PRINT Summer 2003


Two women lounge on beds, a camcorder on a tripod between them. The colors and patterns of their clothing and the decor evoke Matisse, while the mise-en-scène overtly references a tradition of abstracting the reclining figure in studio. The women chat and take turns spinning the camera. As each spin slows to a halt, a stable image will emerge from the blur only to be spun into disorientation again. Thus Los Angeles–based artist Kevin Hanley “shot” the two extended sequences that comprise Different at Times, 2002, and he projects them sideways and side by side. Turned vertical in presentation, the parallel lines of bodies and beds confound one’s sense of spatial orientation. Stranger still is watching the ebb and flow of stops and starts as the spins fall in and out of sync with one another—an experience not unlike watching the rotating cylinders of a slot machine: Expectation and anticipation conspire with basic mechanics and chance to make time seem to speed up and slow down, contradicting the sound tracks which, though garbled by overlap, serve to remind us that the temporally disorienting footage plays in real time. In both the setup, which facilitated the work’s making, and in its final form, which offers an almost literalist view into its creation, Different at Times is exemplary of Hanley’s pursuit of “play,” a kind of collision (or slippage) between visual representation, representational convention, conventional wisdom, empirical understanding, and the artist’s means of production. In Hanley’s practice, what is pictured—whether familiar, jarring, or entertaining—functions as a vehicle for media, process, and presentational modes that the artist exploits in unexpected and unorthodox ways and which become significant, if not primary, in the work.

Different at Times also exemplifies Hanley’s attempts to redistribute point of view by entrusting the camera to others. He made Passing and Resemblance (Monika), 2002, with help from a woman pointing a camera at herself while walking backward. The video plays on a monitor backed against another monitor playing the same footage in reverse, pairing natural backward movement with unnatural, awkward forward motion. In Vagrant Observations, 1997, Hanley removed himself via a sleight of mind-body separation by strapping cameras to his feet and recording while walking down the street. The title of Two and Four, 1996, meanwhile, references the doubling that occurs in the two-channel projection while echoing the phrase “to and fro,” which aptly describes the footage generated by two women playing catch with the camera.

Hanley does get behind the lens to make still photographs. In early works, he took a variety of color pictures and then digitally melded the images with broad fields of solid that matched hues found in the photos. More recently, it seems Hanley seeks opportunities for using the camera to exploit conventions and expectations that shape how we see photographs (or see via photographs) and think about them and to accentuate preexisting optical illusions or perceptual oddities. Surface, 2002, for instance, shows what appears to be leaves gently floating atop a dark, placid lake, the somber romance of which is undercut by the realization that it’s actually a picture of a rippled asphalt parking lot in need of sweeping.

Enlisting complex camera setups, using appropriated footage, and delving into editing and postproduction, Hanley has found other ways to work in video without handling the camera or handing it off. He shot Threesixty, 2002, with cameras mounted foursquare around a skateboarder pulling 360-degree spins, then combined the footage to suggest the experience of watching the action while revolving around the spinning figure. Though jerky, the piece breaks with the familiarity of witnessing events from single or limited viewpoints, without succumbing to the new-ish cinematic fad (spawned by The Matrix) for freezing or slowing action so the point of view can travel as if in real time within a scene caught in suspended time. Hanley’s piece suggests something more like multi-channel perception. A like relationship between subject matter and presentation is found in Recounting a Dancing Man, 1998, which stretches a Fred Astaire dance number appropriated from The Belle of New York from four minutes to ninety by using a computer mouse and editing software the way a DJ scratches records on a turntable. The piece rechoreographs Astaire’s smooth moves into a ballet of jitters and lurches, while the original orchestral score morphs into an arrangement of beats, ticks, blips, and blasts. The document of Astaire’s footwork becomes a document of Hanley’s handwork, a dance on top of a dance.

Recounting a Dancing Man plays not just with what we know from experience in perceptual terms or understand by convention in representational terms, but also what we carry in terms of cultural knowledge and baggage. Perhaps this is why it is Hanley’s best-known piece—but that should change when On Another Occasion, 2002, debuts this month at the Venice Biennale as part of Francesco Bonami’s exhibition “Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer.” Hanley’s silent, three-minute color video begins as a hazy composition of organic shapes. The image seems to be moving, then still, but perhaps slowly pulling into focus. As the picture evolves, one runs through a list of associations as when reading shapes in clouds. It could be a landscape or a baby in utero, but the list of candidates shortens as the image comes further into focus. It is the face of a man sideways. It is a bearded man. It is an old man. It is Fidel Castro. It is Castro dead.

Here the image of Castro’s death foretold becomes a partner in Hanley’s attempt to find a moving, evolving form that can address the problem of trying to pull the recognizable out of the unrecognizable, the fixed and clear, as well as the here and now, out of the anticipated, the inevitable, and the yet unresolved. On Another Occasion is less a piece specifically about Castro’s awaited demise than a metaphor for the type of confusing moment—difficult to focus, difficult to frame, difficult to register—that it likely will be, whether on a personal or a collective level. Imaging what the rest of us have only imagined, Hanley’s digitally altered press photo not only complicates our individual visions of the ineluctable but presents us with the double whammy of a false concretization of an event for which we’ve been waiting (with passionate anticipation or morbid curiosity), but for which, we must now admit, we were hardly prepared. After multiple viewings, I still find myself trying to reverse this simulated death with a preemptive resurrection. In my mind’s eye, I see the old man upright, alive. Somehow, it’s just easier that way.

Christopher Miles is assistant professor of critical theory in the Art Department at California State University Long Beach.