One white cube, regardless of scale, can signify the aims of Minimalism, or the use of a particular blue can encapsulate the entire practice of an artist. Direct reference to art movements, individual art works, artists, philosophers, architects, musicians or other key historical moments is a common strategy in contemporary art production. The reference is a useful tool. Formal references are often used to establish the artist’s line of research, situating their thinking in specific art historical discourses and within a larger economy of meaning. The artists in Playing Homage employed the reference in a considerably different manner. Instead of drawing on formal references, the artists situated themselves as the referent, beginning with the artist as maker. In each of the works the artists used themselves as part of the symbol, personalizing the referent, using their bodies or other personal items to direct attention to the subjectivity of the maker. Here, the artist was the subject matter.
The persona of the artist was presented as integral to the work and in most cases the representation of this figure, the construct of an archetype and its historical mediation was the work. Several of the artists in Playing Homage directly took on the specific identity of another artist, while others played a more generalized character. Some of the works were remakes or re-stagings of earlier works in which the artists became, quite literally, actors playing a role, while in others there were more prescriptive articulations of what it takes to be an artist. What was central to all of the works was that the figure of the artist was the focus, used to draw out their influences, define their critical positions, and to address their own subjectivities as makers. They put the very notion of creative production under question, asking how do they come to define themselves as artists? What does it mean to produce? And how significant is the relation between the identity of the maker and their product?
In taking the persona of the artist as a primary subject of representation, many of the artists in Playing Homage themselves became the focus of their own criticism. As if it had been an actual television broadcast, General Idea’s video Press Conference (1977) announced that they were artists. Like it was real news with a sense of urgency and critical consequence, they staged a mock press conference, generating questions from journalists that asked the Canadian collective what it meant to be artists and why they had the right to claim that status. In Premiere, Martha Wilson directly addressed the camera while “playing at being an artist;” reading deadpan from a script, she claimed that the most important part of her performance was that she convinced her audience that she was an artist. Kerstin Cmelka took the criticism to dramatic effect in her video Change, which is an adaptation of Wolfgang Bauer´s play All Change from 1969. Playing one of the main characters herself, Cmelka seduced the unsuspecting victim, who was to be made over as an artist and used by a calculating gallerist and scheming art critic to mock and manipulate the art market.
There was an obvious cynicism in all three of these video works, but the resolve of the skeptics was tested by the fact that they all explicitly defined themselves as artists. In this paradox, there appeared to be a conspicuous line between sincerity and satire, conflating the desire to be genuinely what they represented and yet retained a critical distance that was suspect of being typecast as the romantic artist. This uncertain line between spoof and aspiration was nowhere more evident than in the practice of Martin Kippenberger, which was represented by a selection of his exhibition posters where Kippenberger as a persona was put forward instead of the work to be exhibited. Whether he was playing the role of the punk rock bad boy or the overweight aging playboy, Kippenberger inserted his own image into most of the posters, positing himself not just as the artist, but also as the content. In several of the designs, he used cliché representations or a list of established artists to reference himself as the creative maker or to scoff at the very notion of an artist type. There was a comedy to the unrelenting representation of himself in his chosen profession, but this send-up also reflected doubt. In this uncertainty was sincerity. Kippenberger had been fascinated with the artist as personality, most directly with that of the painter. He had been dedicated to his art making and criticism; we might venture that Kippenberger’s unrelenting performances as the artist came from a fear of being complicit with or representative of this archetype.
In one sentence, Playing Homage was about artists inhabiting the role of the artist. The idea for the exhibition started in consideration of the work of Rodney Graham, who often transforms himself into myriad characters. Graham is a performer and in much of his film work he plays a central character: the marooned pirate in Vexation Island (1997); the cowboy grifter in How I Became a Ramblin’ Man (1999); the musical prisoner in A Reverie (2003); a rambling police officer in Loudhailer (2003); or the joker and the fool in City Self/Country Self (2000). In each role Graham is a caricature of a type, and there is a clear distinction between himself and the roles he takes on, but where this line between character and actor seems to disintegrate is when he “plays” the painter. In My Late Early Styles (Part I, The Middle Period) (2007 – 09), his large format photograph exhibited as part of Playing Homage, his role and his artistic identity are more overtly connected. In front of a wall of abstract paintings hung in salon style fashion, Graham poses as a painter. He is in character, but he is also representing himself. Even though there is an obvious humour in this piece, and in most of Graham’s work, it is vague whether or not Graham uses My Late Early Styles to poke fun at himself as an artist, or painters in general, or is used earnestly to embody the ideal persona of the painter (or perhaps all three), but what is certain is that Graham is a painter: all the works on the wall behind him are made by him. Like Kippenberger’s posters, this image was first intended to promote an exhibition, but unlike the late German artist’s imagery, Graham’s piece features many of the works he exhibited. Where Kippenberger put the artist’s subjectivity first, Graham presents both the artist and the work together, balancing the subject of the artist with the formal conceits of abstract painting. Here meaning rests in the relationship between the artist’s subjectivity and his product.
