A Good Joke is Worth Repeating
by Svante Larsson
We all know a good joke is worth repeating, but that to explain humour or music via text is a hopeless endeavour with invariably boring results. Be forewarned, this is not going to be fun.
Both Ragnar Kjartansson’s Scenes from Western Culture, The Boatand Dave Allen’s Nu Facts Emergeare fun, but not only fun and definitely not all the time and not at all in the same way. Both play with repetition, as an element in their humour but in many ways the two works are completely different. One piece repeats the same event over and over again while the other refers constantly to the same event. One consists of nine completely different films, the other is made up from eight parts. One is completely linear in time, lasting 156 minutes, the other is broken up into eight separate films, filmed on eight different occasions. One is purely fictional and shows only actual events, the other, an event presented in its own narrative style, but possibly just fiction. In one the spectator is the eye witness, the other, a collection of tales told by eye witnesses.
Scenes from Western Culture, The Boatbuilds upon repetition, over two hours and 36 minutes the same event is repeated 25 to 30 times. The camera’s fixed position shows an idyllic landscape with a lake surrounded by lush mountains. There are more mountains on the horizon, initially baked in sunshine but as the film progresses the sun sets and everything is dimmed blue by the sky’s reflected evening light.
A boat and jetty are closest to the camera. A smaller motorboat appears from the right, with two people aboard, it approaches the pier. We see a man in white shoes, white trousers, white polo shirt and light brown jacket steering the boat, accompanied by a woman in a blue and white striped dress, orange scarf and high pumps. They appear to have come from a party or some other rendezvous. He steps onto the pier and helps her out of the boat. They kiss and embrace. She steps ashore and disappears to the left, out of the frame. He unloads the boat and heads back out on the lake in the direction he came from. The whole sequence lasts about 6 minutes.
Ragnar Kjartansson has used repetition as a method in his works from the very beginning of his practise. In Me and My Motherfrom 2000 Kjartansson is repeatedly spat upon by his mother as she stands opposite him, in a living room, in front of a bookshelf. Kjartansson re-films this scenario every five years. Viewed one after the other the re-stagings become increasingly and absurdly humourous. The repetition and time gap causing the viewer to become immediately aware of the variations in clothing, age and location.
The small variations between the repeated sequences in The Boatretain the viewer’s attention in the piece, if one allows oneself to remain watching. On one level, the film, as an individual piece, becomes a deceptive play with the looped films that accustomed art visitors often encounter at exhibitions. Where a looped visual pun is quickly registered and punctually exited, causing one to miss the variations and playful nuances that generate a friction which nudge the piece towards questions regarding memory and perception. The Boatis usually presented as one of nine films that together form the larger framework Scenes from Western Culture,and probably functions differently in that situation.As an individual work, we become a witness to its ongoings where it almost becomes a sport to see the whole piece.
Viewed on its own, the work becomes not only an absurd repetition of the same event but also a litmus test of one’s perception and memory skills, in activating both sight and memory simultaneously. It forces reflections on details ranging from the variations in the behaviour of the couple as they reach the pier; to the slight differences in the woman’s face, which ultimately makes one wonder whether it is actually the same woman each time ; to the boats crossing the lake in the background; to the man in swimming trunks who approaches the pier, jumps in the water and swims away, returning only after two ‘loops’ of the boat’s arrival and departure ; to the boat they are sailing in being replaced over the course of the work and especially the passage of the day.
The passage of time is relentless in the work, it is 2 hours and 36 minutes long. The strongest markers of time in the film are the changes in light as the clouds shift in shape and colour, the changes in the opacity of the haze over the mountain sides as the sun sets, the changing reflections on the water surface of the lake, how the colours change generally and everything becomes bluer.
It can appear that two differing ways of relating to the concept of time coexist in the same work, eternal repetition and relentless linearity. There is also a relationship with the staged photography of the 1990s within the scenario, with the work of Jeff Wall for example. But with Wall time is frozen forever, with Kjartansson time is both looped and linear at the same time. Kjartansson also references painting, emphasised through the shifts of time in the light, in the water, in the haze, in the clouds between the shadows on the mountain slopes.
On one level the work is a trick, a ‘jeux d’artifice’, on another level the film is an experiment in realism versus fiction. What happens to our perception in relation to what’s happening in a moving image before our eyes? Do we perceive it as realism, as theatre, as construction, as a coordinated equilibrium or as a banality? Why not all at once? As a self-portrait, as a painting, as a surveillance film studying the shifts in light over a summer evening by many westerners during the late-era of anthropocentrism… The film also functions as a meta-referential visual connection to the cornucopia of images that wash over us, both self-selected and inevitably through advertising.
Kjartansson is not reasoning but seductive, puzzling, enchanting, a magician, an illusionist who simultaneously presents his tricks through repetition. The film is wordless, purely visual, we never hear what anyone says in The Boat. We have to rely on our own gaze to be able to read what is going on and what that may mean. Sight becomes our only tool for understanding and through the linear time it is emphasised that everything that counts in this work is in the visual. But the reliability of our gaze is undermined by the events we observe. What do we see, how can it happen, how is it made possible, is it important, what does it mean? Everything visible is activated and given weight, while at the same time, within the work’s own course of events, what happens is completely everyday and banal.
