PRINT February 1998


A man gets up as brusquely as a specter on a coffin and falls in the same way. He gets up a few hours later and then he falls again, and the same thing happens every day; this great coitus with the celestial atmosphere is regulated by the terrestrial rotation around the sun. —Georges Bataille, “The Solar Anus”1

Filmed with all the glossiness, sharpness, and brilliant color of an advertisement for a Caribbean getaway cruise or an exotic rum, Rodney Graham’s Vexation Island, 1997, immediately attracts the viewer’s attention through its compulsive beauty. The first image in this nine-minute film loop is a bird’s-eye perspective of a small “desert island” located just off the mainland. The body of white sand that circumambulates the dark green vegetation in the center of the island is in sharp relief, cicatrix-like against the tranquil aquamarine water. This is followed by a worm’s-eye shot taken on the island from a vantage point directly below a large and prominent palm tree, then a shot of the beach and the same tree’s shadow in negative relief. A medium-long pan of the tree from left to right ensues, ultimately focusing on a man in seventeenth-century costume who is passed out on the beach with a bloody wound on his forehead. Next to him is a barrel with a large, colorful parrot perched on it. In what unfolds during the following minutes, the parrot squawks, the man awakens seemingly dazed, stands up, sees the palm tree, and shakes it until a coconut loosens, hurtles down, and hits him on the head, knocking him out. The man falls back into his original position as the coconut rolls to the sea’s edge. At this point, the film loops back to the beginning.

The man in the film is none other than Graham himself, whose corporal presence embodies both the eye of the camera and the I of the subject position. Though not signed as such, the insertion of his physical body into the mise-en-scène casts the entire film in an autobiographical dimension. Vexation Island is not the first time Graham has starred in one of his own productions. His Halcion Sleep, 1994, for instance, finds him in a drug—induced slumber as he is transported from the suburbs of Vancouver to the city in the back of a van. At one level, the film may be seen as a counterpart to Vexation Island, since both concern subjects who are not fully conscious, whether the cause is artificial pharmaceutical intervention or a natural blow from a coconut. Both presentations of the self in an oblivious condition lead the viewer to reflect on the nature of conscious versus unconscious states of being. As the critic Shep Steiner remarks in what serves as the exhibition catalogue for Vexation Island, “The scene, as the fictional moment of a becoming I, is a fluid and seamless restaging of a hapless and endless repetition that is always blinded to, yet constitutive of, the self.”2

A preoccupation with the unconscious, and with psychoanalysis in general, has always been an integral part of Graham’s work. Lenz, 1983, is a textual loop composed of extracts from Georg Büchner’s eponymous 1835 novella (a Modernist work avant la lettre), Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Landor’s Cottage,” and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams; the 1988 Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious/Case Histories consists of two paperback volumes by Freud inserted into a Judd-like wall unit. In a 1990 exhibit, Graham displayed photographs of Freud and Charles Baudelaire accompanied by a text in which the artist muses on Freud’s theory of the repetition of “visual defamiliarization” (Entfremdungsgefühl) indicative of repression, and how this psychic mechanism in turn affects constructions of reality. More recently, in 1996, Graham published his writings on Freud in a volume entitled Oeuvres Freudiennes, coupled with Oeuvres Wagnériennes (the composer was of course well-known for having placed the orchestra in a pit below the stage, invisible to the audience, so that the music could work directly on their unconscious).

Appearing before us as a filmic mise-en-abîme, at once summoning the myths of Sisyphus and Oroboros, the snake that consumes its own tail, Vexation Island continues Graham’s interest in Freud and the unconscious. The central motif in the work is repetition, both in terms of the action depicted—man prostrate, getting up, shaking tree trunk, being hit over the head, resuming initial position—as well as the format in which it is delivered: a 35-mm film loop intended to be played continuously. This compulsive repetition functions at once as vaudeville-like farce and distanciating riddle. For if the ridiculous action generates the liberatory power of laughter, articulating that which generally cannot be introduced into public speech, one can’t help but feel vexed over what one’s laughing at. Repetition, Freud argues in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), is essentially linked to the death drive.3 But what is it in Vexation Island that is in the throes of death, and why is it sardonically funny? If the comedic dimension is somehow related to the desert-island motif, a stock-in-trade setting for burlesque, Graham employs the motif not so much to comment on its ludicrousness on film as to comment on the ludicrousness of the medium itself.

Throughout Graham’s oeuvre, Freudian references are often paired with those from classical literary or philosophical texts, which also direct and determine the interpretation. Vexation Island is no exception. Here, the allusion is Daniel Defoe’s early-eighteenth-century novel, Robinson Crusoe, the story of a man shipwrecked and marooned on an uninhabited island for twenty-four years. Defoe’s novel has traditionally been read as representing the struggle of the individual soul and its quest for renewed faith or as an allegory of modernity. Either way, though, Crusoe is an active subject. By contrast, the figure of Graham is passive, one caught in a self-destructive, ultimately nihilist loop. In a 1997 essay titled “Siting Vexation Island,” the artist cites Gilles Deleuze’s topology of naturalist and realist violence in the French philosopher’s Cinema I: The Movement Image (1983).4 In the latter, Deleuze differentiates between these two concepts, which he refers respectively to “a vegetable or vegetative pole (permeation) and the animal pole (acting out),” and emphasizes the potential for violence that exists in both.5 Lest one be too hasty in introducing “vegetative violence” as a critical category to decode Graham’s film, however, “Siting Vexation Island” indicates that what is also at stake is the engagement with the moving image and, ultimately, with the dynamic relationship between realism and artifice in the medium of film.

