in Frieze | 11 NOV 02
Featured in
Issue 71

River Deep Mountain High

Rodney Graham

in Frieze | 11 NOV 02

It’s best to start with simple things, since it all will get complicated soon enough. Green grass, a guy with a guitar, a sturdy old tree. This is stuff everybody understands. And this is just what you see depicted on the cover of Getting It Together in the Country (2000), Rodney Graham's album of folky pop songs and gently psychedelic instrumentals. Already, of course, the complications start - the primary one being that Graham is in fact a Conceptual artist, nobody's idea of a carefree troubadour. The album - actually a 10-inch vinyl EP - was produced two years ago in conjunction with a show of Graham's work in Germany. Recently he's recorded several albums of original songs (and a few cover versions) to accompany exhibitions of his 'proper' artwork: little take-home extras, like chocolates at a fancy restaurant. This one is subtitled Some Works with Sound Waves, Some Works with Light Waves and Some Other Experimental Works. Actually, it's a hilarious, hybrid object: the tastefully bordered faux-Deutsche Grammophon yellow banner at the top, the anachronistic pop-speak title and the mock highbrow explanation, which explains nothing. Then there's the photograph of the artist himself, crouched at the base of a tree in some pastoral landscape, guitar balanced on knee, looking squinty and professorial and slightly out of place. His earnest expression is endearing, as if he's looking around for someone to serenade.

Part of the mini-album consists of Graham's improvised guitar accompaniment to the love scene from Michelangelo Antonioni's existential freak-out fiasco Zabriskie Point (1970). In his endlessly deferred and ridiculously expensive struggle to make the film Antonioni recorded hours and hours of music by Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia and John Fahey, most of which was rejected. Graham's improvisations - quite lovely, by the way - are his own belated contribution to, as he puts it, 'this venerable tradition of failure'. Now we have begun to enter into a tangle of references: popular art film and arty pop music, the demands of auteurism, the culture of the 1960s and the technology of recorded sound. How far we've come from the good green place, and how quickly. Perhaps it's wise to back up a bit, start over again and think about that tree.

The tree that supports the artist-turned-folksinger in the cover shot of Getting It Together in the Country, provides a nice visual rhyme with what could be called Graham's foundational emblem. Back in 1979 he built a camera obscura in a field outside Vancouver, its pinhole aperture directed at a single tree, which appeared inverted on the wall of the darkened chamber. The entire building-sized optical device, he has said, 'was conceived as a kind of annexe or pendant' to that tree. Versions of the impermanent image produced have reappeared throughout Graham's career, most notably in a series of beautifully printed large-scale black-and-white photographs of ancient oaks, hung upside down. They are lushly austere and solemnly goofy images, seeming one-liners that keep resonating in the mind longer than it seems they should.

In an interview a couple of years ago Graham talked about beginning the project and the difficulties he ran into: 'I was interested in the idea of isolated trees, which is something that is hard to find here in British Colombia, where you've just got forests of trees. To try to find a tree that you can treat as an individual, you know, is hard.' The joke here - all but spoken - turns the cliché on its head: sometimes you can't see the trees for the forest. Although sometimes that is precisely what you're trying to do. It is a favourite strategy for Graham. There is, in much of his work, an effort to isolate - to draw out telling details or, at least, to make details tell in the process of drawing them out. The reimagined Zabriskie Point music can be thought of in this light - seven minutes of soundtrack time are a window into a world of reference. Many of Graham's earlier works take as their starting-point some fragment of a classic text or piece of music. Reconfiguring a couple of measures from a Wagner opera, a section of a novella by Büchner, these pieces insert themselves, annexe-like, into the interstices of history. Most elaborately, a footnote from Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) has been spun into a web of almost serious scholarly speculation: Graham has written essays, drawn up charts, given lectures devoted to these few lines.

