With Angela Goddard, The Same River Twice, ex. cat. (Brisbane Institute of Modern Art, 2009).
For the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus, the river was a symbol of inevitable mutability—flux. He famously observed that ‘no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man’. Implicit in his observation is the assumption that people might want to step into the same river twice, to wind the clock back—to return to origins. But, as much as we might desire to visit the past, we can do so only in the present, making any return illusory. Things have moved on.1
In recent years, reenacting history has become something of a genre in art, with artists remaking past moments with varying degrees of fidelity and for various ends.2 Some artists seek to bring the past closer, some acknowledge the hubris underpinning such an enterprise, and some have a bet each way. It is hard to see exactly why historical reenactment should be such a timely subject. Several factors, however, seem key: the increasing visibility of role-playing, historical-reenacter subcultures (be it battle reenacting or living history),3 contemporary art’s current infatuation with cinema (the medium of historical reenactment par excellence), the desire to put a new spin on postmodernist themes of appropriation and simulation, and a prevailing historicism (a desire to understand the present in light of the past).4 In these uncertain times, it is fascinating when artists are consumed not so much with the present or the future, but with the past.
In 2001, British artist Jeremy Deller produced a historical reenactment as an artwork. For The Battle of Orgreave, he addressed a scrappy conflict from just seventeen years prior, one that barely fulfills the grand expectations conjured up by the word ‘battle’. In 1984, during the national mineworkers strike, miners blockaded a coking plant at Orgreave, South Yorkshire, but were violently suppressed by police. The clash became symbolic of a larger conflict between workers and the right-wing Thatcher government, then transforming the British economy. Recreating the battle necessitated extensive research on historical accounts, media coverage, and eyewitness testimonials.
Historical reenactments are often politically motivated. Reenacters may identify with a past victory5 or, as in this case, draw legitimacy from a defeat. Deller sought to grant the miners’ resistance a historical status and redeem them in the process. Many performers and audience members had been involved in the original conflict—it was part of living memory. For them, the reenactment was a chance to gain deeper understanding of that traumatic day, to reconsider it in the light of their subsequent life experiences, and perhaps achieve some emotional closure. It was a work of remembrance.
With celebrated British director Mike Figgis, Deller made a documentary of the reenactment for Channel 4, bringing the project to a wider audience. The film presented not only the performance but also its preparations and rehearsals, and interviews with participants and commentators. It revealed tensions between the roles played and real life. For instance, in order to make up numbers, some miners from the original conflict had to play police, witnessing the event from the other side. Some had to be reminded that it was reenactment, not rematch. The film was also an opportunity to correct history. Originally, TV news—complicit with the government—notoriously reordered footage to suggest that miners provoked police, when, in fact, it was the other way around. Combining catharsis and nostalgia, The Battle of Orgreave affirmed the idea that a historical moment could be meaningfully and productively recovered.
Authenticity is understood to be the objective of historical reenactment. Reenacters speak of ‘magic moments’ when disbelief is suspended and ‘it seems really real’. But the corollary is that at other times they feel self-conscious, outside their characters. In reenactment, degrees of accuracy may be possible, but psychological authenticity is ultimately illusory. Reenacters simply know too much: they enter battle already aware of who will prevail and they experience, as history, moments that understood themselves to be modern. They know the consequences. There is also something surreal about reenacting—in a controlled way and for fun—battles that were chaotic and deadly.6 Of course, such dislocations, dilemmas, and pleasures are central to the adventure. Reenacters enjoy precisely the experience of zoning in and out of their roles, the schizophrenic layering of past onto present.
This layering is the subject of American artist Omer Fast’s video installation Godville (2005). Its ostensible subject is Colonial Williamsburg, the living-history theme park in Virginia where professional reenacters (or ‘character interpreters’) spend their days in costume, playing eighteenth-century militiamen, housewives, and slaves for the edification and amusement of tourists.