At one point during his stay on the island, Crusoe builds a canoe and tries to leave. He soon gets caught in the tides and currents, panics, and returns. Exhausted, he falls into a deep sleep, only to be awakened by a parrot, Poll, who calls his name. Though the bird plays only a minor part in Defoe’s novel, it is a central figure in Vexation Island. The subject of almost as many camera shots as Graham himself, the parrot is the only source of language in the film, screeching “wake up, please” over the exaggerated sound track of waves and wind. Here another literary parrot comes to mind, Gustave Flaubert’s Loulou, from the author’s 1876 short story “A Simple Heart.” Flaubert’s story concerns a maidservant, Felicite, who, like many of Graham’s subjects, “lives in the torpid state of a sleep—walker.” As told by Flaubert, the aging Felicite becomes increasingly obsessed with her large green parrot, a relationship that begins to take on sexual overtones. Of course, the parrot (and in some cases its fctishized significance) also has an array of pictorial references, including Gustave Courbet’s Woman With A Parrot, 1866, and Edouard Manet’s 1868 painting of the same name. In this sense, Graham’s Vexation Island invites comparisons with the huge backlit transparencies of fellow Vancouverite Jeff Wall, which make a somewhat analogous use of Courbet, Manet, and others from the historical moment when narrative painting was internally problematized by Modernism. But unlike Wall’s tableaux, Graham’s references to early Modernist aesthetics are primarily literary ones. Furthermore, his concern is not to reformulate a historical continuity, reestablishing a kind of pictorial cohesion that was broken with the advent of Modernism. For Graham the trauma that aesthetic Modernism signifies is irremediable, and his work indicates as much.

Another difference between Graham and Wall is the former’s consistent interest in the significance of the work’s context. Graham’s expanded definition of cinema includes the whole production process and not just the celluloid product. For instance, he has noted that the ideal venue in which to project Coruscating Cinnamon Granules, 1996, a four-minute, 16-mm loop featuring an electric stove element sprinkled with cinnamon, would have the dimensions of his kitchen (10 by 9 by 15 ft.), since that was where it was filmed in the first place. The concern with context is also true of Vexation Island, made specifically for the Canadian pavilion at the 1997 Venice Biennale. Finding during a visit to the site in late 1996 that the pavilion had been hoarded up while not in use, Graham decided to preserve the structure’s rustic character and produce an extremely slick film. In this way, the crude pavilion would suggest a hut on a desert island, while setting up a stark contrast to the extremely polished film.

Indeed, what is so striking about the film is precisely its professional glossiness, which is further accentuated by Graham’s use of the anamorphic CinemaScope process. This technology, in which the screen becomes a wide band or strip, emphasizing horizontal compositions, was developed by the film industry in the ’50s in an attempt to preserve the uniqueness of cinema in the wake of television. Initially associated with genres of spectacle—Westerns, travelogues, musicals, historical epics—in which sweeping settings were important, CinemaScope is used today as an advertising gimmick promising a greater visual opulence and delight. Through his use of CinemaScope, Graham appears to be making a sardonic comment on the film industry, as when he writes in an essay accompanying the exhibition that “Vexation Island is a costume picture, that is to say, a travesty.”6

These remarks and others, together with the overall nature of his filmic works, leave no doubt that Graham’s stance toward cinema is a highly critical one. This point is underscored by the artist’s claim in “Siting Vexation Island” that the intention of his first film, Two Generators, 1984, was “to create a burlesque travesty and a spectacle that would inspire negative thoughts about cinema.”7 In Vexation Island, the false unity produced by this medium is laid bare, as is the way the illusion and fantasy inherent to film is passively consumed by an alienated spectator. It is as if for Graham the Freudian term “screen memory,” a false memory produced to hide a real one, is made literal, in the form of a hallucinatory celluloid fantasy of idyllic escape and artificial paradise.

In the essay “The Solar Anus,” Georges Bataille advances a theory of rotation and copulation by describing trees with “shafts raised up to the sun.” He then postulates that the “simplest image of organic life united with rotation is the tide,” whose body, the sea, “has played the role of the female organ that liquifies under the excitation of the penis.”’ What is so striking about this passage in the present context is that it encapsulates all of Graham’s images in Vexation Island. The extensive shots of the palm tree, the sea, and the parrot in its symbolic role of phallus find direct correspondence in Bataille’s short essay, as does the superimposition of the blinding sun and the wound—the “solar anus,” as it were—on the shipwrecked sailor’s forehead.

But there is an another layer to Graham’s film that Bataille’s text illuminates. “The sea continuously jerks off,” writes Bataille. “The erection and the sun scandalize, in the same way as the cadaver and the darkness of cellars.”9 Here it’s not hard to recall the figure of Graham holding the trunk of the tree between his hands, shaking it until it releases a coconut, at which point he falls back into a stupor. The scene invokes nothing less than a “wet dream”—cinema as collective wet dream, oneiric fantasy, a medium that is already, by Graham’s reckoning, a corpse.

1. Georges Bataille, “The Solar Anus,” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939 ed. and trans. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 7.

2. Shep Steiner, “X. The Tale of a Sylvan C-Farer, Island of a Sylvan C-Farer,” Island Thought I, no. 1 (Summer 1997), p, 4.

3. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), p. 43.

4. Rodney Graham, “Siting Vexation Island,” Island Thought I, no. 1 (Summer 1997), p. 17.

5. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema I: The Movement Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), pp. 155–56.

6. Graham, “Siting Vexation Island,” p. 15.

7. Ibid., p. 11.

8. Bataille, “The Solar Anus,” p. 7.

9. Ibid., p. 8.