Against this hopelessly proliferating meaning the tree offers, perhaps, a stable respite. It's all so basic - a single tree, turned upside down: familiar icon, elementary gesture. The image is instantly grasped and infinitely repeatable. Yet there's a twisty paradox at work. Inversion is so simple and so decisive that it necessarily refers back to the act of decision itself. As a willed imposition on the automatism of the photographic record, it says: 'Look what I've done.' At the same time, in so far as this image is derived - conceptually at least - from the camera obscura, the inversion is actually doing nothing at all. It leaves the mechanics of vision untouched. This is the way the camera, and the eye, really sees.

Such paradoxical doublings of action and inaction - doing something and, at the same time, doing nothing - occur again and again in Graham's work. They play out in the various supplemental interventions into classic texts and classical music: source material is twisted about, but remains essentially unchanged. They are thematized in narratives of sleep, passivity and stupefaction. A connection might be drawn here with dreams, and with the way the dreaming mind spins out elaborately condensed, multi-referential images, seemingly without any effort at all. In a footnote to The Interpretation of Dreams Freud responds to the criticism that 'the dreamer appears too witty': 'In waking reality I can make very little claim to the predicate "witty"; if my dreams appear witty this is not the fault of my individuality, but of the peculiar psychological conditions under which the dream is fabricated [...] The dream becomes witty because the shortest and most direct way to the expression of its thoughts is barred for it; the dream is under constraint.' It's a cartoon image, really: you plug up the leaking pipe with your finger, and instantly, unbidden, a Baroque fountain of a million tiny jets springs up around you.

Graham's 1994 video Halcion Sleep is as radical an illustration of doing nothing as you could want: the artist is drugged into a stupor, truly 'out of it'. Everything that happens in the narrative has already happened, all back-story explained in the opening title cards. In order to make the piece Graham took a double dose of the tranquillizer Halcion in a suburban motel room, was carried unconscious to his car and driven home through rainy night-time streets. A fixed camera records the artist stretched out asleep in the back seat for the 26-minute ride. Yet - as we all learnt from Warhol - when nothing happens, there's a lot to watch. There's plenty of time to make connections, pick out details. Such as the striped silk pyjamas Graham wears, simultaneously dandyish and infantalizing, which literally underline his resolute horizontality. Watching him gently bouncing along, you're made aware of the ruts and bumps in the road, transmitted analogically through the body of the car to his blankly receptive form, like the information locked in the grooves of a gramophone record. Similarly he becomes a screen onto which the receding city lights are projected. When you lift your gaze up to the rear window of the car, the sources of those projections are a continuous light show spinning out of the vehicle's forward motion.

The whole thing is strangely moving - which is appropriate, as it's about a strange sort of movement. Watching someone sleep is, of course, a complicated, reflexive experience. Leo Steinberg has noted this, commenting on Picasso's endless variations on the theme: 'Inside a picture, where real motion is stilled, the contrast between sleeping and waking may be conceived so as to beggar the state of waking. Then the sleeper's repose, being self-contained and replete, will discredit the waking state as a condition condemned to the avid intake of experience and data, a restlessness which in its need to be continually feeding betrays incompleteness; the other's quiescence will appear the more puissant, because less dependent on perpetual maintenance.'

The struggles of perpetual maintenance might be a theme of Graham's trilogy of looped 'costume dramas'. They're miniature genre spectacles, in which the artist portrays archetypes so familiar they seem to pre-date cinema itself: singing cowboy, desert island castaway, the urban fop and the eternally victimized rube. Placed in idealized settings, these characters do precisely what they are programmed by convention to do - and they do it again and again. In the first, Vexation Island (1997), we once again get to watch Graham sleep, this time in Cinemascope and travel-poster colour. He is playing an 18th-century sailor, marooned on a tropical beach with only a parrot and a solitary palm tree for company. For a long time he is unconscious. There is a large bruise on his forehead. Eventually he blinks awake, rights himself, approaches the tree and shakes it. In classic slapstick fashion the inevitable coconut is dislodged. It bonks him inevitably on the head, knocks him out, and the endless cycle begins once again. City Self/Country Self (2000) similarly pivots around a moment of comic violence, as the effete urbanite kicks his rural counterpart to the ground, over and over into infinity.