Fast projects videos on either side of a suspended screen. For one video, he questioned three character interpreters in their historical costumes, in and out of character. He reedited the interviews, overtly manipulating the dialogue to make his subjects say things they didn’t say, creating grammatically coherent, but illogical and clearly false testimony. In these reconstructed jump-cut sequences, the interviewees seem deranged, as though unmoored in time: discussion of eighteenth-century gender roles is scrambled with discussion of twenty-first-century gender roles, and the American revolution is conflated with more recent wars in the Middle East. In one sequence, Will, an African-American who plays a slave but is a church deacon in real life, spouts an ambivalent sermon, offering a litany of contradictory understandings of God. But who is speaking: the slave, the deacon, or Fast-the-ventriloquist? It is impossible to determine the accuracy of what is being said. The other video, projected onto the flip-side of the screen, features scenes of Williamsburg, showing mock-historical buildings and a reenacter in eighteenth-century garb rummaging in his car boot. The space between ‘the authentic’ and the faux has collapsed.
Godville plays up historical paradoxes, contradictions, and subtexts, presenting the past as the unconscious of the present and vice versa—or perhaps it simply scrambles sense. Meditating on social, political, spiritual, and psychic fragmentation, this uncanny portrait of America draws, at once, on the utopian spirit that attended the country’s original founding and on post-9/11 paranoia. It might simultaneously serve mutually exclusive readings: about how much things have changed, about how much they haven’t. Either way, it dissuades us from a simplistic, complacent view of either past or present.
British artist Emma Kay also explores the relationship between history and memory. If ‘history’ suggests the objective, comprehensive, and collectively endorsed account of the past, ‘memory’ implies accounts that are subjective, personal, and partial. In her digital projection The Story of Art (2003), Kay presents the history of art from earliest times to the present as she remembers it, without direct recourse to reference materials. Short paragraphs appear to travel towards us from the centre of a white screen, pausing briefly for us to read them before continuing on. They start slowly, accelerating gradually over the epic duration of the piece—some nine hours, forty-five minutes—ultimately reaching speeds where only the occasional word can be read. The acceleration reflects Kay’s superior recall of recent times, which have not yet been processed and distilled into ‘history’.
Kay’s title nods to Ernst Gombrich’s 1950 textbook, The Story of Art, a trusty staple of art education. In recent years, this tome has been discredited for its linear, Eurocentric approach. Like Gombrich, Kay recounts art’s ‘story’ in chronological order—from cave painting to now—but she presents her account less as a flowing text than as a series of crib notes. These fragments encompass summaries of key artists’ significance and trivial details alike, suggesting the way we recall history in bullet points. Kay shows how memory latches onto both the crucial and trivial. Some of her entries seem over-elaborated, others scant; there are mistakes and gaps. The Story of Art may not draw directly from reference works, but it shows how much Kay has internalised them. This personal art history indexes what registered with her from her education. As she regurgitates information, as if in an exam, we can pit our memory against hers, perhaps empathising with her in straining to remember. Alternatively, sometimes it seems like we, as viewers, are being positioned as students, witnessing this personal exegesis as if it were art history proper.
It is telling to compare Kay’s The Story of Art with her Shakespeare from Memory (1998). In this series of printed texts, Kay relays what she could remember from the plots of all Shakespeare’s plays: from Hamlet and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, a lot; from Much Ado about Nothing, nothing. In Shakespeare, Kay’s entire text is present at once. At any moment, we can choose which part of it we want to read. We can compare and contrast what she remembers from different plays. However, in The Story of Art, we can only see fragments at a time, as they flash up and disappear. We can’t compare the artist’s treatments of different periods except insofar as we can hold them in our own memory. In the end, The Story of Art is as much about our memories as Kay’s; it’s about what we can remember from what she can remember. Alongside the routine idea of history as distilling subjective personal memories into an authoritative, objective, historical account, Kay reminds us of the concurrent potential for generational loss—Chinese whispers.
French artist Pierre Huyghe also probes the limits and distortions of memory. In The Third Memory (1999), he explores a poignant ‘true story’ of love, heroism, and ineptitude; pathos and bathos. On 22 August 1972, urgently needing money to pay for his boyfriend’s sex-change operation, John Woytowicz held up a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn. The police quickly showed up, leading to a protracted stand-off. The debacle unfolded live on television, becoming one of the first crimes to do so. Woytowicz was apprehended and his accomplice was shot dead. The botched caper became the subject of Sidney Lumet’s 1975 hit film Dog Day Afternoon, starring Al Pacino as Woytowicz, which perversely made Woytowicz into a kind of anti-hero.
