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Why don’t you try to actually get the gig?” asked Shannon Oksanen one day. Her husband, the artist Rodney Graham, had twice sent proposals to the Canada Council — clever, super-clever proposals — for exhibitions at the Venice Biennale. But Graham was never chosen to represent his country at the art world Olympics. Perhaps a simpler approach was needed. “God, just tell them you’ll do pictures of upside-down trees. Trees across Canada,” suggested Oksanen (an acclaimed artist herself). There was a patriotic vibe whose merit the council could recognize: Graham’s photographs of upside-down trees were by then well known. (This was the mid ’90s and he’d first made them in the ’70s.) But really, he thought, more of those? Faced with the reality of such grand acceptance, Graham found himself eager to dodge.
Those tree photos derive their value from their conceptual prowess and historical allusions — more so, even, than their technical achievement. In fact, they reference something that’s commonplace, something humans accomplish with our own eyes: all images arrive the wrong way up when light hits our retinas; our brains constantly “correct” our warped perceptions. An anti-conceptual viewer, though, could be forgiven for mumbling, Well, it’s just a picture of a tree the guy turned upside-down. Indeed, many have thus mumbled.
The upside-down trees had, by the time of his Biennale application, become a hallmark of Graham, a brand. And the idea of a brand, a clean identity, is anathema to him. Perhaps that’s why he abandoned the proposal and began working on an alternative that was, to the despair of certain members of the council, exactly the opposite. “They were mad,” he says. “But I’d come up with a way better fucking idea.”
Vexation Island, the cinematic work Graham created instead, is a wordless 10-minute film that follows a Robinson Crusoe character who awakens on the beach of a desert island, shakes a coconut down from a palm tree, and is knocked unconscious by said coconut; the figure, played by Graham himself, eventually reawakens in the same spot and lives out this Beckett-esque scenario again and again. The film ran on a loop in Venice, creating a half-depressing, half-comical effect: Won’t he ever get the coconut? But like all of Graham’s art, Vexation Island is working more than one angle. It calls up the history of colonialism, for example: it was filmed in the British Virgin Islands, a tourist mecca that was also the point of first contact between Europe and the New World. And besides all that, it’s a delight to watch. It’s a work that knows its history but doesn’t depend on the viewer knowing it too. An ideal vehicle for busting through the intellectual tangle of a Venice Biennale. By many accounts it made his career.
It certainly marked a departure. “I got sick of making art that involved a lot of a back story. Work with so many references is actually no more or less intelligent than something popular, something spectacular,” says Graham. “I guess what I mean is that I became less interested in trying to prove my own intelligence.” There was more than his “conceptual” reputation on the line, though. Graham’s finances were severely strained and the three-day tropical film shoot (which employed a top-shelf Hollywood crew) cost $50,000.
“But I just figured, Fuck it — for Venice you have to go big.” He’s sitting today at the kitchen table in his South Cambie home. At 64, Graham looks like the coolest guy in the record store — he’s got the silver mop of hair, the Esquire wardrobe, the guitar collection. You can see why a Japanese magazine recently did a fashion shoot here for their Dads’ Style issue. Money woes are far behind him. Today, his works regularly fetch six figures; his upside-down trees are reproduced on stamps and wine labels; he’s frequently seen at the city’s finest restaurants.
He doesn’t go to biennales anymore (in fact, that first trip to Venice was his last) because “there’s just so much work at those things and I feel this awful pressure to produce, and I can’t keep up.” Besides, he doesn’t need to shake hands at art fairs now; the world comes to him. Eminent New York artist Dan Graham (no relation) told me, “As far as the international art scene goes, Rodney has actually eclipsed Jeff Wall as the Vancouver artist.” This year, three galleries around town signal his status by producing Graham exhibits: the Belkin Gallery at UBC and the Charles H. Scott Gallery at Emily Carr University join the Wing Sang to present Bob Rennie’s enormous collection of Graham works, including some that have never been shown in North America. (A dozen years after Rennie purchased a series of upside-down oak tree photos, he now owns over 60 Graham works, some of which include dozens of individual elements.) This may be the single largest piece of love an artist has received here.
Rodney Graham before the Venice Biennale may have been overtly clever and even arcane in his references (one work from the ’80s is a 300-page “pastiche” of an obscure Edgar Allan Poe story), but post-Biennale Graham, while no less intelligent, is more fun, more visible, more marketable. “I have no interest in making that older kind of work anymore,” he says.
The turn was in 1994, when Graham made a short video called Halcion Sleep. For this work, as with Vexation Island, Graham shows himself conked out — but this time it’s not an act. Graham put on a set of satin pajamas and took a heavy dose of the hypnotic sleeping pill Halcion, forcing himself into drug-addled dreams. He passed out in the back of a car, and his friends (instructed in advance) filmed his sleeping body as they drove him home — a reverse kidnapping.
Both works — Vexation Island and Halcion Sleep — show the artist giving up control, and this is perhaps the element that binds his disparate oeuvre: that transcendental moment when an artist gives up his authorial grip, that desire to un-manage what must be managed. For example, Graham once took a Polaroid camera into the woods at night and snapped images in the black, only seeing what he was photographing for a second, and by the blinding light of flash. In a sense he was forcing himself to see the world in the powerless way that a camera sees it: darkness, darkness, darkness, LIGHT…
The artist Myfanwy MacLeod, who went to Venice with Graham back in 1997 and helped him gather the cash, told me over lunch at the VAG Café that “consciousness, or lack thereof” is something that propels his work. If Halcion Sleep showed Graham falling asleep in a fuzzy backseat, then Vexation Island showed him waking in a Technicolor paradise (just as his career awakened amidst the magnitude and hurrah of Venice). “Being in front of a camera is letting go,” said MacLeod. “Once he’s in front of the camera he has to give over control to whoever’s behind the camera.” The artist literally subjects himself.
Be clever if you like. Find references to works like Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963), for which he videotaped his unconscious friend. Quote Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. (Graham has been obsessed with Freud.) But when I watch Halcion Sleep I mostly just see his unsettling vulnerability — he looks like a helpless child in that darkened backseat. “I was a little depressed when I made that one,” Graham admits. Ultimately, he was reenacting a memory that most of us share: the experience of passing out in the car while parents drive us home. And so, when Graham first put himself, his body, into his artwork, despite all the painstaking references that were there, he was also just returning, at last, to the intimacy of his own childhood.