The camera looks out through a small, square window set high in a wall overlooking some trees and what might be a garden run wild. Through it we see an odd figure shamble into view, walking away from us. His shapeless clothing and bucket-like hat hide any sense of what he looks like, nor can we see the object he carries before him in both hands. His movements are clumsy, and in no way prepare us for what happens next. Pivoting sideways, he drops what he is carrying and boots it backwards towards us with surgical precision. It’s what the kicker and his Welsh schoolmates call a football, but it might as well be a bomb as it comes straight towards us and ricochets around the window’s and the camera’s congruent frames. The scene goes dark, or we go blind. It’s as visceral a moment as I’ve ever experienced in a video, but once the shock passes my response is equally cerebral. Video, a medium that usually relies on the conventions of theatrical narrative, becomes something new in the hands of Peter Finnemore: something that can make you laugh or make you wonder if it’s for real. Then it gets under your skin, but by then it’s too late.
In the 1980s, when Painting was declared dead (the funeral was reported to have been held in New York), the leading candidate for its replacement was probably Video. It wasn’t just that videos came closest to directly updating paintings, bringing one of the oldest arts into the modern age by the addition of motion, sound, and the apparatus of cinematic narrative that had become central to cultural consciousness. Video also displayed fewer of the limitations and had less prejudice to overcome than any of its apparent competitors. Photography beckoned, but western art hadn’t spent centuries learning to make imaginary pictures look real in order to accept dictation from a mechanism. Installation, meant to reunite the space inside the art with that outside and eliminate the frame, showed instead that the frame protects the art from the world, not the other way around. Performance is too ephemeral: if you can’t be there, it may as well not have happened. The same limitations apply to works erected in remote places or of intangible materials. Duchamp was right about commerce being the secret vice of art, but just because the engine is flawed doesn’t mean you can get along without it.
The advent of iMovie and the Internet have only strengthened the position of video, opening up a whole gamut of approaches to a wider audience while bringing the circumstances of art making ever closer to the moment of presentation. Two internationally recognized video artists currently on view in Utah showcase a range of results in this rising medium. Bill Viola, whose Ascension can be seen at the Salt Lake Art Center, will be discussed here next month, after another installation by the artist, The Quintet of Remembrance, opens at the University of Utah on March 2. For this month, we look at Peter Finnemore, a Welsh nationalist and photographer whose collection of videos, while not much more substantial than so many home movies, made a noise at the Venice Biennale last year, and who has taken over the Central Utah Art Center in Ephraim through February 22.
Finnemore creates—installs in the gallery—spaces wherein to show his films. This space outside the films is made up of the same thematic material he presents inside them. His characters all dress entirely in matching military surplus uniforms: camouflage fatigues (formless shirts and trousers) and matching hats with wide, pulled-down brims. The gallery is divided by swaths of camouflage netting into a variety of theaters—here a cave, there a tent with no door—wherein at least four of his apparently unrehearsed and supremely droll films run simultaneously, visually separate but with their soundtracks mixing in continuously shifting auditory chaos. It’s like the sound of the battle in the next auditorium that percolates through the walls of the multiplex during the love story you chose to watch instead. Some films are projected on a large screen or the gallery wall, while others are seen on a computer monitor or TV set. Between them, at random intervals, the walls are ornamented with silhouettes of Finnemore and his cat as they appear in the videos, these cut from the same cloth as the uniforms.
The cat steals the show. This is part of Finnemore’s point. As the artist explained during the inaugural lecture of Snow College’s new Visiting Artist program,* he finds in camouflage a kind of penetrating synchronicity: the alignment of the image of the Green Man, the ancient European avatar of Nature, with the human propensity for organized violence. Finnemore stalks the cat behind sheets hung to dry, shooting it with fingers held in the manner of a movie spy. The cat stands with elaborate disinterest and walks away. The artist and his actors, the seven or so members of his extended family, are human beings trying to act naturally. As such, they are inept amateurs. The cat is the pro.
Wrong choices are a running gag that emerges as a theme. Finnemore says he freely allows, even deliberately pursues, dumb ideas. He tries not to second-guess himself or, as he put it, to think about his work. Improvisation and the withholding of explicit direction from him are important techniques. A portable greenhouse appears in several films. In one, his entire cast squeezes into the space, dancing in uniform to disco music in the confined space while ignoring the open green space just beyond the glass, their entire individuality channeled into the known repertoire of current dance steps. In another, children take stones from their pockets and throw them at the glass house until all the glass is shattered, then just walk away.
Finnemore has a sharp sense of humor that he applies liberally, with an ambiguity that might be compared to the multiple layers of transparent glaze painters use. The longer you look, the deeper you see. Superficially these brief films, which one viewer compared unfavorably—accurately so—to America’s Funniest Home Videos, have an affinity with the Jackass movies and other guilty, end-of-civilization pleasures. Peer a little deeper and you may find some scorching social satire, covering the same topics as most of Hollywood’s recent comedies—rock stars, mass recreation, our fantasy lives—but doing so in broader, less specific ways and with more memorable images. Then there are the artist’s hints about the Green Man, a figure that represents the merger of nature and humanity. The most beautiful moment Fennimore captures, the one that achieves the combination of awe and terror that the Romantics called the sublime, takes place when he lights his shed on fire and it burns to the ground in a maelstrom of wind and light. This might be the bitterest joke of all. To paraphrase Walt Kelly, We have met the enemy and it is us.
I originally thought to end this meditation on Peter Finnemore not by quoting a cartoonist, but with the words of Hannah Arendt, who reframed so much with her eloquent phrase: the banality of evil. But just as a joke can only take so much explanation before the humor is gone, so Finnemore’s art has a fragile whimsy and good will that can’t bear too much heavy-handed explication. An attempt to elicit from the artist some commentary on his invocation of van Gogh, in a video called “The Potato Eaters (the Musical),” foundered when the bridge proved both too obvious and too fey to carry the weight. It would be mean-spirited to point out too many flaws in what was never meant to be monumental in the first place. Like any florescence of spontaneity—like improvisational theater or sketch comedy—Finnemore’s ideas are often thin and carrying them out often runs too long. In the future it will all be passé, last year’s thing. But right now it captures much that makes the present moment, and if you miss it, it will be too late. I wish I knew the Welsh equivalent of this, but I don’t, so: Be there, or be square.
* The Visiting Artist Program at Snow meets every Thursday at 7:00 p.m. in room 122 of the College’s Humanities and Arts building and is open to the public. For schedule information consult the school’s website at http://www.snow.edu/~art/ or contact the director, Amy Jorgensen, at (435) 283-7408.||
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.