Tina Keane

Air Gallery

My girl’s a cor-or-ker,
She’s a New Yor-or-ker,
I’d buy her anything to keep her in style.

She’s got a pair of eyes
Just like two custard pies.
Hot Dog! That’s where my money goes!

This children’s street song, whose jocular but abusive tone seems to owe to an adult burlesque tradition, forms the thematic core of Demolition, Tina Keane’s witty contribution to Live to Air, Audio Arts’ cassette package of artists’ soundworks. Her piece begins with the sound of a steam-powered train arriving at a station and the distant, boisterous shouts of children in a playground. Suddenly we hear the clear voice of a young girl singing the song. At first natural, the voice is soon modulated into an “angelic” register, and is then slowed down to sound strangely like that of a man. The verses of the song are intercut with an abstract electronic rhythm, followed by the sounds of the progressive demolition of a building. The piece ends with the departure of the train.

Keane has since developed this soundwork into a video/performance installation, Demolition/Escape. The sounds of the train are replaced by the physical presence of a large, brightly colored model steam engine which shunts jauntily back and forth across the floor on a wide-gauge, twelve-section length of track; a yellow indicator lights up as it moves forward, a red as it reverses. Behind and to the right of the track is a vertical column of six video monitors placed alternately right side up and upside down, so that the screens zigzag upward in a stepwise fashion. The monitors play a prerecorded performance of the artist as she crawls along the floor, grasps a rope ladder, and hauls herself up it. The zigzagging of the monitors, the diagonals of the ladder and its shadow snaking across the screens, and the vertiginous shots of the artist clinging to this flimsy structure combine to create a queasy feeling of suspense and instability. The third part of the installation, which completes a three-dimensional triangle, is a line of blue neon numbers from nine to one (a sliding scale or countdown), which diagonally ascends the wall from behind and to the left of the track. The blue haze of the neon and the red light of the train are reflected by the blue and red hues of the video performance, a painterly use of color and different light qualities which endow the work’s sculptural physicality with sensual presence.

Demolition/Escape provides a rich texture of signifiers which the viewer can combine in various ways to create several layers of meaning. The work is rhythmically constructed from multiples of the number three; each arm of the spatial triangle visually echoes this repeated unit. Three is a symbolic number referring, among other things, to the ages of man in the riddle of the Sphinx in the Oedipal myth. Keane represented this temporal journey in an earlier work, Playpen, but in Demolition/Escape it takes on further resonances. The artist’s struggle to master the ascension of the rope ladder may be construed as a metaphor for the passage through different levels of life; but the monitors are a variation on the “endless column” which, like the ascending/descending numerical order and the back-and-forth motion of the train, aspires to reach somewhere but perhaps goes nowhere. Moreover, in synchrony with the demolition soundtrack, the physical effort of the climb becomes an intense drama of escape. Inscribed within these movements is a compulsion to push forward which simultaneously acknowledges that the act is doomed forever to the repetition of return.

Given that the artist has been an active participant in the women’s movement, the metaphor of escape carries a certain poignancy: how much anguish and hope is attendant upon the steps women make toward achieving a sense of identity in a culture hitherto so resistant to recognizing their value and contribution? Like the Sphinx, the feminine is the site of an inscrutable question and of male fears; like the Sphinx, the girl in the Demolition song has a monstrous body, and yet is to be courted and mollified —“kept in style”— by gifts from the lover. Through burlesque ridicule the body that is feared is “demolished,” robbed of its occult power, and henceforth, as the change in pitch in Keane’s song suggests, is safely captured within the sphere of the masculine.

Her version of the song, however, is sung somewhat ironically by the innocent voice of a girl. It is among the work’s strengths that, through subtle juxtapositions, it provokes without sentimentality the memory of our own childhood in unison with issues of adulthood. The rope ladder, for instance, evokes the fun of the adventure playground as well as the anxiety of escape from imprisonment. Childrens’ games already display attitudes of adult life. “My girl’s a corker” is not the only song Keane has found that denigrates the feminine, but Demolition/Escape does admit that the song is nevertheless humorous and entertaining. We are reminded, therefore, that the ambivalent inscription of the feminine within language is something women learn to accept with good grace. Keane focuses on the language of the stage of play, unpicks its codes, and with her own wry humor plays it back to subvert the meanings behind its innocent facade. Her work acknowledges that there is no language other than that given by patriarchy, and that rather than attempting to reject it, women must seek to reuse it or risk never gaining a voice within the culture.

It is not only women, however, who fear muteness, as current themes in art illustrate. The tendency to paranoia in those themes, however, can breed only an obsession with society’s odor of decay and death. Keane’s work cuts through this like a breath of clear air: it argues that even life’s absurdities and humiliations can be turned into assets in the fight to reclaim, for everybody, a sense of human dignity.

Jean Fisher