Rodney Graham’s Time Has Come
May 1, 2014
Why don’t you try to actually get the gig?” asked Shannon Oksanen one day. Her husband, the artist Rodney Graham, had twice sent proposals to the Canada Council — clever, super-clever proposals — for exhibitions at the Venice Biennale. But Graham was never chosen to represent his country at the art world Olympics. Perhaps a simpler approach was needed. “God, just tell them you’ll do pictures of upside-down trees. Trees across Canada,” suggested Oksanen (an acclaimed artist herself). There was a patriotic vibe whose merit the council could recognize: Graham’s photographs of upside-down trees were by then well known. (This was the mid ’90s and he’d first made them in the ’70s.) But really, he thought, more of those? Faced with the reality of such grand acceptance, Graham found himself eager to dodge.
Those tree photos derive their value from their conceptual prowess and historical allusions — more so, even, than their technical achievement. In fact, they reference something that’s commonplace, something humans accomplish with our own eyes: all images arrive the wrong way up when light hits our retinas; our brains constantly “correct” our warped perceptions. An anti-conceptual viewer, though, could be forgiven for mumbling, Well, it’s just a picture of a tree the guy turned upside-down. Indeed, many have thus mumbled.
The upside-down trees had, by the time of his Biennale application, become a hallmark of Graham, a brand. And the idea of a brand, a clean identity, is anathema to him. Perhaps that’s why he abandoned the proposal and began working on an alternative that was, to the despair of certain members of the council, exactly the opposite. “They were mad,” he says. “But I’d come up with a way better fucking idea.”
Vexation Island, the cinematic work Graham created instead, is a wordless 10-minute film that follows a Robinson Crusoe character who awakens on the beach of a desert island, shakes a coconut down from a palm tree, and is knocked unconscious by said coconut; the figure, played by Graham himself, eventually reawakens in the same spot and lives out this Beckett-esque scenario again and again. The film ran on a loop in Venice, creating a half-depressing, half-comical effect: Won’t he ever get the coconut? But like all of Graham’s art, Vexation Island is working more than one angle. It calls up the history of colonialism, for example: it was filmed in the British Virgin Islands, a tourist mecca that was also the point of first contact between Europe and the New World. And besides all that, it’s a delight to watch. It’s a work that knows its history but doesn’t depend on the viewer knowing it too. An ideal vehicle for busting through the intellectual tangle of a Venice Biennale. By many accounts it made his career.
It certainly marked a departure. “I got sick of making art that involved a lot of a back story. Work with so many references is actually no more or less intelligent than something popular, something spectacular,” says Graham. “I guess what I mean is that I became less interested in trying to prove my own intelligence.” There was more than his “conceptual” reputation on the line, though. Graham’s finances were severely strained and the three-day tropical film shoot (which employed a top-shelf Hollywood crew) cost $50,000.
“But I just figured, Fuck it — for Venice you have to go big.” He’s sitting today at the kitchen table in his South Cambie home. At 64, Graham looks like the coolest guy in the record store — he’s got the silver mop of hair, the Esquire wardrobe, the guitar collection. You can see why a Japanese magazine recently did a fashion shoot here for their Dads’ Style issue. Money woes are far behind him. Today, his works regularly fetch six figures; his upside-down trees are reproduced on stamps and wine labels; he’s frequently seen at the city’s finest restaurants.
He doesn’t go to biennales anymore (in fact, that first trip to Venice was his last) because “there’s just so much work at those things and I feel this awful pressure to produce, and I can’t keep up.” Besides, he doesn’t need to shake hands at art fairs now; the world comes to him. Eminent New York artist Dan Graham (no relation) told me, “As far as the international art scene goes, Rodney has actually eclipsed Jeff Wall as the Vancouver artist.” This year, three galleries around town signal his status by producing Graham exhibits: the Belkin Gallery at UBC and the Charles H. Scott Gallery at Emily Carr University join the Wing Sang to present Bob Rennie’s enormous collection of Graham works, including some that have never been shown in North America. (A dozen years after Rennie purchased a series of upside-down oak tree photos, he now owns over 60 Graham works, some of which include dozens of individual elements.) This may be the single largest piece of love an artist has received here.
Rodney Graham before the Venice Biennale may have been overtly clever and even arcane in his references (one work from the ’80s is a 300-page “pastiche” of an obscure Edgar Allan Poe story), but post-Biennale Graham, while no less intelligent, is more fun, more visible, more marketable. “I have no interest in making that older kind of work anymore,” he says.
The turn was in 1994, when Graham made a short video called Halcion Sleep. For this work, as with Vexation Island, Graham shows himself conked out — but this time it’s not an act. Graham put on a set of satin pajamas and took a heavy dose of the hypnotic sleeping pill Halcion, forcing himself into drug-addled dreams. He passed out in the back of a car, and his friends (instructed in advance) filmed his sleeping body as they drove him home — a reverse kidnapping.
