BY Ingrid Chu in Reviews | 12 NOV 00
Featured in
Issue 55

Karma Clarke-Davis

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada

BY Ingrid Chu in Reviews | 12 NOV 00

Karma Clarke-Davis' installation, Any While, Mean Time (2000), included visual aids, structural props and controlled lighting. The stage was a linoleum-tiled platform, while a stool and snare drum, oversize popcorn made from varnished polystyrene, a cluster of falling records drenched in hot pink glitter and a projected butterfly all packed a solid visual punch. A large screen projection, Karma (2000), was installed behind a black curtain which separated it from the rest of the show. Titled after the artist, the piece incorporated an image of a laughing Buddha bathed in disorienting and kaleidoscopic strobe lighting. Combined with the pulsing beat of The Smiths' 'How Soon is Now' (1984), Karma ironically evokes the sense of spiritual retreat that night-life (suffering caused by desire) can offer.

However, Clarke-Davis' evening comes to a violent end when the artist is subjected to a lynching midway through the loop. She runs but cannot hide from an anonymous group of figures whose backs are constantly turned, and who masquerade in silhouettes and shadows. Her only escape is through a fantastic sequence of events during which she metamorphoses into a superfly girl in order to battle her oppressors. It is a narrative cycle that operates on polarities, from inside the club to the street, from the reality of violence to the dream of escape, retaliation, and perhaps even vindication.

Clarke-Davis is careful to justify her use of large-scale projection given its relationship to big budget film. She attacks this format as if it were a video game come to life, where the city functions as a frame through which the individual must traverse through dangerous territory, at times serving as the primary target and, in greater frequency, becoming its victim. In this way, elements from her past work mesh particularly well with this latest piece. The artist has previously shown her work in such venues as shop windows, public bathrooms, and changing rooms. Curator Michelle Jacques was keen to acknowledge that an exhibition in a gallery constitutes 'a similar kind of infiltration'. In addition, altering her appearance through special effects, costume, and make-up enabled Clarke-Davis to function outside herself. In Karma, her alter ego is evidenced through frequent reference to the body double, a twin figure who shadows her every move, and a third eye which sees all too clearly. Somehow, being twice removed offers Clarke-Davis enough distance and perspective to deal with the situation at hand.

Also incorporating techniques used in music video, Clarke-Davis' work draws (superficially at least) more from the history of rock than the history of art. The artist plays the starring role in a narrative that functions as live action portraiture, incorporating the sights and sounds which affect her daily existence while highlighting her alien presence within the frame. As the protagonist, she mixes pathos and anger in a role we have all played, while her opponents often mirror her awkward postures and stunted moves. When one of the masked perpetrators removes his disguise near the end of the sequence, his vulnerable appearance matches the artist's own pose at the beginning of the loop. Seemingly condemned to their respective positions, each appears fully prepared to break free of their situations if given the opportunity. In this way, Any While, Mean Time functions both as projection and diaristic introspection, bearing witness to the internal traumas which affect us all.

Before she can begin again, the cycle is thwarted as the artist retraces her bold steps and the sequence goes on auto rewind, reducing Clarke-Davis to her original powerless state. Only then do we realise that despite kicking and screaming, her battle has been waged in silence. Being fully aware that what constitutes a criminal act can assume different forms, Clarke-Davis demands from the viewer a heightened awareness of their immediate environment. As a consequence, Any While, Mean Time is a lesson in consciousness (if not leniency) - an exercise in highlighting the conditions that serve to encourage self worth as much as reinforce self-doubt.

Ingrid Pui Yee Chu is a Hong Kong-based curator, writer and, with Savannah Gorton, co-founder and director of the non-profit commissioning organization Forever & Today, Inc.