with the artist as maker. In each of the works the artists use themselves as part of the symbol, personalizing the referent, using their bodies or other personal items to direct attention to the subjectivity of the maker. Here, the artist is the subject matter.

The persona of the artist is presented as integral to the work and in most cases the representation of this figure, the construct of an archetype and its historical mediation is the work. Several of the artists in Playing Homage directly take on the specific identity of another artist, while others play a more generalized character. Some of the works are remakes or restagings of earlier works in which the artists become, quite literally, actors playing a role, while in others there are more prescriptive articulations of what it takes to be an artist. What is central to all of the works is that the figure of the artist is the focus, used to draw out their influences, define their critical positions, and to address their own subjectivities as makers. They put the very notion of creative production under question, asking how do they come to define themselves as artists? What does it mean to produce? And how significant is the relation between the identity of the maker and their product?

In taking the persona of the artist as a primary subject of representation, many of the artists in Playing Homage themselves become the focus of their own criticism. As if it were an actual television broadcast, General Idea’s video Press Conference (1977) announces that they are artists. Like it was real news with a sense of urgency and critical consequence, they stage a mock press conference, generating questions from journalists that ask the Canadian collective what it means to be artists and why they have the right to claim that status. In Premiere, Martha Wilson directly addresses the camera while “playing at being an artist;” reading deadpan from a script, she claims that the most important part of her performance is that she convinces her audience that she is an artist. Kerstin Cmelka takes the criticism to dramatic effect in her video Change, which is an adaptation of Wolfgang Bauer´s play All Change from 1969. Playing one of the main characters herself, Cmelka seduces the unsuspecting victim, who is to be made over as an artist and used by a calculating gallerist and scheming art critic to mock and manipulate the art market.

There is an obvious cynicism in all three of these video works, but the resolve of the skeptics is tested by the fact that they all explicitly define themselves as artists. In this paradox, there appears to be a conspicuous line between sincerity and satire, conflating the desire to be genuinely what they represent and yet retain a critical distance that is suspect of being typecast as the romantic artist. This uncertain line between spoof and aspiration is nowhere more evident than in the practice of Martin Kippenberger, which is represented by a selection of his exhibition posters where Kippenberger as a persona is put forward instead of the work to be exhibited. Whether he is playing the role of the punk rock bad boy or the overweight aging playboy, Kippenberger inserts his own image into most of the posters, positing himself not just as the artist, but also as the content. In several of the designs, he uses cliché representations or a list of established artists to reference himself as the creative maker or to scoff at the very notion of an artist type. There is a comedy to the unrelenting representation of himself in his chosen profession, but this send-up also reflects doubt. In this uncertainty is sincerity. Kippenberger was fascinated with the artist as personality, most directly with that of the painter. He was dedicated to his art making and criticism; we might venture that Kippenberger’s unrelenting performances as the artist come from a fear of being complicit with or representative of this archetype.

In one sentence, Playing Homage is about artists inhabiting the role of the artist. The idea for the exhibition started in consideration of the work of Rodney Graham, who often transforms himself into myriad characters. Graham is a performer and in much of his film work he plays a central character: the marooned pirate in Vexation Island (1997); the cowboy grifter in How I Became a Ramblin’ Man (1999); the musical prisoner in A Reverie (2003); a rambling police officer in Loudhailer (2003); or the joker and the fool in City Self/Country Self (2000). In each role Graham is a caricature of a type, and there is a clear distinction between himself and the roles he takes on, but where this line between character and actor seems to disintegrate is when he “plays” the painter. In My Late Early Styles (Part I, The Middle Period) (2007 – 09), his large format photograph exhibited as part of Playing Homage, his role and his artistic identity are more overtly connected. In front of a wall of abstract paintings hung in salon style fashion, Graham poses as a painter. He is in character, but he is also representing himself. Even though there is an obvious humour in this piece, and in most of Graham’s work, it is vague whether or not Graham uses My Late Early Styles to poke fun at himself as an artist, or painters in general, or is used earnestly to embody the ideal persona of the painter (or perhaps all three), but what is certain is that Graham is a painter: all the works on the wall behind him are made by him. Like Kippenberger’s posters, this image was first intended to promote an exhibition, but unlike the late German artist’s imagery, Graham’s piece features many of the works he exhibited. Where Kippenberger put the artist’s subjectivity first, Graham presents both the artist and the work together, balancing the subject of the artist with the formal conceits of abstract painting. Here meaning rests in the relationship between the artist’s subjectivity and his product.

