Nigel Rolfe


Nigel Rolfe’s first solo exhibition in this country is a kind of minisurvey of his previous performances, or rather, their artifactual remains. Though these objects cannot do full justice to multimedia performances that employed projected light, electronically charged sound, video, and slides, they are all that those of us who haven’t seen the original works have to go on. What remains of Dance, Slap for Africa, 1983, is a black cloth map of Africa with a red impression of Rolfe’s naked body awkwardly embracing it. By contrast, in Going Boeing, 1985, a blue figure seems to flee from an equally black crashed airplane. In general, Rolfe contrasts a lively body with an object signifying, in his words, a “socially important” issue, and he means his direct body action to convey engagement with the content suggested by the object. The aura of bodiliness is at odds with the sign of the object, for the painterly record of the body’s action is not a sign, but a symbol, that is, it is powerfully evocative beyond its character as a representation. It affords a surplus of emotion that the standard sign does not, and the body’s relatively indeterminate appearance, in contrast to the object’s determinate appearance, suggests as much.

By means of this far-from-resolved dialectic, Rolfe means to spark oppositionality or criticality: in short, all that for him differentiates avant-garde from star culture. Whether or not he succeeds, the intensity of his body suggests the profound effect of social reality on the isolated individual. There is a sense that the person does not understand what is happening; Rolfe seems to imply that social reality invades our most basic being, and that we cannot protect ourselves against it.

Rolfe is explicitly concerned with making images that transcend those of the mass media; for him this is the task that defines the avant-garde. Mass-media images are expressively potent but conceptually impotent—fascinating but mindless. Reifying social appearances, media images blot out the truth they stand for. They are mind numbing because they appear in a theoretical vacuum, because they are unanchored by critical consciousness, tossing about on the deep sea of the viewer’s fantasy and amplifying unconscious currents. For Rolfe, transcendence of media images restores their truth by conceptualizing and contextualizing them as part of reality. Rolfe’s body is the instrument of this conceptualization, and in certain instances, his body becomes an expressively striking emblem of the truth about the alluded-to content.

In fact, in Rolfe’s best works, his body signals the social content. In the ecologically oriented Animal Head-Tiger and Animal Head-Zebra, as well as in Hand on Face (all 1990) which succinctly articulates censorship, Rolfe becomes respectively a tiger, a zebra, and the oppressive black hand blotting out his face. The black hand on the white face alludes to South Africa, and racial conflict in general, but, in this image, white oppression of blacks is reversed. The other two works can be read in a similar way—black on white skin, indeed, black fused with white skin—suggesting that we are all zebras, or all tigers, and raising the question as to whether the white or the black is the hunted (zebra) or hunter (tiger). These photographs are more successful than the 1989 woodcuts (and the earlier hangings), not only because of their pithiness—their eloquent, ironical play on and integration of multiple meanings—but because they show the body directly rather than as a schematic sign. Here Rolfe has eloquently finessed the media close-up, and provided an image of traumatic starkness. The woodcuts, for all their material difference from the media-type photographs, are, in fact, more medialike by reason of their tendentious schematization. In the final analysis, however, this exhibition suggests that Rolfe needs to perform live before a camera to be conceptually adequate to reality—to realize the flagrant, irreducible ambiguity of the truth.

Donald Kuspit