The Sight of One Hand Clapping

Dave Dyment

In my first apartment I had two tools; a hammer and a glue-gun, and all renovations were conducted accordingly. Initially pleased with my resourcefulness, self-satisfaction often gave way to frustration as the hasty and makeshift improvisations quickly returnsed to a state of ill-repair. House-proud and meticulously neat, I insisted the place be picture-perfect, but the seams were always ready to unravel at any moment.

In Laurel Woodcock’s extreme sport (2002) a young woman carefully builds a pyramid of playing cards, using a glue gun to affix the cards to one another. With this simple craftsman’s tool Woodcock brings down the metaphor but leaves the House of Cards standing. Viewing the work, I’m reminded of an episode of the Simpsons where Bart, bypassing enlightenment, deflates the classic Zen koan^1^ and proves to his sister that the sound of one hand clapping is indeed possible.

An accidental moment in the video, where the performer stands and inadvertently knocks the structure, proves that it has only been somewhat stabilized, that its precarious nature remains. This moment (possibly not intended by the artist, but tellingly not edited out nor re-shot) builds on the wit of the one-liner. It doesn’t entirely negate the metaphor’s meaning, but throws it somewhat off kilter.

extreme sport is displayed on a miniature monitor, fixed atop a tripod, in front of a single modular aluminum bleacher. This installation reinforces the absurdity of the sport and mirrors the ascending structure of the card house, but also assumes an attentive audience. Even if one were to witness the work alone in the gallery, a certain amount of rooting, hooting and hollering is implied. One pictures a group of alert and focused spectators, as if watching play-by-play this peculiar form of solitaire, this wordless word game.

The central characters in nearly all of Woodcock’s videos are reduced to non-speaking parts (traditionally the role of the extra) and her environments are hyper-controlled, with an almost obsessive attention to detail. This can cause the works to appear sterile and cold at first reading but the limitations and exertion of control actually facilitate human moments rich with nuance.2 As the works unfold small surprises communicate loudly.

The eye of a bullfrog is said to reduce the still landscape to a generic blur of colour in order to highlight movement and activity. This simplification of the background foregrounds change, bringing it into sharp focus, enabling him to effectively catch flies and avoid predators. The artist’s rigorous removal of the extraneous serves a similar function.

Woodcock displays a savvy understanding of art history precedents when creating her work, and both references and employs techniques from a variety of historical movements. However, unlike many of her contemporaries, her practice does not rely on the in-joke. The work is inviting to more than just the select few with a degree in contemporary art and a copy of Art Forum tucked under their arm. It is, in fact, more overt in it’s reference to pop culture; a classic Stanley Kubrik film, a song by Brenda Lee, the Roseanne Barr show.3

Woodcock shares with the Conceptualists a primary concern with language, but prefers to approach the subject non-verbally. Ever the unapologetic populist, though, she avoids their rarified language, in favour of an exploration of the common vernacular, the over-used expression. Her texts are drawn from the empty apology of a love song, the insincere sentiment of a souvenir postcard, a trite bromide, taken-for-granted terminology. If language is a virus, as William Burroughs suggested, the cliché is the benign tumour. But Woodcock does not fail to appreciate the potential for meaning and earnest expression that can be distilled from such tired platitudes. She has a way with words that is both thoughtful and generous.

A typical textbook example of Conceptual Art is Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 work One and Three Chairs. The triptych consists of a standard folding chair, a photograph of a chair, and a photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of a chair.4 This questioning of art and representation, with its shades of semiotics and Walter Benjamin^5^ shifted emphasis away from the object towards an idea based art. In Buddhist thought there’s the thing, and then the name for the thing. Which is one thing too many, jokes Laurie Anderson.

For Location Shoot (2003) Woodcock hit the streets of Hollywood North as a production scout, in search of sites, which she captures guerilla-style. Instead of seeking out the perfect nightclub for a bar brawl scene or an appropriate stretch of road for a car chase, Woodcock recorded sites containing only a single empty chair. When installed, an actual chair (a cheap knock-off of a Pierre Paulin Moderinst segment chair) is presented alongside the flatscreen monitor displaying a montage of these carefully composed scenes. Placed outwards, facing away from the screen, the chair is not functional like the bleacher from extreme sport . It serves as a set model, a reference to the scenes of implied introspection, boredom, waiting and watching. By purposefully constructing a set void of fiction, the artist both accentuates the incidental and the peripheral (the presence of a stray dog, the nearby sounds of traffic) and invites the viewer to transpose themselves into the narrative. Many of Woodcock’s video work employ the single-channel technique of early video art from the seventies, and Location Shoot also references the no-frills monologist approach common to these seminal works.

The approximate size of LPs, the 21 photographic lightboxes that make up Tribute each illustrate a hand holding high a lit butane lighter. Each are the artist’s hand, with only the sleeve of her outfit to distinguish them. In fact, Woodcock’s choice of costume (some were rented for the shoot from second hand stores) indicates her understanding of the antiquated nature of the gesture – the mostly psychedelic apparel are clearly of another era. I’ve heard accounts that the flame of the disposable lighter is already being replaced by the glow of cellphones, which is logical given their near saturation and the increasingly common practice of banning smoking in public places).

Individually they serve as functional wall lamps and parody Jeff Wall’s oversized light-box constructions, with perhaps a nod to James Welling’s photographs of light-sources. Taken as a group they serve as a warm welcome that greets the exhibition audience. The gesture will be familiar to anyone who has ever attended a popular music concert as one of appreciation to the performer. An unequivocal affirmation, a demand for an encore. One handed applause.

The art gallery (with all of it’s connotations of contemplation, exclusivity, etc.) is juxtaposed with the larger arena of popular entertainment; the implied concert hall in Tribute, the sports stadium bleacher in extreme sport, and the references to television, theatre and cinema in Location Shoot. One often detects a subtle pejorative to the prefix ‘mass’ before a term (such as ‘culture’ or ‘media’) but Woodcock is not scornful of these larger communities, but rather interested in where they might overlap and intersect with her own, and each other.

Her investigations into language are not part of an esoteric academia, but rather a return to language’s origin — as a functional tool of community. A means to communicate and connect with one another.

— Dave Dyment, 2004


  1. The famous paradox “What is the sound of one hand clapping” was passed on as an oral tradition, but is generally attributed to Hakuin Ekaku [1686-1769].
  2. Katie Bethune-Leamen, in her fabulous essay “Once More, With Feeling” likens Woodcock’s work to “an aesthetically clean and inviting living room,” which, coincidently, the artist has. I share this precision approach to home décor with her.
  3. Regularly dismissed as low-brow entertainment during its heyday, the sitcom was considerably smarter and more realistic and poignant than most television at the time.
  4. Predating Kosuth by two years is George Brecht’s “Three Chair Events”, from his boxed work Wateryam:
      Sitting on a black chair. Occurrence.
      Yellow chair. (Occurrence.)
      On (or near) a white chair. Occurrence.
  5. Referencing Benjamin’s 1937 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is to art writing what rhyming “love” and “above” is to songwriting — hackneyed and clichéd, but almost entirely unavoidable.