Zurich

Rodney Graham, The Avid Reader 1949, 2011, three painted aluminum light boxes with transmounted chromogenic transparencies, overall 9' 11 5/8“ x 18' 2 3/4” x 7".

Rodney Graham, The Avid Reader 1949, 2011, three painted aluminum light boxes with transmounted chromogenic transparencies, overall 9' 11 5/8“ x 18' 2 3/4” x 7".

Rodney Graham

Hauser & Wirth | Zurich

Rodney Graham, The Avid Reader 1949, 2011, three painted aluminum light boxes with transmounted chromogenic transparencies, overall 9' 11 5/8“ x 18' 2 3/4” x 7".

Because he is a sort of straight-faced comedian, a Buster Keaton of Conceptualism, it’s all too easy to make Rodney Graham sound more serious than he really is. True, he started out as an intensely literary artist, “a kind of co-author” (as Julian Heynen recently put it), making works using texts by Georg Büchner, Sigmund Freud, Edgar Allan Poe, and others as raw material. As Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev once said, Graham “annihilates literature” with these pieces—but he does so in a playful way and with great refinement. Likewise, his “reading machines”—optical devices, such as the 1993 Reading Machine for Lenz, that allow us to see text as much as to read it—make light of our earnest desire for meaning.

This was especially evident in the film installation in Graham’s recent show in Zurich. The footage used in The Green Cinematograph (Programme 1: Pipe Smoker and Overflowing Sink), 2010, essentially comprises two separate films, each entirely banal: In one, we see Graham himself as an old-fashioned, Father Knows Best kind of serious guy with a pipe clenched between his teeth and a slight frown of intense thought on his face, sitting in a leather armchair in a darkened space; in the other, a sink slowly, and rather dramatically, overflows with bubbly water (I couldn’t help but think of David Medalla’s “Bubble Machines,” 1963–94, and of the bubble sculptures of Roger Hiorns). Cutting back and forth between the two, Graham makes it almost impossible for the viewer not to make a connection between them: For some reason this man is passively, but with brooding seriousness, contemplating that comically hyperbolic kitchen disaster. And with the same chair that’s seen in the film sitting in the gallery next to the projector, and the curls of film piling up like bubbles in the green-tinted Plexiglas looper (the projected images are green too), the connection between the pipe smoker’s spectatorship and one’s own in the gallery is patent—and just as suspect as the connection between man and sink: Meaning may be no more than a comically collapsing tower of bubbles.

Also on view were three monumentally scaled works taking the form of photographic light boxes (two are triptychs). This is a format Graham has used before, but it is one we can’t help associating with the artist’s Vancouver colleague Jeff Wall. Indeed, with these pieces, Graham appeared to be having a go at the solemnity of his old friend’s photographic grand machines. In The Avid Reader 1949, 2011, the artist is shown in front of a closed-down Woolworth’s store, its windows papered with newspapers from 1945. So the store has been shut for four years, according to the date suggested by the title. Yet Graham is, as the title also indicates, taking in the old headlines with utmost intentness; an elegant woman (posed by Graham’s former partner, the artist Shannon Oksannen) has just walked past, though he shows no sign of having noticed her. He’s losing himself in recent history. The extreme minuteness of detail captured by the huge photograph means that its beholders can read the news of fifty-six years ago just as clearly as the man in the image, and it’s easy to get just as caught up in the words, just as abstracted from reality. Yet, as in The Green Cinematograph, the parallel between the hermeneutics that we extract from the image and our actual way of reading the image may be ironic: Is Graham inviting us to become absorbed in his art, like the avid reader in it, or warning us not to? Paradoxically, we have to invent his intention ourselves.

Barry Schwabsky