Thursday 27 April 2023

visible daydream

time for a break / a break in time


In memory of Rodney Graham


Working notes from my weekly ‘spotlight talk’ in the Rhoades Gallery, during the Rodney Graham exhibition 'Getting It Together In The Country', Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Feb-May 2023 

'Four seasons circle a square year', Lyn Hejinian, My Life


In what follows, I will focus on the “smoke-breaks” in Rodney Graham's lightboxes as moments of pause or interruption in work (productivity), identity (one’s role), and in particular time (space).  And then I’ll open this up to the wider series of images in this gallery, collectively called ‘The Four Seasons’. At the outset, I had one question in particular in my mind: what does a break break, and what does it produce?


First of all, two images that Rodney Graham formally titled ‘smoke breaks’: the cigarette break - Light up / Time out / Space out … in some ways like our moments of encounter with these images as viewers: we’re invited to have a kind of ‘smoke break’, to pause and ‘kill time’ in the presence of this image-world, to allow another space-time in our imaginations to open up.


These are images of in-between moments of suspension – moments of inactivity, private reverie, reflection, contemplation. They also represent moments of a heightening of interiority that is not accessible to the camera - moments of absence and of an ‘elsewhere’ made, at least partially, visible … Most of these lightbox self-portraits might be thought of in terms of moments of suspension, both out of time and woven into particular layers and cycles of time.  



1. ‘Betula Pendula ‘Fasigiata’ (Sous-Chef on Smoke Break)’ (2011)



A pause in the performance of a role, the sous-chef costume still in place, but the work itself is interrupted, on hold. Just a tired worker having a quiet reflexive break outside of the heat of the kitchen. A still-point in time, a suspension in the past and future of his role at work. 


The title tells us that the weeping white birch is the main subject, the sous-chef is secondary (he is literally ‘sous-arbre’, under the tree). So something of the hierarchy from the kitchen lingers.


It’s summer, everything’s in leaf, but it’s a ‘weeping’ tree – and there’s a certain melancholy in the chef’s exhaustion: he’s tired, stained, wounded (the punctum of the plaster/cut on his finger), he’s unraveling, and internal.


Smoking as unproductive wasted time (in labour/work terms): ‘time-waster’.


Paradoxically, this moment of ‘in-spiration’ opens up another unstructured internal space - although the escape is only temporary.


A cigarette also has its own dimensions of time: it is sometimes used as a kind of timer by smokers (‘time for a swift smoke’) – and indeed the Hungarian-French photographer Brassai, celebrated for his night photographs of Paris street life, used the time particular brands of cigarette took to burn to measure (roughly) the required duration of the photographic plate’s exposure in different levels of low light: a Gauloise for this kind of light, a Boyard for this even darker light (a slightly thicker cigarette) …



2. ‘Smoke Break 2 (Drywaller)’ (2012)



Another image of something seen by chance by Rodney Graham in Vancouver: another slightly comic and melancholic image of a worker at rest, still in ‘costume’ but out of his ‘role’ – both are images of affectionate compassion, and of a gentle surrealism in the everyday. (Cf. ‘Dracula’ having a coffee and a smoke, Las Ramblas, Barcelona, mid-1990s). 


Again, we see a moment of exhausted pause in the time of work: physical labour is temporarily on hold, allowing for a compromised moment of ‘freedom’ (‘time out’) - a private daydream escape into an ephemeral landscape of the imagination: an internal landscape, a psychic topography if you like  (space out) - winter, snowfall, the great outdoors, a campfire, animal tracks, perhaps skis – a dream of wilderness white-out far from everyday work – a ‘visible daydream’ (in the words of Théodore de Banville, the 19th century French poet, writing about smoking and the aesthetics of the exhaled smoke’s fleeting, sinuous dance & disappearance).


Luc Santé, ‘Our friend the cigarette’ (2004 essay, from his book Kill All Your Darlings, writing about solitary smokers, waiting): “A cigarette is a friend that helps pass the time, sharpens memory and concentration, channels inchoate emotion, sands down rough edges, blurs things when need be. Cigarettes occupy the hands, occupy the mouth, segment passages of time like ritual observations, fill the room with a screen of smoke on to which anything can be projected” … (light up / time out / space out).


