Steve Reinke is one of the most important Canadian video artists and certainly the most brazenly intellectual, so his first commercial gallery show in Canada counts as a major event. The centrepiece of the exhibit, which also includes drawings based on Donald Duck cartoons, a calling card homage to Adrian Piper, an inscribed flask and some iconic, doctored Polaroids, is a half-hour video projection named Anthology Of American Folk Song, based on experimental filmmaker and musicologist Harry Smith’s similarly-named music collection.
As with his earlier work, the monumental and deservedly praised The Hundred Videos series, Reinke’s uncanny prose and images are once again part of a larger overarching project. With The Hundred Videos, Reinke crafted 100 hugely witty, insightful and dark short videos that collectively represented his oeuvre as a young artist. Similarly, Anthology Of American Folk Song is the first in a series called Final Thoughts, an archive of found and original material that Reinke will collect and curate in different forms until the day of his death. Resembling in some ways the existentialist films of Arthur Lipsett, Anthology is permeated by a sense of menace, standing as an oblique, disparate catalogue of small humiliations, traumas and strange, absurd, occasionally beautiful images that queer the mythologies of a culture in crisis.
The American “folk” in Reinke’s video include a terrified baby covered in shit-coloured cake assailed by family members with cameras, young boys slow in their physical development whose clothes disappear through the magic of editing so they may be appraised by the discerning eye of science, circus performers and animals. Some of the “songs” in the film include the chorus of J Lo’s “Jenny From The Block” screeched by a man roughly going through a pile of dirty Polaroids, a psychiatric interview with someone suffering from paranoia, medical reports, garbled confessions and actual folk songs.
Reinke’s greatest strength is his writing, usually delivered himself in voice-over, which ceaselessly toys with sincerity and irony. Here Reinke’s ruminations are in a sombre mode, drawing parallels between moral and physiological decay, for example, and not as comic as much of his other work.
Reinke is interested in the failures and fallacies of representation – how words and images work together to deceive us – and how a society founded on reason is incapable of fully understanding human behaviour and beliefs. In many scenes the camera plays the role of intruder, showing us things we should not be seeing, a practice that sits uncomfortably with Reinke’s opening monologue, where he imagines a future America totally covered by cameras, a phenomenon that drives people to see these omnipresent recording devices as guardian angels. As we see one of the young medical subjects grow into a man with the help of a doctor’s inoculation, the video loop starts again with the crying baby.
The other video piece is the beautiful, miniature Painter, composed of sparse swatches of colour and the occasional fleeting home movie scene accompanying a found audio letter by a 1960s military wife with an overlaid musical score. Very different from Reinke’s other work, it is a small gem that adds a quiet grace to Reinke’s memorable, unsettling show.
ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK SONG.
Till Sat, Oct 2.
Robert Birch Gallery.
55 Mill St, Building 3.