Decades later, after Woytowicz served his time in prison, Huyghe invited him to reenact the events of that day on a movie-set version of the bank. In Huyghe’s two-screen video, an older, heavier Woytowicz walks and talks us through the robbery step by step, juxtaposed against footage from Lumet’s film. As Huyghe allows us to compare the two reenactments of the same event with one another, but not with the original media footage, one senses Woytowicz is recalling his actions from his memory of the film as much as from his original experience. Alongside the two-screen video, Huyghe re-presents an old television talk-show segment featuring interviews with Woytowicz (in prison) and his now sex-changed lover (in the studio), plus blow-ups of magazine and newspaper clippings related to the original robbery and to the film. Interestingly, we learn that Woytowicz studied Pacino in The Godfather in preparation for the crime, suggesting he had already conceived his act as cinema; and that, at the time of the robbery, reporters compared Woytowicz’s good looks to Pacino’s. In one clipping, Woytowicz discusses the film, questions its accuracy, commends Pacino’s performance, and complains that he never received his cut from Warner Brothers. The Third Memory is less about how well the media represents reality, and more about how media representations, memories, and histories are always already part of historical reality—implicated in it.
If Al Pacino’s method acting exemplifies ‘getting into character’ (which is reenactment’s objective), the opposite approach would have to be Brechtian alienation. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht sought to emotionally distance his audience from his characters so they could critically explore the action. This idea is a key reference point for Irish artist Gerard Byrne. In a series of video installations, Byrne has reanimated old magazine interviews by treating them as scripts. In New Sexual Lifestyles (2003) he restages a 1973 Playboy roundtable that featured academics Wardell Pomeroy and Ernest van den Haag, notorious porn star Linda Lovelace, feminist erotic artist Betty Dodson, and libertine editor of Screw magazine, Al Goldstein. Ranging across such topics as open marriage, orgies, S/M, homosexuality, and bestiality, the forum was an expression of changed attitudes to sexuality in the wake of the 1960s sexual revolution and at the start of second-wave feminism. The specific diversity of views it encompasses locate it in this precise moment. On the one hand, feminist Betty Dodson says, ‘Everybody’s first orgy is mind-boggling. I remember mine. Half of me was thrilled, the other half terrified … What should I wear? How should I get out of what I wear?’ On the other, the chauvinistic Goldstein explains, ‘If my wife cheated, I’d kill her. She’s part of my property.’ While the interview looks forward to a brave new sexual future, that idea of the future now seems terribly dated and compromised.
Byrne was not seeking to make a seamless, convincing reenactment—quite the reverse. He employs an arsenal of alienation devices to frustrate identification and draw attention to the way the text has been staged. He particularly exploits the way published interviews seem naturalistic when read off the page but reveal themselves as contrived fabrications when spoken as dialogue. He somewhat miscasts his largely Irish actors, none of whom much resemble the mugshots reproduced on the lead page of the original article (the subject of a photo within the installation). Their performances are rather wooden, and their accents and clothing seem out of place. Byrne also deranges the continuity of the interview, filming it in chapters that are presented in no particular order across three monitors. Some chapters are repeated in slightly different forms on different monitors. We have to move between all the monitors to see everything, but are left confused, never sure if we have.
The installation itself suggests a well-lit seminar room, with video monitors on stands with headphones and classroom chairs. On entering the space, one only sees the backs of monitors. They are arranged so that, while viewing a video, one is aware of other people watching other videos. Hung on the walls are five large colour photographs of views through the windows of Goulding Summerhouse, a spectacular modernist building near Dublin—where the performances were staged—suggesting a deserted theatre set. That this building comes across as a swingers’ pad is perhaps ironic, as Playboy was banned in Ireland at the time.
