James Coleman, Background, 1991–1994, at the Irish Museum of Modern Art

Tim Stott

Reviews / 03.10.2008
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Although his influence cannot be overstated, with Doug Aitken, Douglas Gordon, and Steve McQueen amongst his admirers, the contemporary significance of James Coleman's work derives less from this position as precursor than for the rigour with which it interrogates its medium, and the challenges it poses for the viewing experience of perhaps over-familiar black-box environments.

James Coleman, Background, 1991–1994. Projected images with synchronised audio narration. Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art, Purchased, Heritage Fund, 2004. Courtesy and © James Coleman

Background, 1991-1994 is the final instalment of a trilogy of slide-tape projections shown at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin over the last three years (2006-08), following I N I T I A L S (1993-94) in 2006 and Lapsus Exposure (1992-94) in 2007. All three works use the same format and presentation: projected slide images with synchronised audio narration, running to minutes long. Whilst the earlier two are staged in an abandoned hospital and a recording studio, respectively, Background, 1991-1994 unfolds in one room of a palaeontology laboratory, which serves as background and frame to the slide by slide configurations, gestures and exchanges of what we might hesitatingly call a love story involving four characters: Tom, Joe, Jill and an unnamed second woman who might be the lover of either one of the men.

Broadly speaking, all three works concern processes of reconstruction and examination, the documentary potential of photographic imagery and the uneasy proximity of voice and image; but also, unavoidably, remembrance and the uncertain and fascinating passage of the dead amongst the living. Yet the final work also departs from the previous two by adding to allegories of perception a greater attention to the intricate human relations made possible (or impossible) by reproductive media.

Although the trilogy has not been shown in chronological order, the end of Background suggests some resolution, at least insofar as the characters line up for what resembles a restless curtain call. But then this final shot itself quotes from Coleman's earlier Living and Presumed Dead (1983-85), folding temporal succession back upon itself, just as Background, 1991-1994 follows the intensity of each character's desires and so allows their recollections of past loves and moments shared to emerge simultaneously with what we take to be the narrative present.

Background, 1991-1994 opens as if photographically, 'in a flash', with a narrator on the voice track stuttering out the need to communicate. His subsequent assurances - 'it's ok ... it's ok…' - emphasise the rupture of this event. Any hopes that as his voice clears he might 'get a message across' fade into musings about the echoes replying to his efforts, accompanied by the first slide image, which consists of a broken cast lying on a palette in a nondescript room. Such themes of non-communication and a growing air of melancholy and ruination continue into the next sequence, where we are introduced to the first of a number of frustrated couplings: a love triangle and an accusation, perhaps tenuous, of infidelity. Jill is accused of giving up Tom for Joe, although apparently with little volition of her own. Tom, meanwhile, recalls the happier times of his childhood friendship with Joe, describing their rescue of a dying raven - which they released to fly on ahead of them - and then the smell of fresh grass, a dark combination of grotesquerie and cliché that mocks any affective investment in this imagery even as it is invoked. The portentous bird suggests rather that one listens here to the wistful recollections of ghosts. Another dark presence in many slides is the skeleton of a prehistoric sloth, another ruin and a clear symbol of the aphasia said to afflict the melancholic.

As one becomes aware that this drama is set in a palaeontology laboratory, one is reminded of other scenes in which spectral lovers mixed and exchanged looks with the preserved specimens of another time. Comparisons with Marker's La Jetée are perhaps inevitable but, as Rosalind Krauss has observed, Coleman's use of the still sequence, the voice-over and the visual conventions of the photo-roman is without the narrative coherence and suturing of Marker, the latter's work remaining far more cinematic than photographic. This is not to suggest that Coleman does not draw heavily from cinema: his secure and sparse framing of vignettes is reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni and Yasujiro Ozu; his concern with impossible recollection between lovers here suggesting Alain Resnais. Coleman, however, does not seek to 'restore' the 'degraded' (i.e. commercialised) mediums of the photo-roman and the slide-tape projection by rearticulating them through a recognised art form - cinema - but rather derives a set of conventions and unexpected possibilities from the material and technical conditions of these mediums. For all its insistent melancholy, then, there remains, for Krauss and others, something of a promise in Coleman's work: the promise of renewed imagination and fascination in the presentation of images in an image-saturated environment.

After this opening sequence the coordinates of the love triangle become difficult to maintain, as those parts of the voice-over explicitly in the first-person are cast adrift, momentarily snagging onto one character, then another, more often none at all, but always issuing from within the images, never fully detached from them. Although statements and visibilities are, for the most part, exactly coterminous with one another, this rarely secures the intelligibility of their correspondence: the voice-over provides no continuity from one slide or sequence to the next, and the stickiness of a familiar phrase or gesture only serves to increase the tension of this correspondence. Nonetheless, largely deprived of any diegetic horizon within which they would make sense, each character's slightest gesture, posture or statement - however banal or conventional, however lacking in pathos - undergoes extensive allegorical dissemination perpendicular to the anticipated unfolding of a narrative. In this way, ruins and ghosts are 'brought into the light', as the narrator states at one point, and the burden of deciphering and interpretation rests with a viewer engaged as participant. For all the closure of Coleman's work, then, for all its apparent lack of participatory credentials, it is quite uniquely generous. Yet although we might consider this one of Coleman's most accessible works, encouraged by the few recognisable motifs of an unfolding romance and betrayal, it is possible that the work's accessibility derives not so much from the familiarity of its motifs as from the fact that it places us in a direct relationship with our own interpretive and affective responses to a medium whose inherited structures of meaning have been destabilised and made unreliable: just following a rather derisive consideration of the possibility of union, where it is quite clear that what is at stake is not only marriage bu also physical or sensory connection ( 'eyes, tissues ... but they do not meet'), the narrator seems to shif the terms of debate to the potential of any such response: 'I could feel ... seeing.'

This being said, Background, 1991-1994 is also, undoubtedly, a melancholy work. The next sequence concerns the efforts of the two lovers, overlooked by the other 'couple', to possess 'images to immortalise our love', a vain but familiar desire to consign love to a repertoire of images and so secure the union of those involved, if only in retrospect. The syllabic spacing of 'im-mort-alise' stresses that what is at stake is precisely that flat death, as Barthes once described posing for a photograph. One could say that the piece as a whole variously stages photography's commitment to death and memory. The hubris with which we routinely define the photograph as document is indicated when, after the suggestion that the lovers 'catalogue the sections, the photos', that same voice states, more firmly, that 'Jill will not speak for the dead'. Likewise, the absurdity of attempts to reanimate images through illusory movement is archly shown when the characters are encouraged not to stand in front of the sloth but to 'dance a-round'. This they appear to do, to the accompaniment of the narrator's satisfied humming. This momentary parodying of the cinematic is turned back upon the audience as they wander around in front of the screen, themselves periodically frozen in the slow flicker of the slide carousels, their movements mirroring the dance of the shadows on screen. Jorge Luis Borges ends the short story 'The Circular Ruins' with the sentence, succinct as ever: 'With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another'. Witnessing oneself amongst others enter into the 'labyrinth of chimeras' that Background, 1991-1994 opens on to, to quote Jean Fisher only slightly out of context, makes this sentence even more compelling, with all its sentiments intact.

Background, 1991-1994 ends with a phrase uttered in darkness, in the most solemn tones: 'And the black raven in its glass case is moved, room to room'. Were it not for its absurd melodrama, one might thread this statement back through all those dark intervals between slides and voices, and trace the flight of that raven that flew on ahead. But then again, one might do better to laugh.

- Tim Stott