Cf. Renaissance painting – diptych portrait and allegory: music, fire/hearth – perhaps also the cigarette as a memento mori, an intimation of the finite in the ephemerality of this suspended time (half of the cigarette has already disappeared), an intimation of time’s passage and of mortality. Like performance, which might be defined by its disappearance, cigarettes entail practices of an ‘active vanishing’.


Also a reference in the pattern of these marks on the plaster (covering nail holes) to the abstract Swiss painter Niele Toroni, and his recurrent working method: regularly spaced paint marks/daubs, at intervals of 30 cms, using an identically sized brush (no. 50): a practice he called ‘Travail-peinture’, ‘work-painting’ - freeing painting from authorship, subjectivity, representational prescription > an infinitely repeated gesture of material mark making / a touch on walls and other surfaces, usually white surfaces. Like plastering, or smoking, or indeed Rodney Graham in his self-portraits - always the same, always different (Toroni: ‘You can look at the ocean every day, but it is never the same sea’).


These two ‘smoke break’ images were the initial trigger for this wider series of four images: ‘The Four Seasons’: summer, winter, autumn, spring. Each of them a moment of suspension, out-of-time, still points, a vertical cut in the ongoing, unstoppable cycle of time - and it is unstoppable: the cycle of the seasons, of a life, of the earth itself …



3. ‘Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour’ (2012-3)



A layering of times/spaces – it’s a version of Thomas Eakins’ 1871 painting, Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (resting after a race), in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY. Here a single kayaker, in the ‘autumn of his life’, apparently interrupted in a solitary moment of repose by an unknown photographer. He looks out directly at us, the only figure in the series to do so. So it’s a different kind of pause, rupture, interruption – as if the moment of rest and private reverie has been interrupted / broken by the photographer, or the viewers of the image. 


Spatially, a displacement from the original river in Philadelphia to an early 21st century post-industrial context near Vancouver.


In the original painting, there are several other rowers in the background, the closest of whom is not far behind Max Schmitt (and it’s a self-portrait of Eakins). In Graham’s version here, it is collapsed into one self-portrait figure at the centre of the image. One of Eakins’ core influences was Diego Velazquez; and the portrait of Rodney Graham directly references certain self-portraits by Velazquez, including his self-portrait of 1630 – the hair, beard, angle of the head, direct gaze …



4. ‘Actor/Director, 1954’ (2013)



The final image in this series, an entirely artificial ‘spring’.  The sky/backcloth, the artificial cherry blossom, the fake trappings of a French chateau gardens – the costume, the camera, the giant eye-like film light … it's a film set (or the pretense of a film set, constructed in Graham’s studio in Vancouver). 


Inspired by a photo of Austrian-American actor/director Erich von Stroheim, filming Blind Husbands (1919), smoking in costume while standing behind the camera.  Further allusions to Rudolf Valentino film Monsieur Beaucaire, and its comedy remake in 1946, with Bob Hope ('one of my favorite films', RG).


This version comprises three layers of time: this lightbox image was realized in 2013; it represents the filming in 1954 (when this kind of camera was still in use), of a fiction set in 18th-century France (Monsieur Beaucaire), The costume of the actor/role is in place, but it’s redundant for a moment: the gaze of the director, lost in thought


The card on the camera identifies the shot as ‘Beaucaire hat insert’: a still cutaway, a slice out-of-time, a pause (like the smoke break). So, vertical time (the moment, a still point held in suspension), set alongside cyclical time (the film / the ongoing seasons).


Here's one way to picture it: When you walked into the gallery, you were moving at about 2 or 3 miles per hour. And everything seems relatively still in here. But as we stand here, in fact the earth is continuously spinning around its axis at about 650 mph (that cycle takes a day). And at the same time, the earth is rotating around the sun at about 67,000 mph; that’s its orbital speed (that’s a year, four seasons).  So, our lives are inescapably at the intersection of still points & perpetual cycles and movements. In reality, the still points are perhaps illusions …


> Light up – time out – space out  <



5. Postscript: ‘Media Studies, ’77’ (2016)



Media studies draws on a wide array of disciplines – including philosophy, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, semiotics, critical theory, and film studies. Broadly, it’s the study of how we make sense of media ‘texts’; and it focuses on the entanglement of culture, technology, representation, identity (remember these lightboxes are a series of self-portraits of ‘possible selves’, fluid temporary identities) and audience (modes of communication, reading, meaning-making).


