Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Nick Strike's 'October'

Nick Strike, October, installation detail, 2013. Photo by Iakovos Amperidis.
Nick Strike’s art practice is deeply embedded in the concerns of 20th century modernity: in the development of cinema and ideas of the unconscious, and the accompanying shift in representation from still life to sequential imagery. His work alludes to the psychoanalytic implications of images as well as the mechanics of vision.

In his engagement with the technologies of vision, Strike has often made work that incorporates tools such as projectors, lenses, magnifying glasses and light. He has used these devices – for focusing, distorting and concentrating vision – to excavate the history of image making. His stereoscopic collages, paintings, altered found photographs and film footage, portray the slippages of images, the way they mutate and stem from each other. Strike’s images come with their histories streaming behind them.

Nick Strike’s October includes watercolours, sculpture, found anonymous film, as well as an extracted loop from Sergei Eisenstein’s film of the Russian Revolution, October: Ten Days That Shook The World. The installation uses film as artifact, found object, as text, as reference, as metaphor and as cultural trope. It is characteristic of Strike’s work that the associations invoked by each of his elements are as thoroughly mined as this.

* * *

As you ascend the stairs to the gallery, you note a small monitor propped on the landing. The screen plays a loop of black and white, 1940s footage of a line of divers mounting a staircase, towards a diving board. Your steps replicate theirs. It’s an indication that you are entering a cinematic space.

At the top of the stairs, a framed watercolour depicts a modified scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, where a man and woman, both of whom have assumed fraudulent identities, approach each other in a forest of tall thin-trunked trees. In the background is Mount Rushmore, with its monumental sculptures of the four founding fathers of the United States carved into the cliff face. They represent the symbolic, monitoring eyes of the Law (you have entered psychoanalytic territory). But blocking the presidential view is the dense black monolith that reoccurs throughout Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which now stands between them and the couple.

You then enter the darkened gallery through a doorframe bisected by a pendulum-like clear perspex rod encasing a length of 16mm film footage. Placed on the floor, at its base, is a vintage, black and white photograph of two anonymous couples, each oblivious to the other, hugging in a forest of similarly thin-trunked, tall trees.

If you look straight ahead, the first thing you see is a sequential series of another seven, sombrely-toned watercolours. They are hung at an unusually low level: closer to your gut than your eye.  It’s Hitchcock’s couple again. They continue their advance toward each other, though the forest; then they have fallen into an embrace at the foot of Kubrick’s monolith, which has been rotating horizontally behind them throughout the storyboard sequence. In the final image the couple disappear, seemingly taken into the earth on which they have lain together.

Look to your left and you see the door to the gallery has been dislocated from the doorway and wedged at a 45-degree angle into the corner of the room. Some viewers will notice formal echoes here, both to the monolith, and to Richard Serra’s sculpture Strike (and from here to the artist’s surname). On one side of the relocated door is another small screen, on which the opening scene of Eisenstein’s 1928 film October, plays in a loop. You see the famous re-enactment of the sculpture of the Tsar being fastened by ropes and violently yanked from its pedestal. On each side of the glass-windowed door, which is lettered with the word ‘October’, is a strip of 16mm film footage mounted in perspex and fastened to the door with scaffolding clips.

On the opposite wall, at the far end of the gallery, is a large projection. It’s the same divers you first saw on the staircase. They are now plunging into the pool from the high board. But you can’t exactly see them: though their surroundings are clear, the bodies have been obscured. A section of each of film cell has been painstakingly burnt by the sun through the artist’s magnifying glass. In the place of each diver’s body is a pulsing, abstracted ripple of melted celluloid. Again and again you watch the resulting mass of swirling, psychedelic colour splash into the black and white water.

Turn to your right and you see a sculpture. An inflated, foil wine bladder has two images attached. Adhered to the reflective silver surface is a photographic still of Kubrick’s 2001, astronaut-hero, David Bowman.  He’s staring straight ahead with a wide-eyed expression. Directly in front, in his line of sight, a copper wire fixes in place a 35mm slide of one of Giorgio Morandi’s still life painting of vessels.

The adjacent sculpture is another strip of film. This time it’s of leader footage, clamped in place, once again, by perspex and scaffolding clips. At its base, mounted on the wall, is a photocopy of the first pages of Rosalind E. Krauss’s Passages in Modern Sculpture. She describes the opening scene of Eisenstein’s October that you saw when you entered the gallery – the toppling of the Tsar’s statue, signifying the dismantling of pre-modern authority and ideology.