Both works — Vexation Island and Halcion Sleep — show the artist giving up control, and this is perhaps the element that binds his disparate oeuvre: that transcendental moment when an artist gives up his authorial grip, that desire to un-manage what must be managed. For example, Graham once took a Polaroid camera into the woods at night and snapped images in the black, only seeing what he was photographing for a second, and by the blinding light of flash. In a sense he was forcing himself to see the world in the powerless way that a camera sees it: darkness, darkness, darkness, LIGHT…
The artist Myfanwy MacLeod, who went to Venice with Graham back in 1997 and helped him gather the cash, told me over lunch at the VAG Café that “consciousness, or lack thereof” is something that propels his work. If Halcion Sleep showed Graham falling asleep in a fuzzy backseat, then Vexation Island showed him waking in a Technicolor paradise (just as his career awakened amidst the magnitude and hurrah of Venice). “Being in front of a camera is letting go,” said MacLeod. “Once he’s in front of the camera he has to give over control to whoever’s behind the camera.” The artist literally subjects himself.
Be clever if you like. Find references to works like Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963), for which he videotaped his unconscious friend. Quote Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. (Graham has been obsessed with Freud.) But when I watch Halcion Sleep I mostly just see his unsettling vulnerability — he looks like a helpless child in that darkened backseat. “I was a little depressed when I made that one,” Graham admits. Ultimately, he was reenacting a memory that most of us share: the experience of passing out in the car while parents drive us home. And so, when Graham first put himself, his body, into his artwork, despite all the painstaking references that were there, he was also just returning, at last, to the intimacy of his own childhood.
Graham grew up bouncing between Vancouver and outlying regions (Abbotsford, Coquitlam). Dad was in the lumber industry, and family life was middle-class. Young Rod attended Magee secondary, which was “super-typical, super-repressive. There were some pretty godawful loser teachers — back then teachers actually partook in bullying the nerdy kids. And everyone joined these awful clubs so that they could wear a particular sweater…” Such dullness, set against the emerging possibilities of the 1960s, was a thing to kick off against. (He skipped grad in order to see Jefferson Airplane play Richmond.)
Graham found himself at the hippie vanguard and discovered drugs, “which was good.” Mainly marijuana and LSD. Joining a basement band flowed naturally from the pot and the obsession with the Rolling Stones. Later, sure, Graham would be able to purchase Elvis Presley’s screen door and coat it in silver (yes, an artwork of his), but back then he was another nameless teen getting stoned next to his record player. There were no aspirations to becoming a professional musician, professional artist, professional anything.
Many of the writers Graham came to admire — Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin — experimented with drugs; giving up control was understood to be a crucial component of creation. Annihilate the interfering self and you make way for the unknown. The philosophy dovetailed nicely with Graham’s work ethic: “I knew always that I wanted to write or make art or something; it seemed the most fun. But I never thought of anything as a career, even at college.” Tuition at UBC, where Graham eventually matriculated, wasn’t high, and he could rent a room in a house on Point Grey Road (complete with ocean view) for $40 a month. Life wasn’t hard. Life was for trying things on.
At UBC Graham took Ian Wallace’s legendary art history courses. “Being 19, it seemed like the cool place to be. And it was Ian’s class that made me decide to be an artist instead of a writer.” Graham’s generalized counterculture interests began to coalesce around the conceptual art world at whose centre Wallace stood. He ended up “kind of dropping out,” though, having repeatedly failed to show up for French 110, which was held at the imaginary hour of 8:30 a.m. “Did I graduate in the end?” he asks. “I don’t know. It doesn’t matter now.”
At SFU, Graham studied with Jeff Wall, who was fast becoming a key figure locally and abroad but eventually dropped out of that program as well. Institutions may not have been compatible with Graham’s mindset. But he got what he needed from them: space to grow and people to meet. Meanwhile, he worked part-time at B.C. liquor store, which paid well and didn’t demand too much. (The liquor store would remain Graham’s main source of income into his late 30s.)
In 1979 Graham took a gig as groundskeeper and pseudo-cowboy on his uncle and aunt’s Sumas Mountain ranch (they had 30 head of cattle); it was there that he started thinking about the camera obscura, an antique optic device (precursor to the camera) that uses a pinhole to project an image into a dark chamber. The camera obscura, though, can only produce upside-down images — just like the lens of the human eye. Graham saw something touching, or at least compelling, in this fact. Perhaps the notion that we never see things quite the way they are sat nicely with his long-nurtured outsider status. He took an old camera of Wall’s, removed the lens, and used it as a surveying tool, looking through the pinhole to see what a camera obscura would see. Inspired by Robert Smithson’s 1969 photograph of an actual upside-down tree that had been ripped out by the roots, Graham homed in on a tree growing on a neighbouring property; he constructed a shack-size camera obscura, pointed it at the tree, and invited his friends to come experience it. They were seeing the first in a long series of upside-down trees that became that accidental Graham trademark, its message reducible to a simple yet unanswerable declaration: things are not as you suppose.