It’s 1977, the early days of media studies as a subject in universities and colleges – a new discipline that was suddenly very hip in the mid-‘70s. This precise moment in time is reflected in the architecture, design, clothes, materials, style; the technologies (the U-matic video – Sony’s ‘state-of-the-art’ new format released in 1976; the analogue remote); the styrofoam cup, the Philip Morris cigarettes. We see a lecturer either ‘holding forth’ (Rodney Graham’s words), or having a reflexive pause in the wake of a seminar class (this was my initial response). The video is turned off, blank; the blackboard erased, almost all traces of language have disappeared. One word I can find, only just visible and legible: VOILANT – ‘obscuring’, ‘veiling’, ‘masking’; ‘making hazy or cloudy’, ‘misting over’. The board now a kind of indistinct smoke screen, into the surface of which a wisp of cigarette smoke dissolves & disappears (some have compared the patterned swirls of this framed surface to Cy Twombly’s ‘blackboard paintings’ from the late 1960s). Even the lenses of his glasses are ‘smoked’, tinted. Time stands still (the clock).


A kind of gently comic homage to all those smoking French cultural studies academics and philosophers who were at the very centre of media studies (Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault etc. – online, one can find countless images of them puffing away in a lecture theatre in front a blackboard – cf. my own memories of Deleuze seminars in St Denis, Paris in the early 1980s: the impenetrable fug in which everyone smoked, it was obligatory). Smoking here in this image seems to be part of a ‘style’, a gestural repertoire, a performance, with the cigarette as a core ‘prop’ - and an object that in its own right has been a topic for cultural studies, film theorists, etc. Here Graham almost looks like a parody performance of the dandy smoker-intellectual Roland Barthes.


‘Media studies’. How many media are represented here? It’s a complex multi-media environment. The video/TV, the blackboard, the screen for projections, and of course the lightbox itself are all technological mediations.


‘The medium is the message’ - Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s celebrated slogan/concept, originally illustrated with reference to an electric light: pure information without message. (McLuhan, who smoked a pipe, died in 1980; in 1977, he appeared in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall). The ‘content’ of a medium, McLuhan said, is always another medium: e.g. the content of a book is language – and the ‘content’ of light here is this photograph (via the technologies of camera, computer, printer), an artwork that reproduces a simulacrum of the surfaces of a style (the architecture, technologies, design, fittings, clothing, of a particular historical time and a particular set of practices). The ‘content’ here is also media studies itself (the teaching/studying of different media as cultural practices, and the process of thought as both illumination (enlightenment) and uncertainty (the erasure of language, its transformation into indistinct smokescreen).


In McLuhan’s terms, this work combines instances of both ‘hot’ & ‘cool’ media. Broadly, ‘hot media’ encourage passive consumption; ‘cool media’ encourage active participation. The lightbox (and photography itself, one of McLuhan’s core examples) = ‘hot media’: high in information (high-definition). The blackboard and its abstract patterning + the U-matic video/lo-definition TV screen + the seminar itself (again, one of McLuhan’s core examples): a conversation > each of these is a ‘cool medium’: lower definition, less closure, more effort required to determine meaning, more active participation required. So this work is a kind of staging of some core themes/tropes of media studies itself, with you the viewer invited to navigate these different media and their mediated ‘messages’ (like a student in the seminar). Ultimately, for McLuhan, the real contents of any medium are the users and the meanings they make.


Finally, notice the layered relationship between idealised hyperreal surfaces / disembodied ‘style’ & the mess / movement of bodies / embodiment: the grubby fingerprint smears on the video player controls, the scuffed soles of the shoe, the worn chair on the left, the work of erasure on the blackboard.  Pristine rectilinear surfaces in conjunction with dynamic particulate disorder (chalk dust, dirt, wear, smoke, ash) – structure & post-structure (Bataille / the informe) ...