‘THE DILEMA’ is projected in pink on the gallery wall, while a mirror image of the words plays opposite. The film cuts to two twenty-something American males bouncing up and down, their conversation broken by both their own self-consciousness and the artist’s editing. ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, by the band Journey, starts playing over a slowed down clip from Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 film Showgirls.
‘The Dilemma’, a short film by Denver-based, graduate of Glasgow School of Art Ann Bowman, shown in her recent exhibition at Transmission, Glasgow, deploys several components from previous video works: the use of popular soundtracks, staged situations and personal acquaintances as awkward actors reading out texts supplied to them by the artist.
She also isolates a variety of popular references—comedian Lenny Bruce, Tom Cruise, and Cruise’s character Frank TJ Mackey from the film Magnolia—although these are not immediately obvious. It is necessary to question these figures as anchoring points as opposed to more personal references put in as an aside. Perhaps they act as both, purposely confusing and opening up the work.
In ‘The Dilemma’ the content of the dialogue between the two males remains unclear, though assumptions can be made as to the nature of a conversation between two young men, particularly when suffixed with a clip from Showgirls. There is something interesting, not so much in what is being said, but in the repeated false starts, the tonal relationships, the composition and movement of the discussion.
The Showgirls extract places the central character Naomi Malone alone on a roof looking out over Las Vegas, a city full of people searching for fame and fortune who become caught up in exploitation and fantasy. It is this notion of what it means to ‘make it’ and the gendering of ambition that are strongly recurring motifs in Bowman’s work. The text wall-painting is titled ‘A Scene–painter’s Rape Fantasy of a Hollywood Starlet. N. West 1939’, an extract from The Day of the Locust, the novel by Nathanial West set in Hollywood during the Great Depression, which depicts the alienation and desperation of a disparate group of individuals whose dreams of, and search for, success and glamour have effectively failed. Bowman however, uses the chosen text to relate to the idea of the artist and his/her subject; the scene painter chooses to paint an unobtainable female into his work, into his rape fantasy, and so proposes that the subject of an artwork is the artist’s desire, with an illusion that it is about something else.
The third element of Bowman’s presentation is a large oil painting of four teenage boys, ‘Untitled’, 2007. All three components in the Transmission show are essentially separate works but inform and implicate each other, the power relationships being shared among the characters: teenage boys forming a knowledge of sex and girls through Hollywood films such as Showgirls, the rape fantasy, Naomi Malone, the starlet, a close group of young boys and broken dialogue between two older males, musical tastes, ambitions, the characters’ dilemmas, the viewers’ dilemma.
Bowman’s previous work, ‘Blahblahblah (cocksucker) Because I know what it means to walk the lonely streets of dreams all night long’, 2007, is a film in which a male reads from a copy of Lenny Bruce’s biography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. The section read in the film describes his first arrest for obscenity in San Francisco 1962. Highlighting the absurdity of being tried for using the word ‘cocksucker’, Bruce replaced the obscenity with ‘blahblahblah’ in his account of the court proceedings.
The actor in Bowman’s film then performs a well-rehearsed repetitive dance routine, the ‘electric slide’, to Lionel Ritchie’s ‘All Night Long’. The dancer, spot-lit and half naked, performs with confidence and conviction, the song fades out and the actor/comedian/now dancer continues into the night.
‘Blahblahblah…’ underscores casting as an important process of the work. The relationship between artist and subject, and a preoccupation with forms of seductiveness, are also essential elements. Bowman places her subjects in a studio situation and remains behind the camera while they play their parts, allowing space for the actor to drift from the central intention. There is a control of auteurship, while simultaneously a compliance to film, whatever happens without interruption.
Drawing and painting are as much a part of Bowman’s practice as video/film. ‘River Phoenix, 15yrs, Acting’, 2004, is a laboriously-produced drawing with the formal restraint of a commissioned portrait. Based on photographic sources, her drawings formulate a relationship/possession between artist and icon/subject. Background is removed in a similar manner to the screen-based work, and the subject is taken out of his/her/its normal setting and placed in the artist’s studio. This method distills something from the subjects, and from the relationship between them and the artist, playing with the idea of the artist’s gaze and gender reversal within.
Using texts, films, videos, songs and people to create an ambiguous space, Bowman blurs definitions of fame, gender, aspiration, taboo and censorship. Her work acts as an open text in which meaning is suspended and deferred, emptying and re-aligning itself. It becomes referential, plural. Often she does not expect the viewer to come to conclusions, to place or de-code the artist’s references. It is perhaps more interesting to think about what the works do rather than where they came from: ‘…it’s good to say blahblahblah…’
Louise Shelley is programme assistant at CCA, Glasgow