Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A death foretold

This series of stills comes from LA-based artist Kevin Hanley's "On Another Occasion" (02002), featured at the 02003 Venice Biennale and recently drawn to my attention by an EGS colleague. It's a three-minute video to add to our collection of future artifacts here at t.s.f.

The image seems to be moving, then still, but perhaps slowly pulling into focus. As the picture evolves, one runs through a list of associations as when reading shapes in clouds. It could be a landscape or a baby in utero, but the list of candidates shortens as the image comes further into focus. It is the face of a man sideways. It is a bearded man. It is an old man. It is Fidel Castro. It is Castro dead.
~Christopher Miles, "Kevin Hanley -- Openings", ArtForum, June 02003

Hanley explains the thinking behind this work:
[I]n 2002 during a surge in G.W. Bush's war mongering and Sharon's incursions into Palestine I was thinking, what next in a series of big changes? I just had the image of Castro lying in state pop into my head.
At this point I decided to make a contribution without waiting for the event. The video operates like this. Out of a blurry field, which is for the larger part of the video's duration formless, emerges the picture of a dead man. What then becomes clarified is for the present time, a fiction: the picture of a dead Castro, created by digitally altering a recent AP photo. In the first moments of the video, the viewer's imagination works to conclude what one's eyes see (Is this something I recognize?), and at the moment of visual clarity the viewer's imagination works at piecing together a relative conclusion (What does this picture mean? What are its consequences?). The viewer of this work is invited to experience a space between seeing something, and making conceptual leaps via ones sight [...] inspired by finding a bit of space between perception and rationalizing what one sees.
~"Kevin Hanley @ The 50th Venice Biennale", KultureFlash no. 53, 22 July 02003.

It is not news to observe that the demise of Castro, the longest-serving head of government in the world, has long been expected -- particularly in light of his ongoing health problems.

But to date, he remains stubbornly alive, so an image of him dead is indeed a sort of future artifact, of the type discussed quite a bit at this blog in recent times. We're invited us to think about how it is experienced. The cognitive dissonance triggered at confrontation by a hypothetically possible -- but not yet witnessed, and somehow unexpected -- future image or object is the key to future-shock therapy. As Hanley implies, there is a moment of arrest, a misfire or slippage in the process of recognition (what you're seeing is not what you expect to see), and the questions raised are: what does this mean, what are its consequences?

As one commentator notes:
Produced by digitally altering an AP image of the political leader, sans hat – the artist has produced a fictional space, out of which the viewer is forced to comprehend both an inevitable historical event and the way in which our perceptual faculties are often informed by the inaccuracy of conjecture.

Two interesting phrases here. First, the idea of "fictional space" suggests something of the bizarre twilight realism of an expected, but not yet manifest, event. The term fiction doesn't quite capture the intensely ambiguous relationship between image and reality that we find here, so I'm not sure it's the optimal signpost -- but the place it's pointing to is of great interest to us. Second, "our perceptual faculties are often informed by the inaccuracy of conjecture". Since "On Another Occasion" is a video of a still image swimming slowly into focus, rather than simply a still image, in addition to its status as a kind of future artifact, it provides a deliberately temporal, stretched out experience of something baffling resolving into something identifiable. (Christopher Miles: "As the picture evolves, one runs through a list of associations as when reading shapes in clouds.") Here's a neat visual metaphor for the hazards of foresight, which is perhaps a special case of the more general process of coming to understanding. I'd be inclined to warn against taking the metaphor too literally (er, visually?) because the future does not come at us predecided-only-fuzzy; its contents change as we move toward it, along with our ability to discern them. Also, it's not a one-way process, because things whose trajectory or meaning seemed clear at one point may later be rendered surprising or incomprehensible again. At any rate, the inaccuracy of conjecture does seem to be brought out experientially for the viewer by Hanley's approach.

I leave the last word to Christopher Miles (quoted above) who describes his own reaction to this piece, offering more food for thought about how other courses of future-shock therapy might affect the patient:

Here the image of Castro's death foretold becomes a partner in Hanley's attempt to find a moving, evolving form that can address the problem of trying to pull the recognizable out of the unrecognizable, the fixed and clear, as well as the here and now, out of the anticipated, the inevitable, and the yet unresolved. On Another Occasion is less a piece specifically about Castro's awaited demise than a metaphor for the type of confusing moment--difficult to focus, difficult to frame, difficult to register--that it likely will be, whether on a personal or a collective level. Imaging what the rest of us have only imagined, Hanley's digitally altered press photo not only complicates our individual visions of the ineluctable but presents us with the double whammy of a false concretization of an event for which we've been waiting (with passionate anticipation or morbid curiosity), but for which, we must now admit, we were hardly prepared. After multiple viewings, I still find myself trying to reverse this simulated death with a preemptive resurrection. In my mind's eye, I see the old man upright, alive. Somehow, it's just easier that way.

[Follow-up post here, 1 August.]

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