If art-historical references fuelled such projects, we can see that balanced by the formation of a post-punk band in the same year. Graham (a proficient guitar player) joined his former teachers, Wall and Wallace, plus CBC’s David Wisdom and others, to form a yappy sort of group called You J3rk5 (pronounced “you jerk” — the 5 is silent). As Wisdom told me over coffee, “It was the ’70s; art school was where bands came from.” Graham was masterful at turning lyrics into a workable pop song. He was reserved on-stage — Jeff Wall was the theatrical one — but Graham dressed beautifully and took the music seriously. (They practised up to five times a week.) The whole operation lasted two years on the outside; there were a dozen gigs in total. At their height they opened for the Gang of Four at the Commodore.
For the first time in Graham’s career, the yearnings of his angsty adolescence seemed to merge with the cleverness of the artist. Was it possible to be both rock star and conceptual artist? Could those qualities, naive full-frontal performance and obscure art-elite references, actually intertwine? The answer took 20 years.
Nobody, least of all an artist, can set down their identity in a single, legible way. We all shift daily between our various roles. And it was this indefinable quality to identity and understanding that would be the new terrain Rodney Graham explored after his breakthrough at the Venice Biennale. It’s as though he found a new way to talk. He became. He became. He became, for the camera:
• an idealized cowboy (How I Became a Ramblin’ Man, 1999)
• a city dandy and a country bumpkin, with the former literally kicking the latter’s ass (City Self/Country Self, 2001)
• a lonely lighthouse keeper (Lighthouse Keeper With Lighthouse Model, 2010)
• a bearded old hippie photographed in the midst of an ecstatic jump across a suburban garden (The Leaping Hermit, 2011)
• four men taking a break from their labour: a 1950s actor on set, a listless sous-chef, a paddler at the mouth of the Seymour River, and a drywaller (The Four Seasons, 2011-2013)
Always these men, always what Dan Graham calls “these somewhat-losers.” Always these almost-self-portraits: he’s there and he’s not. This is key to his mind, I think — the desire never to settle but always to refer to something else. When we sit down to talk, he points elsewhere, too; he’s telling me to read Bob Stanley’s new book about music, or to watch a 1980s movie that changed his life. Friends and peers describe Graham as “a human Google” and someone “you have to greet with a pencil and paper.” He is forever saying, Have you seen this? Have you read this? Every point of culture — in his conversation and in his artworks — is a pointer to something else.
If he enjoyed putting his body in front of a camera this past decade, then it was only so he could dissolve the very notion of self into the art. (Are these self-portraits or not? I ask. “Maybe,” he replies.) If Halcion Sleep and Vexation Island were concerned with the vanishing point between consciousness and unconsciousness, then that stoner fascination was slowly dispersed in his spree of role-playing and dress-up; as an actor he’s both a focus of attention and lost in a dream.
In all this there’s a poetic pain that can register with anyone: our perceptions, and our dodging explanations of our own lives, so often have a bit of J. Alfred Prufrock about them. Like Prufrock, we say, “That is not it at all. That is not what I meant, at all.”
Truth eludes us, skitters out of our peripheral vision. As with those upside-down trees, we can never trust the images we capture. It’s the story behind the finished image, the drug-fuelled dream, the obscure reference, that is more true. As I pack up at Graham’s home, I ask him once more why he could never focus on school despite his obvious smarts.
Shrug. “There were more interesting things to do.”
Graham’s brow goes up a notch: “Like get stoned and listen to music.”
There’s this great neon sign on the wall over his shoulder. BIG STAR, it reads. It was made by Ron Terada, and it’s one of the few artworks Graham owns; he prefers to source décor from antique shops and junk stores.
I try to imagine how stifled he felt among the sweater sets and Brylcreem hairstyles of his youth. How very likely it was that the young artist coming of age in that “super-typical, super-repressive” environment would grow up to be a wandering figure, someone who’s not quite comfortable being himself before the camera — and doesn’t need to be the man behind it, either.
I want to see what Graham looked like at 17, so on a drizzly day I make my way to Magee secondary (motto: Esse quam videri/To be, rather than to seem) and pull a 1967 annual from the library stacks. “We’ve had many famous graduates,” says the cheerful librarian, rattling off names like Margot Kidder and Carrie-Anne Moss. She hasn’t heard of Graham. I flip through the book, noting the bobs and pearls that uniform the girls and all those Playmobil hairdos on the suited boys; yearbook writeups tout “pool skills” and futures at decent commerce departments. I flip through the hundreds of smiling stalwart faces, thumb my way toward Graham, the wayward music geek, the experimental druggie, the proto-genius with his countless allusions. But he was absent on photo day. There is no portrait of Rodney Graham.
See these and other works at the Rennie Collection at Wing Sang (May 31 to Oct. 4), the Belkin Gallery (June 20 to Aug. 17), and the Charles H. Scott Gallery (Sept. 17 to Nov. 16)