The middle work of the series - the 1999 music video How I Became a Ramblin' Man - is calmer, and free of injury. Shot on film in pretty, muted colours, it begins with a view of an unspoilt Western landscape: mountains, wide open spaces, birds flying in the big sky. You know the picture. The artist makes his appearance on horseback, the drifter of the title, riding slowly in from the middle distance, guitar slung over his shoulder. He makes his leisurely way over the plains, through a shallow river bed, and finally settles down in the shade of a tree, front and centre, to sing: 'I've been following this palomine/Through the canyons of my wasted time'. When the song is done, he remounts and slowly rides away: through river bed, over plain, finally disappearing into the middle distance. Then, of course, since we are watching a loop, it all happens again. Something, it seems, has gone terribly amiss with this cowboy's 'ramblin''. He's less a hero of the open range than some sort of existential commuter, shuttling eternally back and forth between a notional elsewhere and a diagetic here, trapped in the circumscribed space defined by the narrative.

Graham goes for another kind of ride in Photokinetoscope (2001), his most recent film loop. The project started off simply enough, the artist claims: he's able to do a trick - he can ride a bicycle backwards - and wanted to show it off. Things become less simple, for both Graham and for the viewer, because he performs his trick while tripping on acid. He downs a tab of LSD in an idyllic Berlin park, rides (face forward) down glowingly green paths, stares statue-like at a statue, and, just before the loop begins again, briefly accomplishes his stunt, whizzing gracefully along a bridge while facing in the wrong direction. The work's title derives from an invention of Thomas Edison's - a premature, and ultimately failed, attempt at synchronized sound film. A version of the device provides the soundtrack to this trip: a gramophone, playing a recording of the song Graham wrote for the film, is wired to the projector. The actual synchronization is left up to the viewer - placing the tone arm down anywhere on the record will start the projector, creating endless match-ups of music and image.

Just as the apparatus recreates a forgotten footnote in the early history of cinema, so the bicycle ride itself reproduces an odd founding moment in the history of mind-altering chemistry: Albert Hoffman, the inventor of LSD, recorded in his diary that after he first ingested his creation and the drug's hallucinatory effects began to set in, he rode home by bicycle. The woozy, psychedelic song on the soundtrack also points towards a predecessor, quoting lines from the early Pink Floyd song 'Bike' (1967). Talking about Photokinetoscope in an issue of Artforum, Graham cited these references at the start of a comically extended free-associative chain of inspiration and connections: from Burt Bacharach to Bas Jan Ader to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). All these resonances, all these intertwined thematic concerns - it can begin to make your head hurt. Best simply to luxuriate in the blissed-out images, lulled by the droll, lugubrious voice intoning disconnected lyrics on the soundtrack: 'Who is it that does not love a tree?/I planted one, I planted three/Two for you and one for me/Botanical anomaly ...'.

Recently, if reports are to be believed, Graham is spending a lot more time with his guitar, writing and recording new songs. 'Conceptual art is dead', he has announced to a magazine reporter, 'I decided to get into this singer-songwriter thing because it is completely non-Conceptual - it is immediate, emotional expression.' It's hard to know quite how to take this latest turnabout. The deadpan is difficult to crack. Another consciously futile project, another entry into a 'venerable tradition of failure'? In the catalogue notes that accompany Getting It Together in the Country Graham speaks of how his new-found commitment to songwriting grew out of his artwork but gained a life of its own. He compares it to his earlier research into Freudian marginalia, another all-consuming passion which took him far from his chosen path: 'I find myself once again having turned my back on my true vocation.' But that's just the way it always works. Simple things become complicated all by themselves. Dreams that last for minutes contain infinities of wit. Hobbies spin out, automatically, into derailing obsessions. Things are funny that way, and when things are that way, it's funny. Perhaps, thinking about Graham's burgeoning troubadourism, it's best just to adopt the language of the pop magazines: call it 'a roots move'. Though we know, of course, that roots aren't always found where they're expected.