Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Art essay: Steve Reinke’s ruthless untruths

Deeply unsettling & uncertain

Picture it: More than 2,000 wallet-sized colour photos of members of the United States military, overwhelmingly male, downloaded and arranged carefully in rows. You cast an eye on every image, taking them all in, until your gaze reaches the end of the collection and its raw caption: “The American military casualties of the Second Gulf War for whom photographs were available as of Oct 7, 2006 arranged by attractiveness.” A punch line… but for a joke that’s not funny. Welcome to Steve Reinke’s latest and most ruthless anti-monument to US culture.

A caustic and sometimes confounding national treasure who currently teaches art at Northwestern University in Chicago, Reinke has had a very busy 2007. He (finally) received the Bell Canada Award in video art from the Canada Council in January, presented at the Birch Libralato gallery during the opening of his solo exhibition Hobbit Love Is the Greatest Love (which included the imposing American Military Casualties four-panel wall piece). A few days later, he was fêted with a survey of his series Final Thoughts (which I pro-grammed at Cinematheque Ontario). That same night Art Metropole launched two DVD sets (five discs in total) of his prolific and challenging video career, from the early The Hundred Videos (1989 to ’96), which announced a new era in Canadian video art, to his work of the past decade, such as the notorious meta-anthropological film The Mendi.

In that latter piece, Reinke speaks from the point of view of a man reflecting on his distracted, minor involvement in the filming of a CBC documentary about a tribe in Papua New Guinea. However, he learns more about masturbating and the Bee Gees than “the family of man.” It ends with him wistfully delivering the bilious phrase, “I still want to be a cannibal not so much any more for the pleasure of eating human flesh as for the pleasure of vomiting it.”

Clearly, Reinke’s influential and crucial art has lost none of its acrid bite, and its take-no-prisoners ironic intelligence is arguably more brutal than before. American Military Casualties is plainly a major work and it boasts many of the hallmarks of his art. Our understanding of the images on display is completely circumscribed by the perverse logical frame Reinke imposes on them, in this case, via the delayed delivery of a caption rather than the more familiar fictional, first-person voiceovers in his video work. Reinke offers no consoling certainties about his ethical or political stance, leaving us deeply unsettled and uncertain about his intentions. It’s an apt way of maintaining the power of provocative images when, often, it seems like we’ve seen everything. Reinke repudiates any illusions about the innate goodness of humanity — he labels himself “faithless” and even a paint-by-numbers Jesus that appears in his work bears the Machiavellian slogan, “No means. All ends.”

In recent years, Reinke has been fascinated by animation, both as a concept and as an art form. “Ideas of animation have been really influential,” he says. “[My video] Ask The Insects is a work about animation. I think [the focus] is less on animation than that it’s important that the work costs nothing — that with a computer and a scanner, or now there’s not even a scanner, you just download stuff — with very simple equipment, in a sense, the whole world is at your fingertips. The whole visual world is there and you can write whatever you want, say whatever you want.

“That is also the case with animation — whatever you draw can be there. There’s a freedom to possess, have or make any image that you want without having to have capital to buy it.”

This sense of total freedom is especially evident in his current output, where images can be still or moving, found or original, photographic or drawn, representational or abstract, banal or inflammatory — sometimes all at once. In parallel, texts can be appropriated or original, delivered in writing or spoken, and are attributed to an infinite number of voices.

Similarly, the Hobbit Love Is The Greatest Love show was comprised of drawings, photography, felt banners, prints and audio. There was only one tiny video and it featured legendary German art shaman Joseph Beuys being questioned by an uppity young woman about the political ramifications of his acceptance of an honourary degree from Reinke’s alma mater, the Nova Scotia College Of Art And Design. Reinke mounts the humble, poorly filmed recording of an artistic forebear forced into a defensive position on a book by Nova Scotia-raised, Pulitzer Prize-winning queer poet Elizabeth Bishop.

Many of the other objects in the room, however, did originate in videos, or later found their way into them. “I think you work in a certain way in a certain medium. And I move from writing to video,” says Reinke. “But video can contain many other kinds of information and discourses. It began that my video mostly contained writing in the first person in relation to images that came from somewhere else. And then increasingly the images didn’t come from somewhere else, or even if they partly came from somewhere else they were reauthored or they were just animated so it became also about making images and not just writing or talking about images.”

American Military Casualties was included in a video-in-progress that Reinke screened at Cinematheque — and recently placed on YouTube under the title The Fallen. Several audience members let out audible gasps of shock or disgust when the method behind the madness was unveiled at the end. But anyone who would hasten to criticize Reinke’s cruelty and hubris should perhaps reserve their venom for the power-mad political regime that rendered his subjects casualties in the first place, rather than for the artist who organized their images in pointedly bad taste.

Reinke’s ranking by looks satirizes one of the prevailing structures of the rotten empire for which this unnamed mass died, where one’s appearance is inextricably bound up with one’s social status, not only in beauty pageants but everywhere. The real perversion is that these men and women were unjustly killed by their government’s avarice — not that their likenesses have been tainted by gay desire. Reinke’s professed pecking order dares our own lustful self to grade their young faces, thereby queering this most evil of institutions and refusing the ideo-logical command to unthinkingly “support our troops.”

This familiar patriotic slogan veils the idea that the war is noble and should continue by appealing to our emotions. But as Reinke spells out in one of his felt banners, “Empathy is a tool for making the cruelty more precise.”

Reinke acknowledges that this confrontational work could start a firestorm. “I want Americans to see it but I don’t really want the backlash.”

This eroticized obituary has found a home in Final Thoughts, the very loose designation for much of Reinke’s current video output, a collection of material somehow about the limits of things, that is itself limited by Reinke’s eventual demise (the project will only end upon his death). By announcing his “final thoughts” as beginning in his early 40s (it was initiated with the 2004 masterpiece Anthology Of American Folk Song), Reinke has cast a haunting pall over his remaining years (and work). For example, in My Rectum Is Not A Grave (To A Film Industry In Crisis) we see the ghostly images of Depression-era children and a pile of dead rats as Reinke speaks for the man who filmed them, South Dakota theatre owner Ivan Bessie, reflecting on what it meant for Bessie to make the small things in his small town the subject of motion pictures.

Reinke rejects my assessment of his projects as epic or encyclopedic. “They’re not encyclopedic,” he says, “and if they’re epic, they’re epic in a really small, individual way. I don’t want to say they’re mock epic because that sounds like something else. A hundred [videos] is a lot, but it’s not that much. And Final Thoughts is even more open-ended. It gives room for individual pieces to not be a total thing, for an endless deferment of the work of art being finished, complete, perfect.”

It seems that, unlike his graffitied Jesus, Reinke is all means and no ends. “There is no finished work, there is a program of things. I hope they cover many things but not as many things as an encyclopedia would cover.”