New York

Kim Ingraham; Rea Tajiri

Film/Video Arts

Sentiment and refinement—one a process and a state of mind that is vulnerable to stereotype and primed for perpetual manipulation; the other a closure that locks the heady sweetness of good taste into the stratospheres of high-toned acquisition. Considerations of these two notions motor the video work of Kim Ingraham and Rea Tajiri, with Ingraham splashing around the soppy marshes of sentiment, while Tajiri acridly eyes the encapsulations of esthetics, genre, and commodity.

Overflowing with bulky depictions of sticky romantic “scenes” and chilling parodies of society’s dispensations for its marginal members, Ingraham’s ironic commentaries twist and tangle conventional, emotively charged presentations, dragging the soap opera, the tear-jerker, and the telethon into a hyperbolic magnification of their already ludicrous brand of display. In Corny Stories, 1987, she focuses on the seemingly inexhaustible antics of the empathetic device, that range of techniques that exploit the spectator’s “feelings.” The tape opens with a shot of a folksinger wailing and strumming his guitar, which introduces a series of episodic segments labeled “Shining Examples,” “Triumph in the Face of Death,” “Lost Hopes and Broken Dreams,” and “Lasting Regrets,” each featuring a talking head telling a sad story that exudes hope in the face of heartbreak. We learn of a woman, whose brother has been in a serious car accident, taking inspiration from her childhood memory of a little boy with a wooden leg; of two young girls who, stricken with diseases that impair their ability to speak (cerebral palsy and spina bifida), communicate in their own seemingly garbled verbal language; of a Vietnam vet who decides to adopt a young Vietnamese child, only to find that she has just been killed in an orphanage bombing; and of Pearline, a young victim of a poor and decimated home, who was thrown out the window by her mother’s boyfriend. These fictive vignettes are sandwiched between 40-second interludes that alternate between the opening folksinger and a young woman sitting on a park bench singing, each time doing a different song—James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind,” Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” etc.

But what is to be made of all this? Is this an honest appeal to our concerns and feelings of “universal humanity,” or a mean-spirited mimicry of the afflictions of biology and social circumstance that affect human beings? There is an edge to Ingraham’s work, a keenly slippery jettisoning of decorous “goodness,” which puts into question the hollow gestures that constitute the notion of benevolence in contemporary culture. Rather than engaging in a parody subsumed by its original model, Ingraham (like Eric Bogosian at his best) plays the jagged edge, pushing a bit further and flirting with the extremities of the genteel while stopping just short of contempt.

Although Rea Tajiri’s work eschews a parodic relationship to conventional narrative, she shares with Ingraham an interest in ironic, expository representations. In Vertigo (Three Character Descriptions), 1987, she constructs an elegantly episodic rebus that integrates a trio of crawling written texts with an enveloping sound track. We watch words inch up the screen and tell us of three images: Giuditta (Judith [and Her Maidservant], ca. 1600), a painting by Cristofano Allori; a photograph of Lu Hsun on his way to deliver a speech at Kwanghua University, Shanghai, in 1927; and a photograph of a jewel box made by Archibald Knox around 1900. Not coincidentally, we are informed by the text that all of these images are reproduced as postcards, some of which are on sale at various museum gift shops. But we see neither the artful objects themselves nor the postcard reproductions of them. We are dependent on words to help us construct these images and objects in our mind’s eye, sort of like a paint-by-numbers radio show during which we see words rather than hear them. Tajiri juggles our expectations of informational delivery, collapsing picture into text and allowing sound to do the shuffling. This slight discombobulation begins to suggest the “vertigo” of the title, but the connection is literalized when we discover that the music accompanying Tajiri’s textual descriptions is none other than snippets from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Words describe Allori’s painting of a woman holding a decapitated head as the music engages in slowly escalating rhythmic interventions; her dress is detailed to us amidst the baroqueness of teasingly phrased gallops. We read of Lu Hsun’s physical demeanor as the melodic pace quickens, and the silver filigree festooning Archibald Knox’s jewel box is veneered by quiveringly soppy strings. Tajiri foregrounds the score’s capability to provide emphasis, change meaning, and provide an ironic counterpoint to the literalness of the text. Her subtraction and repositioning of the sound track from its original site casts critically comedic aspersions on the traditional formulas of film melodrama and its subsequent genres. She reminds us not only of the functions and refinements of sight and sound but of the interpretation, reproduction, and commodification of historical artifacts and estheticized objects.

Barbara Kruger