It’s a sad party, with reflective orange, blue and silver bunting hanging over a sturdy set of three concrete steps leading to nowhere. On an adjacent screen, Jeremiah Day is waving his arms in the sky, as if miming a slow-motion rave. But he’s rambling to himself, a bar-room monologue, shaking his head back and forth: ‘I hear ya buddy, no, I hear ya, that’s how it is.’ His hands wander while he gabbles, at points as if they’re adrift in a stream, or else running back and forth as if clearing a desk or smoothing out a surface. He stretches, half-reclined on the ground, turning on his haunches while he casually narrates a fragmented story about how cities change, buildings get torn down, scenes dissipate. The video and installation If You Want Blood (all works 2013) were the main parts of this small show that gathered together three works which hovered around the history of one of Berlin’s checkpoints: after 1989, it became East Germany’s first used-car lot, before turning into a branch of Lidl supermarket several years ago. The text accompanying the exhibition reprinted a letter from the artist to Lidl, in which he resignedly gives up on his hopes of ‘collaborating’ with the chain, attempting to save several trees that had grown on the site of the wall from being cleared for the supermarket’s new carpark.
The show concisely presented the two sides of the Berlin- and Amsterdam-based American artist’s practice from the past seven or so years: on one hand, photographic evidence, usually of architectural remnants, unravelled by minute familial or offhand observations. The Turning (Antifaschinger Schutzwall fragment, Neu-Hohenschönhausen, Berlin) is a large photograph of an overgrown graffitied remnant of the wall, the title making pointed use of the eastern GDR’s label for the wall as ‘anti-fascist protection’. Scrawled underneath the image are several handwritten lines, one of song lyrics that might have been written on the wall: ‘specifics obscure, leaving a pile of anecdotes, less than what you had before you ever tried to make sense of at all.’
It is perhaps this handwritten narrative that takes over in the other side of Day’s work, matching a loose oral re-telling of this documentary research with improvised dance. In a performance in the square opposite the gallery on the opening night, Ghost Dance Song/Zombie Telescope, the artist balanced, hummed and twirled in the cold, while ramblingly hinting towards the darker origins of several cultural myths. In one part, he described the Native American Ghost Dance of the late 19th century, suggesting that its ideal of a promised afterlife was more debilitating than any military campaign against the tribes, before segueing into a slightly altered version of Patti Smith’s ‘Ghost Dance’ (1978). In the second part, speaking over a slide projection of sun-bleached landscapes, he ended up talking about the current trend for zombies, and the Haitian origins of the story created to prevent slaves from committing suicide.
In Day’s performances, his tone of delivery toys with theatricality, anecdotal but half-rehearsed, spoken just a little louder than a normal conversation. Add to that the gentle, shyly enunciated songs that punctuate his performances and it suggests a sort of realist musical theatre – one that walks away from Bertolt Brecht’s operas with the casual arm swoops of contemporary dance, and the chatter of the subjective documentary film. But in the documentation of If You Want Blood, doing his thing on a New York tenement stoop, wryly explaining how west Berliners still think it’s funny that their eastern counterparts couldn’t get bananas, there’s another tone that creeps in: that of the cultural ambassador, the teacher. The tension and potency of Day’s work has been to weave personal narratives into the broader political sweep with a tone of uneasy self-consciousness, an intimate historiography that somehow implies a democratic formation of histories: we’re all involved, implicated, accused. What feels absent here, despite the considerable height of the artist in his performances, is Day himself. The irony of the barstool assurances of ‘No, I hear ya buddy, I hear ya …’ fades, to seem little more than an interested and bemused distant observer, collecting anecdotes.