Panel Presentation, Images 2006, The Mendi
I have to apologize for being so prepared for
a panel discussion meant to be more informal - I have everything written
out [holds up notebook]. I had an experience last week that’s left
me a bit scattered, unable to concentrate. A traumatic experience - and
not even an uncommon one, though mostly it happens to people when they
are younger: last week I saw my parents having sex. [Two beat pause.]
I’m never going on that website again.
Okay, I have another one: Last week I went to
visit my friend Bob in Etobicoke. As I was walking up the driveway I couldn’t
help noticing that his father was fucking a donkey on the front lawn.
He was obscured a little by some bushes, but you could still plainly see
his father was fucking a donkey. So I went inside and I said, “Bob,
there’s no delicate way to put this, but if you look out the living
room window, you’ll see that, on the front lawn, your father is
fucking a donkey.” And Bob said. “Oh, [braying] hee-haaw-lways
So the question I want to save for later: Is
one of those jokes more autobiographical than the other? More confessional?
There were always two lies I told myself in
order to proceed as an artist. Not because it is so difficult to be an
artist - in fact, it is effortless and rewarding - but because it is slightly
easier not to bother making anything. One of the lies I still adhere to
- I don’t really believe it, of course, but keep it half in mind
as a possibility. The other one has recently become untenable. The lie
I’m sticking with: the work I’m going to do in the future
will be really good and the work I’m doing now is a kind of dry
run or place-holder: doodles that precede the sketches that precede the
work itself. The lie that’s become untenable: the images have nothing
to do with me. Not that I haven’t always taken the images into account
- working with, around, and against them - just that I thought my work
as an author was creating discourses in relation to images which existed
independently of my authorship. But lately - particularly with the technical/conceptual
amalgamation of the digital realm with animation - I have to admit not
only that I am an image maker (whether or not those images are found or
archival), but that it may be all about the images.
Images resist discourse. A complete linguistic
description of them is impossible. They are discursively inexhaustible,
which is not to say that they necessarily mean anything.
I’ve always had the rule - though always
also only loosely adhered to it - that I will not entertain questions
that involve me interpreting my own work. I call on all artists to rigourously
avoid interpreting their own work, to never speak in its place. Leave
the artwork alone! When people ask you about it, lie and dissemble. Physical
violence usually isn’t necessary, but if they persist, strike them.
Writers are much better at this. As is said: Trust the tale, not the teller.
A reader once said to Faulkner, “I’ve read it twice and it
still makes no sense. Can you tell me anything to help me get it?”
Faulkner said, “Read it again,” the only reasonable answer.
So elicit engagement, seduce viewers into engagement, lead them up to
the artwork with a particular orientation, but then leave them there.
You must never flatten, reduce, explain or interpret your own artwork.
Even worse than entertaining questions of interpretation
are questions of intentionality. Artists have no intentions. We might
say that artworks have a singular intention: to exist, to be an artwork
in the world. Intentionality is, at best, a clumsy pedagogical tool. There
is absolutely no relation between artistic intention and the possible
meanings of an artwork. This is precisely what is meant by the death of
So, of course, I won’t be talking about
my intentions in making “The Mendi.” I have no intentions.
And if, at some point in the process of making the tape I had some intentions,
I can assure you that they are now long gone, largely forgotten, and completely
The few things I am going to say about the tape
are not from the point of view of the author, but from the position of
being a viewer. Of course, as a viewer of my work, I am not just some
guy off the street - I am an extraordinarily privileged viewer. I have
seen the piece - as well as all the author’s work - several times
and find it very much to my taste. I also have a lot of knowledge and
information exterior to the work itself. For instance, I know that the
artist (who is both me and not me, though I’ll just be saying “I”
to avoid becoming too ridiculous) has used some of the same source material
previously. (In two of “The Hundred Videos.”) I also know
I have never been to Papua, New Guineau; my father was never a Lutheran
minister; I did own (and love) an 8-track of the Bee Gee’s “Main
Course”; and, most importantly, I am nowhere near 48.
The narrator of “The Mendi,” who
is 48, asks two questions - or rather, he asks a single question in light
of a previous question: How should I live, in what manner should I conduct
my life, where might I find a model for life? The question previous to
this mid-life crisis is the question of youth: what vocation should I
pursue. Both questions are asked, however tenuously, in light of anthropology.
The youth’s question is directly connected
to the ethnographic. He is considering becoming an anthropologist or ethnographic
filmmaker. The connection between the mid-life question and the ethnographic
footage is even less direct. Neither question is fundamental to anthropology,
but perhaps could be. The narrator indirectly proposes (a modest proposal,
perhaps) that the goal of anthropology should be apprehension/creation
of new or possible models for living. The narrator has absolutely no interest
in the Mendi apart from this.
On the narrative level, diegetically, there
are simultaneously very strongly and weakly motivated links between the
voice-over, the ethnographic images and sounds, and the Bee Gees. Apart
from a reference to the bone house, there are only two moments in which
the words of the narrator directly motivates the image. The narrator’s
first words “Let’s begin with a pig kill,” does indeed
lead to images of a pig kill. The second moment is the Bee Gees song with
the black screen. Both are moments of violence. They are also the moments
of greatest agency for the narrator - here he not only speaks but controls/motivates
what we see and hear. It is at these two moments that the narrator exceeds
being merely a narrator and approaches something like an implied author.
In a sense, the video is a series of refusals.
The narrator, as a boy, refuses to engage with the Mendi, the missionaries,
the anthropologists, or the filmmakers. Instead he reads, he masturbates,
he listens to the Bee Gees. (Talk about the autobiographical.) While the
narrator as an adult does not quite endorse these refusals - he refers
to his younger self in critical terms, as being pouty, etc., - he continues
with them, and extends them.
The last line, from E. M. Cioran, “I would like to be a cannibal, not so much for the pleasure of eating human flesh as for the pleasure of vomiting it.” Every desire becomes a refusal, a turning away.