Monday, June 8, 2009

Steve McQueen, Once Upon A Time. Walter Phillips Gallery. April 25 - July 5, 2009. Reviewed by Amy Fung

Please refer to this article for the set-up.

In Once Upon A Time (2002), UK/Amsterdam-based film/video artist Steve McQueen revisits a fairy tale narrative of epic proportions. In 1977, a team spearheaded by NASA and American astronomist Carl Sagan took on the grand and presumptuous task of assembling an archive of images and sounds to represent the scope of human civilization. Launched aboard the Voyager spacecraft, which after thirty years in space, theoretically remains the farthest human-made object from our planet, Sagan’s selection for this archive could potentially stand as the sole story of humanity.

The Golden Record, as it remains known, contains 116 images, along with natural sounds such as whales and thunder, and greetings recorded in 55 languages by men and women, along with official greetings by then-newly elected American President Jimmy Carter. McQueen, who continues to subtly devastate our presupposed notions of image as truth, reappropriates all 116 original images for recontextualization. Rather than standing as an emblem of humanity’s complexities and achievements, O.U.A.T takes the same set of images, and forces a contemporary meditation on the evolution of individual ego and collective alienation.

Viewed today, Sagan’s record reads as the ultimate token of self-aggrandizing myth making. Very actively choosing to represent the story of the world beginning with human beings as the absolute central focus of the planet, the record’s American-centricism simply cannot but reveal itself through what has been chosen as the most important factors to communicate and remember. The elements and environment appear under complete resolve and human control; images of the natural world are branded with a scale in the metric system, magnifying species to designate each image back to human relation. Within the representation of human civilization, issues of race, sex, gender, and class appear to harmoniously co-exist together. Any historical markers such as territority, religion, and other traits of culture and ethnographies become interchangable or simply non issues.

There is a closed system of narrative storytelling, focusing blindly on the organization of humanity with no self-reflexivity or irony. A section of images on the evolution of housing and architecture first shows an image of a dark man building with bricks. The image is in mid shot, with the half wall of bricks and mortar and his face dominating the frame. Its relation its surroundings is unexplained, communicating very little beyond its relation to the next image of finished houses built of different materials on the other side of the world. Transitioning into ever more complex structures jumping time and space to exterior far shots of the Taj Mahal and Sydney Opera House, McQueen emphatically points to the problem of non-contextualized image signification. Each image does not speak to each building’s function, history, or place. Assembled together, it is taken for granted that through image alone, a viewer will be able to configure human logic based on sequential image-based narration. Only, what do these images signify to people, not even alien life form, but people living outside of the Western culture? Human achievements, in this light, ultimately require and uphold knowledge of codes and egos that only reinforce the system that doles its praise and value. Presenting the images as a lulling slide show, a form that is more conducive to pedantic storytelling of yesteryears, McQueen attempts to open up the system by re-engaging us with these highly socialized and standarized images of normal human beings, who are mostly white, and male, reproduce, harvest, build houses, play cello, and barbeque.

Situated a top Tunnel Mountain Drive at the Walter Phillips Gallery, the solo exhibition of O.U.A.T. marks one of the more memorably pilgrimmages to Banff. The setting plays a far greater influence for this work especially, as visitors to the WPG make the effort and trek for an experience of art, which for the lack of a better description, is an affect that moves and arrests both thought and emotion. Completely taking over the entire space and transforming the multisectioned room into a cave, the space itself becomes an integral factor in the experience of the show. With a single long bench amidst a sea of carpeting and a luminous floor to ceiling screen, the viewer is forced into an immersion of image and sound within a relaxed setting. Taking a moment to first adjust to the slow flickering light of images in transition, the dull song of imperceptible noises, reminiscent of human voices speaking one after the other in an indistinguisable language begin babbling into rhythm with the slow cyclical effect of the rotating images. While McQueen has retained Sagan’s choice of images, he has converted the audio of greetings spoken in 55 languages into glossalia, or more commonly known as speaking in tongues. Trance-inducing in pace and tonation, with the slow transition of sequential imagery, glossalia invokes mental states of fervor, where the mind supposedly shuts down to a pre-linguistic state as one is overcome.

Sagan’s project was deemed visionary at the time, as a gesture of human greatness for alien communication, but also fulfilling the role of time capsule for future generations. Situated in its history, human civilization, most notably, American civilization, was at an ideological peak. At the forefront of the space race, the United States’s was the first country to put a man on the moon, which when read from a postcolonial lens, streamlined inito Sagan’s mythologization of the human race through an Americanized-centric narrative. As a blank slate, here was the opportunity to communicate and fabricate the story of human beings. Only, there were no images of famines, wars, or even natural disasters recorded. The intersectionality and complexities of humanity were classified rather than abstracted. The inherent problem of Sagan’s record is its hegemonic positioning, especially from a country that played a pivotal role during one of the bloodiest eras in human history. McQueen’s title plays up the moral-laden narrative that told the story of earth as it once was. Only as an critical comment less than thirty years later, it remains clear the repercussions of ideology continually reverberate.

Cross-posted with Anthea Black on June 8, 2009

- A.F. Edmonton

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