For Made in ‘Eaven (2004), Mark Leckey uses the product of one artist to reflect his own production. Using Jeff Koons’s Rabbit (1986), Leckey reflects his empty apartment through the sculpture’s polished stainless steel surface. Leckey’s apartment is his studio, which he uses as the stage for early videos such as We Are (Untitled) (2001), or references in his performance Cinema in the Round. The video camera seems to pan around Rabbit, but can’t be seen in the reflection. Leckey is a fan of Koons’s work and Rabbit in particular, but the work of the famous pop artist isn’t really here. It is computer generated, fabricated by Leckey and used by him as a means to self-construct his own identity as an artist. By representing his place of production in the convex lens of a work he admires, Leckey spins a romantic but distorted tale of his artistic identity, one that is wrapped around or warped by the famous work it is reflected by. The video is transferred to 16mm and for Playing Homage is transferred back to digital video, to be played on a small monitor that sits on a tall pedestal. The transfer to 16mm carries with it a nostalgia that acts as another filter, romanticizing the persona of Leckey the artist as well as signifying the romantic in him.

The defining of one‘s artistic identity through the work of another is an integral element of Photographic Nude Studies by the Artist and his Father (c.1950/2009) by Evan Lee, who draws on a very personal narrative. For this new work, he uses his father’s amateur photographs from the 1950s as the starting point to examine his own interest in photography. Lee remakes several of his father’s black and white studio photographs of female nudes, rebuilding the sets, fabricating props, matching lighting, reconstructing the general aesthetic properties of the original images. The precision with which Lee copies his father’s work seems tantamount to his understanding of his father’s drive to pursue photography. The attempted mimicry by the younger Lee embodies an earnestness that is also present in the original works. The more successfully Lee captures the likeness of the originals, the closer he is to capturing his father’s sincerity, and so rehearsing the role of the amateur photographer.

Andrea Fraser uses imitation to capture artistic subjectivity. In her video installation Kunst Muss Hängen (2001), she reenacts a speech given by a drunken Kippenberger at an art opening. Fraser performs the talk in the original German, a language she doesn’t speak, but has memorized. Fraser does not put forward the subject of Kippenberger’s talk for discursive purposes, but instead offers the artist himself as the site for consideration. Her studied use of German is not so much about capturing Kippenberger’s precise meaning as it is about the representation of an archetype that is fraught with romantic notions of free-spiritedness and resistance, but also carries with it the real edge of self-destruction. Even though Fraser’s performance is critical of this romanticized character, her use of German is a way to give tribute to an artist who self-reflexively epitomized the artist’s personality.

Giving tribute or paying homage is often wrapped up in the identity of the one making the offer. To pay homage is a personal act. Both Christos Dikeakos and Ming Wong insert themselves into the narratives of the artists they honor. For Angst essen / Eat Fear (2008), Wong remakes Angst essen Seele auf (1973), a feature length film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, into a twenty minute video in which he plays all the characters. Wong is moved by the complex and layered subject matter of the original film as well as Fassbinder’s skilled articulation of the issues it presents: a multitude of concerns including relations between race, gender and generations. In remaking this film, Wong proves himself a skilled actor, concise editor and capable director, inscribing his identity as the primary maker on to each aspect of the original. Under the imagined directorship of Fassbinder, Wong plays every role and as such switches race, gender and age, making his face the representation of each.

Dikeakos’s homage plays closer to art history, celebrating an artist who has been referenced in work by other artists countless times, and who has been cited by artists and writers as an influence ad infinitum. Marcel Duchamp is the center of Dikeakos’s three works for the exhibition, but in his drawing Puis-je-fumer (2008), Dikeakos moves beyond using Duchamp’s work as a reference. In this drawing, Dikeakos inserts himself into art history, positioning himself across from the famous artist. The two are separated by Bicycle Wheel and are looking each other “directly” in the eye while smoking cigars. Dikeakos, through computer software and meticulous rendering, has exaggerated their similarities, bringing himself closer to the likeness of Duchamp and vice versa. They are similar in appearance and equals in conversation. To sit across from Duchamp is part of the fantasy, but the desire is also to be on par with him. This fantasy of role playing is an imaginative process that resonates with Duchamp’s own manner of making. Dikeakos is an artist and through art history is already in conversation with Duchamp. What Dikeakos brings forward relates more to Duchamp as an artistic subjectivity than it does to his work.

In many ways this cultivation of the artist persona is more reified than questioned in Dikeakos’s drawing, but like in all the works in the exhibition there is a narcissistic reflection or doubling that occurs when the artist persona is presented as subject matter. What is determined by making the artist the subject? In Playing Homage we see the artist presented in varying roles and forms from cliché to role model and in each representation there is a reflection back to its maker. Whether they use themselves or their personal histories, each artist addresses their relation to the archetype and to the notion of creative production.

By Jenifer Papararo

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