Once more, with feeling

Katie Bethune-Leamen

Laurel Woodcock makes art that engages with the legacy of Conceptual art, while adding reiterations of aspects of popular culture. Her work is like an aesthetically clean and inviting living room into which we are ushered and sometimes offered a nice place to sit while we contemplate the conversation going on between the artist and elements she has culled from film, video, language, and art strategies from the 1960s and 70s. Woodcock’s work offers a reassessment of some of Conceptual art’s main concerns, including the malleable nature of language, the serial organisation of the quotidian, and task-based performances for the camera, while infusing these strategies with a warm and gooey center.

The installation operetta (1998) comprises a large projection of a harshly-lit blow fly, flailing on screen in rapidly edited cuts that give us a glimpse of what appear to be its death throes. A familiar voice fades in, and the timbre of HAL 9000 can be discerned –- he’s the computer director Stanley Kubrick brought to life in his 1968 sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL is reciting his dying monologue: a maudlin rendition of one of the first things he was ever taught, the 19thC ditty “Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two).” As on the soundtrack we hear a moribund HAL heave his way slowly through the tune, the life simultaneously ebbs out of the monolithic iridescent green fly we are watching.

The crisp shot of the twitching fly and the voice-over of HAL combine in a surprisingly poignant way. In 2001, HAL has discerned that the astronauts onboard the spacecraft he helps run are about to disconnect him as he has malfunctioned and his abilities are now suspect. Deciding that he cannot allow this to happen, the computer manages to kill off all the members of the ship’s crew, save for Dave Bowman, the last remaining cosmonaut. In effect, HAL has experienced a system bug –- a term derived from the actual bugs that would flit into early supercomputers and cause hardware breakdowns by virtue of the troublesome presence of their little dead bodies.

The word operetta comes from the Italian diminutive of opera, and denotes just that –- something lesser or lighter than a full operatic production, contemporarily constructed as musical comedy featuring dance and action set to music. In Woodcock’s hands, the form is troubled by the literal fly-in-the-ointment she presents to us in the form of the looped dying moments of a fly-on-the-wall. All these spiraling allusions work to expand the possible implications of the installation outward, to the point where the viewer realises that they are standing bathed in the same white glow that illuminated the beautiful, sterile, late Modernist spacecraft that HAL was aboard.

The single channel video conversation pieces (2001), continues the trajectory of Conceptual language play, strong graphic presentation, and wry perspectives on technological communication. The video is structured as three short performances viewed in close-up shots taken at street level on a two-lane highway. The video has three segments divided by inter-titles, each of which precedes a view of red running shoes worn by someone seen poised to negotiate lanes of zooming traffic divided by a vibrant yellow line. These sequences combine the metaphor of the information highway with the succinct imagery of advertising. Woodcock takes references from areas of popular culture such as film and language and extends the elements in several possible directions, creating work that entraps the viewer in a pleasurable speculation about existence in relation to popular culture, and the construction of such conjectures in relation to Conceptual art paradigms.

In extreme sport (2002), Woodcock has again constructed a world that alludes to grander themes, but with controls exerted that make them safer, surer. In the gallery the artist set-up a tiered unit of aluminum bleacher seats facing a diminutive LCD screen positioned on a tiny tripod. Viewers sit to watch the activity described in the work’s title: a woman seated at a table, wearing a t-shirt that aspires to be a team jersey, carefully constructing a house of cards. What is “extreme” here is her use of a glue gun to craftily ensure that the proverbial precariousness of her structure is practically negated. Woodcock has removed the usual meaning of the idiom ‘house of cards,’ guaranteeing a certain degree of structural integrity to the edifice. Often used to describe the precarious nature of life itself, or the delicacy of human endeavours, the artist has inserted a simple D.I.Y. twist to this metaphor.

With the installation extreme sport, viewers perch on the bleachers and become gargantuan spectators of a far-off event. It’s like watching the Big Bang from the nosebleed section of the celestial stadium, where an omniscient being has decided we could use some help, and has allowed for a good amount of security, fixity, and safety in the confabulation of the universe.

For play/pause/repeat, Woodcock created a series of three new works; Location Shoot (2003), a favourite film for each letter of the alphabet / a favourite film from each year since my birth (2003), and wish you were here³ (2003). These pieces further the artist’s use of accessible mid-range technologies, and tightly composed installations to put forth pleasantly sardonic layerings of the worlds of cinema and television, and turns of phrase, while mining the mechanisms of Conceptual art.

