from an untitled novel in progress
I shuffled into the darkened room. The class was huddled around a TV strapped to a trolley. Everyone was engrossed in the video that was playing, and no one said hello or smiled or acknowledged my presence. I felt loud and tried to be quiet. My face was red and hot and I was sweating and panting a bit from walking up the hill. I pulled up a stool and sat at the back, dropping my bag on the floor and craning my neck to see the screen while I willed my inner voice to shut-up. Shut up shut up shut up. Listen. Don’t say anything. Don’t apologise. Just act like you were here all along. It’s the right thing to do.
Owen was right up the front, pen poised above his workbook, eyes on the screen. My first impression was that the footage we were analysing looked like a home movie, that it seemed amateur-ish. I was beginning to think this was the default setting for most video artists — that they couldn’t make hot looking work with the same production values as advertisements or big budget commercial films, so they made crap looking stuff instead, with a DIY aesthetic that purportedly spoke about how the video camera brought filmmaking to the masses. I wasn’t convinced. I wanted the Cremaster Cycle1or nothing.
On the screen there were buildings — tall skyscrapers — with smoke coming off them. It was strange and disconcerting, this work; there was an eerie quality to it. The audio was sparse, with occasional exclamations from the person filming — “Oh my god!” and “What is happening?” in an American accent. The volume was down pretty low. I took my coat off and shoved it under my stool. I got some folded up paper out of my bag, then rummaged around the bottom of it for a pen, eventually finding one that had been leaking ink. It stained my fingers purplish blue. I attempted to wipe the ink off on the bit of folded up paper. The paper-wiping was futile. Rubbing spit on my fingers, I wondered how long this video had being going on for, how much longer it had to go. It was boring. The quietness of it made me think too much.
I tried to pay attention. The smoke billowed in huge dark grey clouds. The footage kept repeating — I hadn’t realised this at first. A plane flew in front of one of the buildings, then crashed into the other in a giant ball of orangey yellow flame. Objects, then what looked like human bodies, drifted down in front of the building facades. Maybe it was utilising some of the ideas contained in Freud’s etymological study of the terms ‘heimlich und unheimlich’ — the German noun ‘homely’ and the related adjective ‘unhomely’ — that Freud argued turned the very notion of ‘homely’ on its head simply by existing, or something. I think people say ‘uncanny’. Does that sound right? Is that what Freud himself said, even? It sounds Freud-y. Uncanny skyscrapers and planes. Both familiar and yet of the future — the future that is now, I guess. I love apocalyptic work. Is this about the apocalypse? Is it the prequel to Mad Max? Is that a Qantas Boeing 747?
Hone once suggested in a group critique session that some of my work had a sense of ‘heimlich und unheimlich’. He was talking about a piece I made with melted down wax casts of My Little Ponies. My uncanny work. It was a pretty shitty uncanny work, really. I didn’t have the patience to make the work that was in my head — hundreds of doey-eyed wax ponies in pastel tones. A Hasbro rainbow referencing my 1980s childhood. The end product was, instead, a series of half formed and mutated wax pony effigies. It was the same old story: I wanted everything to be pristine and perfect, but I never left enough time, or learned enough skills. The only way I could explain the mess was to imply that it was intentional. That I’d fucked with the integrity of the My Little Pony on purpose, to make the viewer uneasy — to make the work about ‘questions’ rather than ‘answers’. It helped that I convinced myself that this is what I had done. In the end it didn’t really matter what was intended, of course. Only the result was available for scrutiny. The process might be evident, might seem obvious, but everyone looking at the work knew that the theory behind it could be posthumously reconstructed in a thousand ways to create a thousand different evolutionary narratives. Art is what you make it.
I made a note on the ink-smudged piece of folded up paper that I could see how the artist who’d made the video work was presenting us with something familiar, the skyscrapers and aeroplanes, alongside something disconcerting, people swan-diving out of them and the planes crashing into them, which brought into question the familiarity and ‘homeliness’ of the aforementioned skyscrapers and planes. If it came to the time for me to comment, I thought I could go with this reading of the work. Or maybe I’d talk about how it critiqued the disaster films of the seventies. There was an undeniable nod to both The Towering Inferno and Airport. And also to all of the Die Hards. I wrote the names of these films down too. I knew I was fishing. I really needed a bit more context — I was out on a limb.
I leaned forward and asked Hone, ‘Who is this?’
He looked at me blankly and said, ‘They’re just people.’
I didn’t understand. ‘What are we watching, though?’ Pipilotti Rist? Bill Viola? Bruce Nauman? I didn’t want to guess, because I was sure I’d get it wrong. It would inevitably be someone I didn’t know and, also inevitably, someone that Owen did.
Hone’s expression was totally unreadable. He seemed really washed out and distant. He didn’t answer me. Maybe I didn’t even speak out loud.
Our class and the lecturers remained in the room for hours, watching the repeating footage of the planes and the buildings and the people jumping out of them. Nobody said a great deal. It seemed like something. We could only speculate on what, because we all knew too much. When I finally left the building it was dark outside and I had forgotten to eat anything all day.
1Matthew Barney (born 1967, USA) created The Cremaster Cycle between 1994 and 2002. It is a series of five art films. I’m not going to describe them here, they’re too complex, and besides — you have the internet for that. Jonathan Jones (in The Guardian) called The Cremaster Cycle “one of the most imaginative and brilliant achievements in the history of avant-garde cinema.”*
*I’M NOT MAKING THIS SHIT UP. DID YOU ALSO KNOW THAT MATTHEW BARNEY HAS A KID WITH BJÖRK? If you know anything about the romantic chronology of Björk, you’ll know he came after Goldie.