What does it mean to be obsessed? When does a harmless interest become a pathetic placebo or a dangerous foible? Jordan Baseman’s video works in his exhibition ‘don’t stop ’til you get enough’ are direct portraits and oblique glances at clowns and tragedians, those who have honed their passions, those who cling to them for escape, and those unfortunates with few other options. Baseman never appears in or narrates any of his films, apparently letting the subjects speak for themselves. There is, however, a cumulative sense of compassionate probing and incredulity at the myriad difficulties of existence.
Cactasia! (2003) begins with a voice listing ‘four things that come not back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, passed life and neglected opportunities’. We then meet Gordon Rowley, former president of the British Succulent Society – an old man with a mouth like a knacker’s yard, a greenhouse full of cacti and an armoury of ‘crazy’ Milligan-esque gags and antiquated philosophies. He’s a dear old self-engrossed eccentric, scolding his own buffoonery – ‘shut up Rowley, shut uppicles’ – and talking with obvious expertise yet virginal innocence about his cacti’s ribs, spines, areoles and lobes. He eulogizes the life of the bachelor, as it has enabled him to live in a perpetual fantasy; he can’t take the situation in the world seriously, so he has never even attempted to.
Observation and analysis traditionally have a reciprocal relationship in the genre of documentary, with reality TV at one extreme and propaganda at the other. Baseman explores the relatively safe central region of this sliding scale, where mediation remains broadly sympathetic to the subject and mildly challenging to the viewer. Luv Is Gonna Get You Some Day (2003–4), for instance, is a portrait of a middle-aged man still struggling to be a pop star despite facial scarring – the sad result of botched plastic surgery after cancer. Bitterness creeps into his voice as he tells his story, yet we still wince at the cringing narcissism of the pop videos of his youth. Baseman’s intercutting of the present with the past impels us to pass judgement on his future, typecasting a failure, but not without some self-reproach for doing so.
The eponymous subject of Daniel (2004) is a Romanian street beggar in Rome. Baseman interviews him, through a translator, while a hidden camera relays glimpses of a topless figure at close quarters. As the lens roves over his tattoos and nipple, Daniel sits clutching a religious picture, answering childlike questions about Christianity by rote, as if his income relied on his piety, no matter how mechanical. We have an inkling that there is something physically wrong, but it isn’t until we eventually catch sight of his disproportionately large head and hear him talk of his mother throwing him away when he was born that we know for sure and the tragedy clicks into place.
The title piece, don’t stop ’til you get enough (2005), is a multiple portrait: Michael Jackson fanatics relate their dreams as we watch a long sequence of drawings by fans around the world. The adulatory tones of grown men who patently believe Jacko to be some sort of deity is alarming and funny almost to the point of schadenfreude. Baseman still appears to present his findings unmanipulated, but Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – about the impossibility of quantifying the extent to which an observer affects his or her subject – seems more relevant than ever.
En masse, it feels a little soap operatic being tugged in so many emotive directions. The grimmest tug comes from July The Twelfth 1984 (2004), a projection of a text transcription and the original audio recording of the State of Georgia’s execution of Ivon Ray Stanley. Any information about his crime or character is withheld. The dialogue, between officials in the
Department of Correction, is utterly pragmatic. They relate the perspiration wiped from the forehead, the stiffening and relaxing of the condemned and a worrying popping noise, attributed to the snapping of the restraining straps; descriptive or corporeal words, such as ‘passively’ and ‘the fleshy part of the leg’, occasionally rupture the businesslike tone. The protracted moment of death is incredibly moving; like standing next to something very, very old, it inspires awe at humanity’s enduring absurdity.