BY Shiv Kotecha AND Dave McKenzie in One Takes | 19 APR 21
Featured in
Issue 219

Dave McKenzie’s Elegiac Reminder of Cultural Debts

On the occasion of McKenzie’s Whitney show, Shiv Kotecha writes revisits Old Man/Sarcophagus (2013)

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BY Shiv Kotecha AND Dave McKenzie in One Takes | 19 APR 21

Dave McKenzie’s videos, performances and sculptures make concrete the drama of a mind as it calculates the severity of loss. They are apostrophic enactments, or they almost are. For Old Man/Sarcophagus (2013), the artist returned to Berlin’s Neues Museum to see if he could reproduce an episode he had witnessed there before: an old man resting against an empty, 4,000-year-old Egyptian tomb (in essence, a human-shaped object for rest). Compressing the artist’s daylong visit into a three-minute montage, the video surveils several individuals who pause to admire the relic from a distance. (The man from McKenzie’s first encounter does not return, as you would expect.) The final minute of the video depicts the artist at home, with the camera hovering above a well-domesticated kitchen sink, itself a tomb-like container. McKenzie’s hands enter the frame, and he washes a day or more’s worth of dishes.

Dave McKenzie, Old Man/Sarcophagus, 2013.  Courtesy: the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles
Dave McKenzie, Old Man/Sarcophagus, 2013. Courtesy: the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles

In other works, like Camera (2012), McKenzie foregrounds the meta­physics of presence by depicting a life lived well beyond its time. Mobile-phone footage captures nonagenarian American diplomat Henry A. Kissinger entering a room and greeting stately officials; it is subtitled with ‘real-time’ textual commentary from McKenzie: ‘Do you shake his hand or don’t you? / I reach for my camera / and a wall is created / and I never have to answer that question.’ The image fades to black and McKenzie’s text switches to the imperative: ‘I dream of another encounter / and a title of a work / Washing Henry.’

Dave McKenzie, Old Man/Sarcophagus, 2013.  Courtesy: the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles
Dave McKenzie, Old Man/Sarcophagus, 2013. Courtesy: the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles

Trained in printmaking, McKenzie is undaunted by the rote repetition of ordinary tasks, or by a confrontation with the same. In these works – both of which are now on view as part of ‘The Story I Tell Myself ’, the artist’s solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York – recursion is a conduit through which McKenzie articulates his semi-private realism: moments that, to evoke the writer Samuel R. Delany, come ‘blaring in through the five senses’ (Dhalgren, 1975), and so resist easy consolidation. McKenzie’s elegiac form is a reminder of the debts of our cultural and political ancestors, which we do not inherit, but that we become. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 219 with the headline ‘They Live!’.

Main image: Dave McKenzie, Old Man/Sarcophagus, 2013. Courtesy: the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles

Shiv Kotecha is the author of The Switch (Wonder, 2018) and EXTRIGUE (Make Now, 2015). He is a contributing editor of frieze and lives in New York.

Dave McKenzie is an artist. His solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA, opens 1 May. He lives in New York.

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