Kelly Mark

Tracey Lawrence Gallery

As public sculptures step down from their pedestals, they struggle to establish a rapport with the person on the street. Most cities are inhabited by a few loitering bronzes, listlessly shaking hands, tipping hats, or sitting at metal boards awaiting chess partners. As visual gags, these ersatz comrades suggest activities for, while reiterating the intended function of, communal zones of rest and transit. “Private Conversations with Public Statuary,” 2003–2004, a series of videos by Kelly Mark (the first three of which were shown here), takes up this offer of sculptural amity and documents the proceedings as three of the artist’s friends sit down to bend the ear of a bronze. The trio of fifteen-minute works, projected in turn on the back wall of the gallery, is simply structured: Each is a silent, centrally framed, continuous shot of a person talking to a public sculpture as oblivious or confused pedestrians walk past. Affixed to a downtown Toronto bench, legendary pianist Glenn Gould attends Kristan’s blather; from his stone step perch in Birmingham, England, an unidentified male figure in nineteenth-century garb casts his gaze on the gesticulations of Reuben; beloved Canadian actor Al Waxman, feet planted between two Toronto park benches, communes with Brad.

While its title alludes to the unpredictable ways in which citizens negotiate public space and understand civic monuments, the work realizes a behavioral study of a different sort. Mark, as in her previous videos, attempts to employ the camera as a functional tool—more straight recording device than loaded or reflexive medium—yet the camera’s effect on the performers is felt equally intensely for that. The initially laid-back and natural Brad waves his hands with increasing vigor, while Reuben, feeling the pressure to entertain, forges a drama of gestures and grimaces. The elimination of audio foregrounds the speakers’ tics as they play against the frozen comportment of the statues. We read the personality of Brad, Kristan, or Reuben as we might the pose of a bronze: a body language conveying candor, ease, or intensity on the one hand, a sculptural language signifying thoughtfulness, warmth, or attentiveness on the other. Not really about conversation, the work is driven rather by the theatrical convention of the monologue, understood as the codified performance of interior life and played as dry comedy.

Might a demographic sample broader than these three scruffy twenty-something white guys make “Private Conversations with Public Statuary” richer, given that the indeterminate commentary on performed and monumentalized masculinity possibly emerging from the piece is likely a mirage? The exposed structure and blank surface of Mark’s work invite but ultimately undermine attempts at a politicized close reading, as does the aloofness the artist retains toward the happened-upon situations she tweaks; indeed, Mark indicates no interest in the iconography of the sculptures (she can’t identify the Birmingham figure), just as she kept herself out of earshot of the three monologues during filming. This piece, like others such as Hiccup #1, 2000—in which Mark sits in front of the same building at the same time for thirty consecutive days—is the product of a slightly odd but not unsettling blip interpolated into the rhythm of everyday: Pedestrians walking through her setup are at first bemused, then adjust and pass on. Initially disarming and charming, this work remains deliberately opaque and distant, like the tipped hat or frozen smile of a stranger.

Trevor Mahovsky