Nu Facts Emergeby Dave Allen is a 38-minute video work consisting of eight parts, eight different sequences where friends and colleagues of his were given the task of filming themselves as they recount how they remember an event from the mid 1980s. What happened varies depending on who is telling, but it is a dramatic event in an everyday setting. If I summarise what the stories are based on; it is a Sunday after a night of partying in a house in a suburb of a town in Scotland where the parents are away. It involves a turntable, a person who gets up to perhaps change the record on the turntable and an exterior door or a patio door made of glass and ends with everyone laughing in amazement, those in the house and even the neighbours.
The sequences are of different lengths, sometimes barely a minute and the first seven are filmed by the person telling the story in the frame; in a car, outdoors, in an armchair, in an office, at a dining table. Each film begins with the name of the person telling the story; Jackie, Ross, Martin, Iain, Katrina, Roddy, Nathan and John. The last sequence, John, is different. It is not filmed like the others, someone telling the the story directly to us, but consists of a narrator’s voice talking about what appears to be a kind of staging of the event we have heard about seven times before, a kind of ‘reenactment. We see a person looking at LPs and drinking a glass of scotch in solitude in a living room, sitting in an armchair next to a small coffee table and reflecting on the materiality of LPs. At the end he gets up and stumbling for support against the coffee table, slips with his hand and falls against the glass patio doors.
Allen’s work, unlike Kjartansson’s, is dependent upon the spoken word, even during the ‘staging’ sequence. The words cover everything, but it is through the visual that the feeling of authenticity is enhanced. It is the image that gives us contact with the various narrators. Their words, their voices, convey what happened (or did not happen).Without the words we are stranded, but even with the words we understand that we cannot know everything. We only know that something happened, but without an objective recording camera present when it happened, we can not rely on their statements. It is as if speech recreates our confidence in the objectivity of the visual, as if while watching the video work, listening to the stories, we constantly have another film present in our heads, an inner, totally objective, true and all-capturing film that no one else could ever see.
It is also through the voices, the tones, the cadence in how they speak that the humour arises and through the repetition of the event that everyone recounts in slightly different ways. The humour is particularly evident in the contradictions between the different stories, in the incompatibility between the different memories and in how sure everyone seems to be that they remember that which happened correctly. The constant in Dave Allen’s art is music, present in various ways either directly via musical performances or indirectly in conceptual form. Rhythm characterises music and tempo and it is very much through the different individual tempos of those who speak that credibility, humour and personality are conveyed in the work. It is on the turntable and the LPs that they all agree upon in their stories. Allen shares with Kjartansson an interest in music, rhythm and tempo. In both artists’ work the timing and tempo are very important and an important component in conveying the emotions in the films, in addition to the fact that several of their works are directly linked to specific songs.
In Allen’s work, we become acutely aware of how memory is transformed through retelling and how we are all, to varying degrees, unreliable as witnesses to the truth. Unlike with Kjartansson, it is through the everyday, the almost banal realism in the work, that the uncertainty in the relationship between what we are told and the event that is told is activated. Not least in relation to the camera’s gaze. It is not just our perception but the camera’s truthful objectivity that is beginning to be questioned. The boundary between fiction and reality widens and collapses.
The voices of the participants in Nu Facts Emergeare reasoning, chatty, down-to-earth, everyday and thus the work becomes more of an exploration of how memory fails us over the years, how it changes, how we add to, and subtract from, the narrative. We describe our lives, here exemplified by an everyday event in the life of a group of young people in Scotland in the eighties retold by a group of middle-aged people. Something similar happened in Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomonwhere the plot revolves around a murder and how its course of events is perceived completely differently by four different witnesses (including the victim himself via a spiritual medium). The event is retold from such different perspectives that it becomes difficult for us as spectators to make a final decision as to what really happened. The memory becomes a bit like a wound that you poke and disturb and doesn’t really heal. In the end it becomes a scar that settles over the original jacket and maybe it heals so that you do not even see the wound anymore. Or it will be a real scar that in turn generates new memories and maybe it will be a wound that never heals that always attracts attention.
If Dave Allen’s work is a consideration of how memory shifts and changes depending on the person and how it can create a fundamental uncertainty about what exactly happened, the work itself also generates such an uncertain function in relation to the credibility of its overall narrative. In several of the stories, ‘Dave Cave’ appears, which was Allen’s nickname among the gang of friends in Scotland in the eighties. He himself has both a distinctly absent presence in the work, he is the engine on which everything is based, attempting to understand what really happened that morning one Sunday in Scotland, but is that all? In the last sequence, where John talks over the the staged scenario, he mentions in passing “like that drummer in Abba”, something I did not hear properly until the third viewing and did not understand what it referred to. Since the work activates one’s investigative curiosity, I had to find out what it was about. It in fact refers to Ola Brunkert, former drummer on all of Abbas’ recordings, who died after falling through a glass door in his house in Mallorca. He cut himself so badly that his attempt to stop the bleeding with a towel did not help to stop the blood flow in time and he collapsed in the garden before he had time to call for help.
And suddenly I become unsure whether Dave Allen’s work is pure fiction, apart from the sentence quickly mentioned in passing, or whether it is just me who has become too suspicious in my attempts to read the work closely. That in a side story about the drummer from Abba makes me wonder if it was just something that came to John’s mind when trying to remember what happened in the eighties or if this is where it all started for the overall narrator Dave Cave. Somewhere, an annoying little memory wound arose that just had to be poked, one that might not heal even with the passage of time. To quote John Lennon, “I believe time wounds all heels.”
 it’s not, it’s a pair of twins with the same last name.
 by the way, it is Kjartansson himself who, similar to Hitchcock, makes a cameo in his own work.
Verktidskrift.se NR: 01 – 2020 | JANUARI – MARS