There can be no alienation without prior engagement. In New Sexual Lifestyles, we are alternately engaged in the fascinating social content of Byrne’s source material and the artifice of its treatment. We momentarily find ourselves engrossed within the historical text, only to be snapped back into current reality. Byrne neither endorses nor satirises the implicit, albeit dubious, utopianism of his source material: he looks back in time at Playboy looking forward, the gazes never quite aligning. Although experiential authenticity—‘being there’—and reflexive understanding may stand in opposition, New Sexual Lifestyles suggests that historical understanding only begins once we accept that history is beyond us.7
Artists don’t always seek to unveil reality through their reconstructions. The Melbourne-based group Slave Pianos use reenactment to honour and dishonour father-figures. A collaboration between two artists, Danius Kesminas and Michael Stevenson, and two musicologists, Rohan Drape and Neil Kelly, Slave Pianos has gathered an archive of obscure recordings of sound and music works by artists, including canonical international figures like George Maciunas and Louise Bourgeois and local heroes like Peter Tyndall and John Nixon. While much of the material is avant-garde fare, like George Brecht’s Comb Music, some is more traditional, like Domenico de Clario’s ECM-esque ‘Pensive Piano Moods’. Slave Pianos transcribed the recordings into standard Western musical notation, producing printed sheet music like grandma used to play. (This patient endeavour recalls the work of ethnomusicologists documenting ‘other’ musics by transcribing them into Western notation, as if it were a neutral form.) Adding insult to injury, Slave Pianos has these scores mechanically performed by a robotic ‘slave’ on a grand piano (typically, for these musics, a most inappropriate instrument). In the project’s latest iteration, The Execution Protocol, the piano sits in a giant electric chair—recalling the one at Sing-Sing, immortalised by Andy Warhol. An arcing Tesla Coil hums along in selected pieces.8 Perhaps it is an in-joke about ‘executing’ experimental music. Danius Kesminas argues, with a straight face, that the work has educational value, introducing new audiences to the avant-garde tradition. Some of the artists whose works are covered, especially those who have written cease-and-desist letters, would disagree. Slave Pianos’s cover versions productively miss the point of the originals and insert one of their own. Thus, the group enacts a measure of revenge on the historical avant-garde, although one suspects they may be belated avant-gardists themselves, sadly doomed to repeat the unrepeatable.
Even when reenactment is satirical and malicious, it can release some truth latent in the original. For their spoof video Fresh Acconci (1995), American artists Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy redid classic 1970s Vito Acconci performances-for-video in the manner of a porn movie.9 The title suggests sexing up Acconci’s work for a new generation, echoing the way old films are remade with new technology, a new look, and new stars, for a new generation. Where Acconci typically presented himself in direct address to the viewer, Kelley and McCarthy substitute buff male and female porn-star types who mouth his words before a crackling fire and in a jacuzzi. Where Acconci’s work was about emotional authenticity, theirs is cynical—exploitative. Where his videos were crude and black-and-white, theirs is suffused in golden light. They put a 1990s spin on his 1970s art—a West Coast spin on his East Coast art. At first glance, the original may seem utterly transformed. Acconci’s telepathic guessing-games become new-agey couples therapy and his psychodrama monologues flirty phone sex. However, Acconci’s performances translate too well into the new idiom. Rather than trumped, the original is somehow amplified, so Kelley and McCarthy’s Oedipal satire semi-backfires—Acconci seems even sexier.
German artist Thomas Demand’s reconstructions are parodic but not in any way satirical. They play on the way we intuitively understand photographs as connecting us directly to reality and thus to the past, when, in fact, what photographs can tell us about reality and the past is rather limited. Demand typically starts with photographs sourced from the media, often documenting settings of cultural or political trauma, such as the archives of Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, the corridor outside Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment, and the kitchen in Saddam Hussein’s Tikrit hideaway—let’s call them ‘crime-scenes’. These source images are ‘straight’, artless, affectless. In themselves, uncaptioned, they don’t quickly yield their emotional or historical significance. Demand studiously remakes their scenes as 3-D models in coloured paper and cardboard, creating ‘paper thin’ simulations, like flimsy film sets, excising any people along the way. In transposing the pictorial information from a source photograph into his model, it’s as if he seeks to reverse the indexical action by which the original photograph was made in order to find his way back into the concrete reality it depicted—or, rather, to show the futility of such a quest. Demand then makes a large-format photograph of his model, and prints it large, betraying his model’s tell-tale lack of detail, texture, and substance—its artifice. It’s such photographs that he ultimately exhibits.
By presenting these photographs without identifying their sources, without ‘captions’, Demand defers recognition: there is nothing to tell us, say, that the object represented in Model (2000) is, in fact, the model for Albert Speer’s German pavilion for the 1937 Paris International Exhibition, copied from photographs showing Hitler admiring it. Twice removed from its origin, Demand’s photograph of his model of Speer’s model seems at once banal and affectless and haunted by a significance that we can’t put our finger on. It feels like the link between the subject and us has been interrupted and we are confronting, not the past, but the very distance that separates us from it. Pondering the relationship of copy to original, image to event, and present to past, Demand’s works highlight the fundamental inaccessibility of origins. We experience the affect of affectlessness and the significance of displaced significance.
