Shannon Oksanen


Nostalgia is everywhere in contemporary art, but in the new work shown here by Canadian artist Shannon Oksanen it feels unusually bracing. The main attraction was a video projection whose two channels were screened on adjacent walls, in the manner of Pipilotti Rist. But in contrast to Rist’s (already) classic dual-screen works like Sip My Ocean, 1996, and Ever Is Over All, 1997, the principal action in Oksanen’s Greensleeves, 2004, takes place on the right channel, whereas its more lyrical or decorative complement takes place on the left. This apparently insignificant reversal is formally consequential, playing against the tendency in a culture that reads from left to right to give visual emphasis to the left side of a composition. What’s seen on the right-hand channel is the image of a woman, the artist herself, in a large, high-ceilinged studio, playing a Fender guitar hooked up to a pair of Marshall amps. The song is a lover’s lament sometimes attributed to Henry VIII, but the style is an overt imitation of Jimi Hendrix’s notorious solo on “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Perhaps Oksanen was thinking of Falstaff’s line in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “Let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves.’” In a further level of allusion, the performance is shown by means of an elaborate tracking shot in the style of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 film with the Rolling Stones, One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil, a work reviled by all Stones fans and not much loved by those of Godard. In Greensleeves, the tracks themselves are constantly visible onscreen, a kind of truth-to-materials gesture that recalls Godard’s precept that “tracking shots are a question of morality.” Meanwhile, on the left, a little girl is seen wandering, enraptured, through a petting zoo. One need not have read the press release to surmise that the two protagonists—sexily cool and taciturn guitarist and joyful toddler—might be mother and daughter.

Also on view was a suite of paintings based on imagery from another film from 1968, Une Femme douce. Their muted, almost ashen palette suits the recollected moments from Robert Bresson’s Dostoyevskian story of a young woman’s suicide. Stylistically, they recall a raft of recent painting that uses media-derived imagery and self-consciously amateurish execution, but Oksanen retains a cinematic sense of the charged yet ordinary moment—of the detail that will become significant only later. Yet here, unmoored from their narrative context, such moments—as simple as a slipper being taken off—become enigmatic. In the paintings as in the film to which they refer, the sweet candor in Dominique Sanda’s face memorably lights up against the fatality that shadows her.

Does the year 1968 represent the moment of modernity’s implosion? Strangely, the idea of the modern was always oriented more toward the future than the present. So it must have been when all the air went out of the future that we got left holding onto the weaker, merely present-oriented notion of the contemporary. Maybe that’s when nostalgia started to become potentially progressive. In the curiously layered temporality of Oksanen’s video and paintings, what might have been simple citations take on the weight of omens.

Barry Schwabsky