John Massey – As the Hammer Strikes

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John Massey – As the Hammer Strikes



06 May, 2005 to 19 Jun, 2005

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As the Hammer Strikes is a groundbreaking video installation. Originally produced in 1982 in 16mm film, this complex triptych details a real time conversation between the artist and a hitchhiker he picked up in Southern Ontario. For the exhibition at the CAG, John Massey used three screens to convey the minutiae of communication, visually portraying misunderstandings and thought processes. Toronto artist John Massey has been working for over 25 years, having gained a national and international reputation in the early 1980s. Through a wide variety of media, including photography, film and sculpture, Massey’s work often plays with the ambiguity between reality and fiction. His work has been widely exhibited, with shows in Germany, the United States, the UK, France, Australia, as well as in Canada; and is held in many collections including the Art Gallery of Ontario; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, Paris; and the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation, Toronto. John Massey received the 2001 Gershon Iskowitz Award for lifetime achievement. He currently teaches in the Visual Studies Programme at the University of Toronto.

Curator: Jenifer Papararo

“I stand in the territory of intimacy.” [1]

As the Hammer Strikes is an odd self-portrait. The three part synchronized film depicts a real event from John Massey’s life, re-enacting in real time an audio taped conversation between the artist and a hitch-hiker on route from Flesherton to Orangeville, Ontario. Massey documents the conversation from pick-up to drop-off with a wide angle establishing shot. The camera is locked in this position for the duration of the film, giving the audience a view from the back seat. Massey further illustrates the conversation with point of view shots and images that cross-reference the dialogue, which are simultaneously projected in black and white on either side of the central view from the back of the van, which is in colour. The conversation between the two strangers is somewhat banal, unfolding typically with talk about where they live and work, but the interest lies in their immediate attempt to find common points of interest. They struggle to understand each other, which is exacerbated by the hitch-hiker’s speech impediment. Ironically, their social differences surface first, but it is clear that they want to communicate and work hard to find common ground.

Massey’s idiosyncratic representation of the original conversation is a means to explore the process of understanding. He attempts to visually reconstruct how meaning is formed, using a diverse collection of found and constructed footage to illustrate the terms of understandings and misunderstandings. There is humour in the literalness of Massey’s choice of images as he liberally constructs the thought process of his passenger and reconstructs his own. In response to the hitch-hiker’s question, Massey explains that he is an artist. The hitchhiker asks Massey if he makes a lot of money.  Images of money flash on the screen on the right. He then asks the artist what kind of art he does, “like houses and stuff?” Images of kitsch landscape paintings appear, presumably referencing the stranger’s conception of what an artist makes. Massey explains that he doesn’t paint pictures, but that he is interested in how his mind works.  The side image shows the road ahead. The hitchhiker has no direct point of reference.

By tracing a visual line through the struggle for understanding, Massey inversely points to the formal and semantic constraints of language. For the artist and the hitchhiker, language is their only recourse, but by forming relevant relations between the dialogue and image, Massey creates an intimate story that encodes a social dynamic. Massey builds a good story out of a simple conversation between strangers. The central shot invites you into the story, locates the action and allows some suspension of disbelief. The static and distant shot convincingly looks like a document of the original journey.  But what at first appears to be a caught moment is disrupted by the different focal points of the central scene (shifts in camera angles, close ups and point of view shots) presented in the flanking projections. It is clearly a re-enactment. Even though side projections break the illusion of reality, the synchronized sequences pulls the viewer into a narrative that integrates artist and subject.

As the Hammer Strikes yanks at the personal; “hammering out personal identities.” [2] It is the artist’s story that is drawn out through the multi screened film. We see an image of the artist’s girlfriend in bed and get a glimpse of his apartment, and it is his depiction of the hitch-hiker’s thoughts. Self-portraiture runs through Massey’s body of work, but it is never a direct view. In The Jack Photographs, Episode I (1992-93), Massey substitutes Jack, a wooden figure with one eye, for himself in a narrative sequence of photographs that begins with Jack waking aroused and ends with the figure touching his eye, the eye of the photographer. Even in his recent photographic series Phantoms of the Modern (2004), which derides the uniform and idealistic open spaces of Modernist architecture by digitally filling them with canonical Modernist sculptures, Massey locates himself by setting the work within the steel and glass home of his architect father.

But there is something different in the way Massey represents himself in this early work.  No object stands in for him or carries the weight of his history. He is himself but he is also a stranger. In this position, he is able to watch his identity unfold as well as actively construct it, but as the title states, it is only “a partial illustration;” and of course, it is only hypothetical and really just fiction. Massey uses the liberties of fiction to replicate how meaning is formed, but without a heavy handed artistic motive to convey meaning or to situate the work within a discursive framework predicated on presenting knowledge. It is just a representation, but a credible one, of how we form identities that is situated in a plausible present, even 20 years later.

[1] John Massey quoted by John Bentley Mays, “No Exit,” Canadian Art (Summer 1994), pp. 45.

[2] Ibid.







John Massey  


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