Demand is attracted to scenes that are both quotidian and traumatic, subjects that exemplify ‘the banality of evil’. Perhaps for Germans of his generation, who experienced the fallout of Nazism even though they were born well after the event, this sense of dislocation is symptomatic. This raises the question: to what extent should we read Demand’s images as expressing a necessary, normal, natural separation from the past (the Heraclitus idea), and to what extent an abnormal one (pathological denial and repression causing cultural amnesia)?
Alternatively, perhaps we could read Demand’s benign-looking scenes as haunted-houses, with us as new tenants moving in unawares, ignorant of lingering malevolent spirits and their unfinished business. The fact remains that history itself has agency. We may not have access to historical knowledge, but the ghosts of history certainly have access to us, despite, and even in, our ignorance of them. Heraclitus was right, we can’t step in the same river twice. But, if the river is history, we can’t step out of it either—the river runs through us.
[IMAGE: Omer Fast Godville 2005]
- Jorge Luis Borges argued something similar in his short story ‘Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote’, in Labyrinths (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 62–71. This tale is of a twentieth-century author who writes a text perfectly matching Cervantes’s novel; for Borges, Menard’s Quixote is superior because it must be considered in the light of world events since 1602. Compare the Amish, who, in living in eighteenth-century style today, are involved in a refusal of modernity that was not available to their eighteenth-century forefathers. Their refusal is paradoxically modern.
- Our show follows hard on the heels of several exhibitions that explore this tendency, including Life, Once More (Witte De With, Rotterdam, 2005), History Will Repeat Itself (Kunstwerke, Berlin, and MMK, Frankfurt, 2007), and Not Quite How I Remember It (PowerPlant, Toronto, 2007). Historical reenactment was also a key theme in the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, Revolutions—Forms That Turn.
- Historical reenacters reproduce times gone by in two ways. First, through reenacting specific events, usually battles—perhaps a clash from the American Civil War. Here, they typically pay fastidious attention to details of the battle’s course, its period weaponry, costume, grooming, and setting (many reenactments occurring on the sites of the original battles). Second, as ‘living history’, they reproduce the general conditions of everyday life from a previous era, by living as people once did. While reenactments are often produced for audiences, they are also made for the benefit of the reenacters themselves, who want to get ‘inside the head’ of a different epoch. Not satisfied to know that soldiers used muskets, they want to feel what it is like to fire one. In recent years, historical reenactment has gone from being an obscure, nerdy subculture to something more mainstream. This is reflected in movies and TV shows: in the cult of historical accuracy in The Passion of the Christ (2004), with its authentic Aramaic dialogue; in themes of temporal displacement in The Village (2004); and in the sadistic inquiry of reality-TV shows such as Colonial House and Frontier House, where contestants consent to live in the privations typical of earlier times. Historical reenactment has also been the butt of jokes in the film Choke (2008) and on The Simpsons.
- Historicism is at once illuminating (we are certainly products of history) and concealing (downplaying what is new about now).
- For instance, the massive Russian state reenactment of the storming of the Winter Palace staged in 1920, just three years after the event.
- While working as a doctor in a World War I field hospital, Andre Breton met a delusional patient who believed the war was fake, a hoax, an elaborate work of theatre. Giovanni Intra links this encounter to the emergence of surrealism in ‘Discourse on the Paucity of Clinical Reality’, Midwest, no. 7 (1995): 39–43.
- It is interesting to compare Byrne’s piece to Peter Watkins’s 1964 film Culloden. Watkins restaged the notorious suppression of the 1745 Jacobite uprising using wooden non-actors and shooting and editing in the manner of Vietnam-period TV reportage, complete with one-on-one interviews with combatants. Intending to bring history closer, Watkins’s conceits also suggest an unbridgeable historical gap.
- Slave Pianos’s The Same River Twice installation reenacts a 2007 Slave Pianos installation The Execution Protocol: A War of Currents: Floating Paintings / Piano Execution—On Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, in which their electric chair was surrounded by Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds.
- The original Acconci works were Claim Excerpts, Contacts, Focal Points, and Pryings (all 1971), and Theme Song (1973).