Location Shoot is presented as a looped video playing on a flat screen monitor mounted satisfyingly flush to the gallery wall. Beside the monitor, a chair sits to the right of the screen, facing the viewer; the chair is a budget remake of a Pierre Paulin Modern furniture classic. The positioning of the chair is a reiteration of the montage played out in each scene of the Location Shoot video. The work takes its title from the use of video by film productions as a cheap and quick means of documenting or scouting potential sites for scenes. The video component shows a succession of static shots of locations with identical set-ups: a seat facing the camera on right screen, and then whatever else happened to be in the shot –- a dog’s tail waggles in one montage, in another a balloon toddles dejectedly across the frame while a maudlin “CONGRATULATIONS” banner sags to the floor.

The viewer’s relation to the screen directly mimics the distance of the artist’s video camera to her locations, suggesting the gallery as a further iteration of the scenarios depicted. Woodcock has carefully sought out locations with a portentous empty chair, leaving the vacant seats to allude to the early days of artists’ video, when artists often sat before their cameras and recorded single takes for their pieces. In the late 1960s and early 1970s this ‘talking head’ shot was in many ways a reaction to the standards of television reporting, and used as response to the modes of information presented therein. Television, film, video –- all three of these mediums are being referred to in this piece, but here the artist has now left the chair, instead filling up the video frame with an emptiness.

Nearby sits the work a favourite film for each letter of the alphabet / a favourite film from each year since my birth. After the more refined efforts of Location Shoot , this piece is placed almost comically on the floor. A 27” monitor sits flanked in a stuttering embrace by two LED mini-marquees which roll and flash information across their simple screens. On the monitor scrolls two centre-justified lists, the contents of which are the eponyms for the title of the work. The LED marquees inform us of these titles, each screen displaying the determinant of the list it sits closest to.

The low-tech marquees parallel those currently in use at multiplexes for advising cinema patrons as to which film is playing in each theatre. Standing above the display in the gallery, the installation seems a sadly disproportionately scaled and rudimentary venue where we only get to see the opening or closing credits, never the good part in the middle of the film. What Woodcock has given us is ostensibly a personal ‘best-of’ list of films, compiled under rather stringent categories. We have to wonder how laxly the artist had to adhere to the idea of ‘favourite’ in order to come up with movies for each category, for instance a film she really liked for the letter ‘x’, or the year 1987. Here the artist undermines a social convention: that of the hot/not list, best-seller list, etc. The microcosm we tower over is essentially an empty stage wherein the content we might like to see is only referred to through the presentation of dozens of titles.

The final installation in play/pause/repeat is the multi-part work wish you were here3. The viewer is first alerted to this piece upon entering the gallery, where a large glass jar sits stuffed full of blue balloons. Up for grabs, these multiples are printed with a simple line drawing of a whimsical little plane toting a blank banner across the surface of its inflatable world. The drawing was taken from the action at the nexus of this work. On a sunny and relatively cloudless day in October, 2003, Woodcock hired the Adler Aviation Company to fly a single engine plane pulling the phrase “WISH YOU WERE HERE” back and forth through the sky. This action was recorded on video and edited down to an essential two and a half minutes.

It is the sound of this missive-bearing plane that can be heard droning from the back of the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre. Walking towards the noise, the viewer passes through a hallway-like gallery festooned with unidentifiable limply hanging red nylon forms. Continuing towards the buzzing of the plane, the viewer is presented with a darkened room, where two enormous contemporary updates of the beanbag chair sit. These two seats are massive red puffs upon which you can sit to watch the action being projected onto a freestanding wall. In the video can be seen a small single engine aircraft traipsing in and out of frame across the airspace of the screen, pulling behind it a series of indiscernible red forms, fleshing out the Dopplering of the engine. The red shapes soon resolve themselves as letters, making clear the origin of the red forms strung up in the preceding gallery, but the phrase they proclaim remains unreadable until the last satisfying moment when the words “WISH YOU WERE HERE” come into view.

This style of banner is usually reserved for advertising low-key activities such as country fairs, or even the closing-out sales of furniture stores. But here, captured on video against a nearly electric blue sky, the red letters announce a different sort of sentiment. The phrase is familiar as that abused by generations of souvenir postcards. Once meant as a wholehearted invocation to the friend or family member who could not travel along to an exotic location, it has become hollow and empty, often used with sardonic intent. However, up against the jubilant sky, the phrase becomes wholly earnest again, it becomes an oversized expression—an airborne S.O.S. signal.

Laurel Woodcock’s installations and videos empty the dregs of meaning from overused expressions. Her work inhabits the resultant empty shells using formal strategies taken from elements of the everyday, and reworked Conceptual art strategies, reanimating them with discursive possibilities. These revivified forms are newly engaging, and beguile us with the charming new ethos at their core.

Thanks to Kelly, Steve, John, Laurel, K+D, Abbie, Ryan and Casa for all their help.