There is one final sculpture on the adjoining wall. Eight extension cords (and here you might notice that October signifies the number eight in Latin, and that there are eight watercolours in the storyboard sequence) hang suspended in a line along a short wall. The copper earth wire of each cord has been cut and pokes through a small incision. A chunk of coal dangles from each wire. If you follow the sightline of the row of cords, you see that are precisely perpendicular to the storyboard sequence across the room at the exact point where the monolith has pivoted to its narrowest profile. And here we have another key to the expansive web of references that Nick Strike’s art is made up of. Because in Strike’s associative schema, the extension cords reference (among other things) the ropes that pull down the Tsar’s statue; the lumps of coal represent Kubrick’s monolith in shards, and every element of the installation is similarly linked to every other in a delirious, endless loop of analogies derived from Strike’s reading, viewing and making.

* * *

In a purposeful confusion of names and references, Strike co-opts Eisenstein’s October as both a title and a thematic device. In Passages in Modern Sculpture, Krauss mistakes the Tsar Alexander III’s sculpture for that of his son’s and Strike responds to this error with his own cinematic subplot of names. He has chosen to exhibit this body of work as an unidentified artist in the spirit of 55 Sydenham’s initial premise that viewers would not be told the artist’s name in advance. The play with names continues through the installation – identities are alternatively mistaken, assumed, forgotten, or anonymous. Subjectivity is tenuous: the effigy of the Tsar tumbles to the ground, the divers dissolve even before they hit the water, the couple merge together and then into the earth.

Much of Nick Strike’s recent work has derived from the use of films that feature works of sculpture as props or as part of the film set. North By Northwest, 2001 and October all feature monumental sculptures as key plot indicators. Strike interferes with the films’ narratives as a way of interfering with broader narrative authority and ideological intent. He inserts blockages – physical, perceptual and conceptual obstacles – to disrupt the possibility of coherent vision: the stray monolith shelters the embracing couple from observation, but is also seen broken down into fragments. The divers’ bodies are masked from the audience’s view by light – the medium through which their presence is made visible. Strike’s quotations from auteur film, art theory and psychoanalytic theory are also destabilised by the use he makes of them. Krauss’s error undermines the weight of her text; the monolith, in its numerous repurposing, symbolically escapes the authority of Kubrick’s film, as do Hitchcock’s couple. In Strike’s work the associations created by montage take the place of ideology. They alter and collapse the existing and sanctioned readings of the cultural monuments he selects.

Strike’s found imagery is vintage and that lends his work a nostalgic air. The Tsar, the divers, the merging couple, even the medium of film stock are all on the verge of, or in the act of, disappearing. But Strike’s reference to historical time isn’t a revelling in loss, but a repositioning of contemporary art’s relationship to its past. Rosalind Krauss in Under Blue Cup argues the case for art that maintains a relationship with historical mediums and the white cube of gallery space. She describes post-medium art as aesthetically meaningless; instead of abandoning the conventions of gallery and medium, artists should kick off against the white cube as if from the side of a pool. Krauss’s argument is for the importance of memory to art if it is to retain its specificity and autonomy. Strike’s work is propelled by exactly this type of active remembering and engagement with the cultural monuments, and anti-monuments, of modernity. His art incorporates and rewrites his own previous work as well as the texts and films that resonate with his aesthetic.

In October, Strike makes use of a number of cinematic conventions: time, light, character, narrative and movement. He screens, projects and loops film; renders film into static sculptures and mimics film stills in painted storyboard sequences. His work enacts a tension between still and moving images: either of which is liable to become the other at any given point. After the opening night, the installation was altered. As if editing a scene from a film, the artist removed the foil bladder piece from view. It may, or may not, be replaced by additional work over the duration of the exhibition. Strike disrupts even his own narratives. His installation is a focusing device, a lens through which a montage of interconnected images and ideas pass in a given period of time. Like recalled memories they are unlikely to be seen in exactly the same arrangement again.

Lynne Barwick, October 2013

October, Nick Strike, 55 Sydenham Rd, Sydney, 11-20th October 2013

List of some of Strike’s additional references for October
Victor Shlovsky’s Knight's Move
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo
Chris Marker’s La Jette
Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’or
Svetlana Boym’s Nostalgia for the Future
Ingmar Bergman’s Persona
Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye
Roland Barthes’s The Third Meaning
Victor Burgin’s The Remembered Film
Lacan’s symbol for the "split" or "barred" subject
Freud’s Primal Scene