For Made in ‘Eaven (2004), Mark Leckey used the product of one artist to reflect his own production. Using Jeff Koons’s Rabbit (1986), Leckey reflected his empty apartment through the sculpture’s polished stainless steel surface. Leckey’s apartment is his studio, which he uses as the stage for early videos such as We Are (Untitled) (2001), or references in his performance Cinema in the Round. The video camera seems to pan around Rabbit, but can’t be seen in the reflection. Leckey is a fan of Koons’s work and Rabbit in particular, but the work of the famous pop artist isn’t really here. It is computer generated, fabricated by Leckey and used by him as a means to self-construct his own identity as an artist. By representing his place of production in the convex lens of a work he admires, Leckey spins a romantic but distorted tale of his artistic identity, one that is wrapped around or warped by the famous work it is reflected by. The video was transferred to 16mm and for Playing Homage was transferred back to digital video, to be played on a small monitor that sit on a tall pedestal. The transfer to 16mm carries with it a nostalgia that acts as another filter, romanticizing the persona of Leckey the artist as well as signifying the romantic in him.
The defining of one‘s artistic identity through the work of another is an integral element of Photographic Nude Studies by the Artist and his Father (c.1950/2009) by Evan Lee, who drew on a very personal narrative. For this new work, he used his father’s amateur photographs from the 1950s as the starting point to examine his own interest in photography. Lee remade several of his father’s black and white studio photographs of female nudes, rebuilding the sets, fabricating props, matching lighting, reconstructing the general aesthetic properties of the original images. The precision with which Lee copied his father’s work seemed tantamount to his understanding of his father’s drive to pursue photography. The attempted mimicry by the younger Lee embodied an earnestness that was also present in the original works. The more successfully Lee captured the likeness of the originals, the closer he was to capturing his father’s sincerity, and so rehearsing the role of the amateur photographer.
Andrea Fraser uses imitation to capture artistic subjectivity. In her video installation Kunst Muss Hängen (2001), she reenacted a speech given by a drunken Kippenberger at an art opening. Fraser performs the talk in the original German, a language she doesn’t speak, but has memorized. Fraser does not put forward the subject of Kippenberger’s talk for discursive purposes, but instead offers the artist himself as the site for consideration. Her studied use of German was not so much about capturing Kippenberger’s precise meaning as it was about the representation of an archetype that was fraught with romantic notions of free-spiritedness and resistance, but also carried with it the real edge of self-destruction. Even though Fraser’s performance was critical of this romanticized character, her use of German was a way to give tribute to an artist who self-reflexively epitomized the artist’s personality.
Giving tribute or paying homage is often wrapped up in the identity of the one making the offer. To pay homage is a personal act. Both Christos Dikeakos and Ming Wong insert themselves into the narratives of the artists they honor. For Angst essen / Eat Fear (2008), Wong remade Angst essen Seele auf (1973), a feature length film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, into a twenty minute video in which he played all the characters. Wong was moved by the complex and layered subject matter of the original film as well as Fassbinder’s skilled articulation of the issues it presents: a multitude of concerns including relations between race, gender and generations. In remaking this film, Wong proved himself a skilled actor, concise editor and capable director, inscribing his identity as the primary maker on to each aspect of the original. Under the imagined directorship of Fassbinder, Wong played every role and as such switches race, gender and age, making his face the representation of each.
Dikeakos’s homage played closer to art history, celebrating an artist who had been referenced in work by other artists countless times, and who had been cited by artists and writers as an influence ad infinitum. Marcel Duchamp is the center of Dikeakos’s three works for the exhibition, but in his drawing Puis-je-fumer (2008), Dikeakos moved beyond using Duchamp’s work as a reference. In this drawing, Dikeakos inserted himself into art history, positioning himself across from the famous artist. The two are separated by Bicycle Wheel and are looking each other “directly” in the eye while smoking cigars. Dikeakos, through computer software and meticulous rendering, had exaggerated their similarities, bringing himself closer to the likeness of Duchamp and vice versa. They are similar in appearance and equals in conversation. To sit across from Duchamp was part of the fantasy, but the desire was also to be on part with him. This fantasy of role playing was an imaginative process that resonated with Duchamp’s own manner of making. Dikeakos is an artist and through art history is already in conversation with Duchamp. What Dikeakos brings forward relates more to Duchamp as an artistic subjectivity than it does to his work.
In many ways this cultivation of the artist persona is more reified than questioned in Dikeakos’s drawing, but like in all the works in the exhibition there is a narcissistic reflection or doubling that occurs when the artist persona is presented as subject matter. What is determined by making the artist the subject? In Playing Homage we saw the artist presented in varying roles and forms from cliché to role model and in each representation there was a reflection back to its maker. Whether they used themselves or their personal histories, each artist addressed their relation to the archetype and to the notion of creative production.
Are you a teacher looking to further educate your class about one of our exhibitions? Or, maybe you are planning a field trip and would like some further guidance.
Teachers’ Guides support educators who wish to visit the CAG with their students or who wish to carry out lessons related to CAG exhibitions in their classrooms. They include artist biographies, thematic exhibition overviews, suggested points of discussion, as well as recommended readings and references.
Lesson Plans are designed to bring the resources of contemporary art and artists to diverse classrooms. It is our goal to introduce students of all ages to the richness that engaging with contemporary art brings. Such breadth and diversity show that it can be used as a meaningful springboard in teaching a variety of subjects. Please feel free to adapt lessons to suit the specific needs of your class and curriculum.MORE
This set of etchings was published by the Contemporary Art Gallery in 1992, and was conceived in relation to Five Interior Design Proposals for The Grimm Brothers’ Studies in Berlin (1992), the project Graham exhibited at Documenta in Kassel, Germany. The images are variations on the studies occupied by the Brothers Grimm in the 1860s in Berlin, based on period watercolours. Limited edition of 75.MORE