Stina Wirfelt’s film, ‘Monuments’, 2008, is composed of still images and long, pregnant, black pauses. As is often the case with the artist’s films and photographs, this title contradicts expected paths of reason within the work.
Comprising a series of photographs shot by the artist, ‘Monuments’ documents a series of truncated, unfinished roads and abandoned highway ramps around Glasgow. In the fictional city of Metropolis, the deadpan voiceover describes these unused thoroughfares as remnants of ‘…a fallen paradise that remained standing—a constant reminder of what could have been’. Wirfelt casts the towering yet destitute landmarks as referents to an increasingly forgotten, or perhaps more succinctly, criticised modernist ideal, prevalent reminders of the New Towns that were never built and neighbourhoods that were not raised. Stark, bland cement profiles stand strong against fierce blue and damper grey skies.
‘Monuments’ chronicles the current state of these empty roads, where learner drivers now practice reversing on dead streets, grass grows on the bridges and water freezes, then expands, making concrete crack. Photographs are rendered as cinematic images via Wirfelt’s careful postproduction editing techniques. And together with the narrative they question the social spaces that we inhabit in our daily life as we coexist with the scars of urban development. Yet the film’s sparse tone is also injected with moments of wry humour, most notably when ‘I Will Believe It (Happy Hardcore Remix)’ by DJ Tempo, interrupts the voiceover. Pounding and high-pitched, the voice sings ‘… and this is goodbye’.
Wirfelt’s overdubbed narration is cringingly sincere however. ‘Monuments’ is motivated by straightforward interplay between the dialogue and visual clues in the photographs. This approach enables a functional deceit; the viewer is encouraged to believe the loosely woven audio-diary and its historical inaccuracies about ghostly Parkhead, Glasgow.
‘Monuments’ was produced after Wirfelt’s recent return to Glasgow following graduatation with an MFA from Malmö Art Academy, Sweden, in 2007. It is an articulate and spacious allegory for the narrator’s own failing testimonial as well as her enduring appreciation for her immediate surroundings. Her poetic investigation into themes of failed utopia and industrial debris calls to mind works such as Graham Fagen’s ‘Nothank’, 2002, a video documentary about a housing scheme in the fictitious land of the same name. But the weightiness in ‘Monuments’ differs from the poignancy in Fagen’s film; it comes from the calculated distance of the narrative and the lack of human form within the composition of the photographs. The shadows and curves of the concrete are revealed as the film’s protagonist.‘They could at least lie to us. You know, call us and lie! We don’t want to sit here like schmucks. A lie is a gesture, it’s a courtesy, it’s a little respect. This is very disrespectful.’ Larry David [to Cheryl, while they are sitting, waiting for the Dansons to call.] Curb Your Enthusiasm
As is frequently the case in Wirfelt’s work, ‘Monuments’ is a portrait of a situation more than it is a directed narrative. Her videos and films are intimately linked to the places she portrays, and often depict a condition rather than an event. She cites the location for each film as the starting point; it becomes the story she has to tell. Take for example, ‘Oasis’, 2007, which was screened at Cast Some Light, Glasgow international 2008, and at International Academy of Arts, Ramallah.
‘Oasis’ is set at a roadside diner in a small village in Sweden. There are a few indications among the generic surroundings that suggest a Scandinavian landscape, but the diner itself references a familiar American stereotype. The film is built from a succession of static images in which the video camera captures tiny fluctuations of movement such as a passing car, the pulsing lights of a fluorescent palm tree or the revolving slushy machine. These images explicitly document the vacant, DayGlo atmosphere of the diner. This culturally incongruous scene is enhanced by the overlaying of Sean Paul’s dancehall soundtrack, foregrounding the mix of cultural references that penetrate our everyday surroundings, making connections between things we perceive but usually ignore.
There is an undeniable revelry in Wirfelt’s fascination with kitsch. As in her films, the artist’s immaculately composed photographs delight in presenting the viewer with moments that are free from usual logic and experimenting with the banality and accoutrement of the everyday. Her participation in an exchange at the University of Illinois in Chicago is significant. Works such as John Baldessari’s, ‘Aligning Balls’, 1972, and ‘Throwing Four Balls in the Air To Get a Square, Best of 36 Tries’, 1974, for example, have become highly relevant to her practice; she often uses her photographs as a frame for conceptual projects.
In ‘Every Building on Henrik Menanders Väg’, 2007, she photographed all eleven identical homes on a street in Malmö. The monotony of the images reveals subtle distinctions in the white-walled, suburban landscape. A cunning attention to detail undermines the project’s own effortlessness; Wirfelt’s practice articulates an over-arching engagement with observation and a careful selection process, which allows her to expose certain symbolic tropes with understated ease. She pulls out the detail in ordinary situations and offers viewers the pleasure of putting things together for themselves.
‘Miami Beach is where neon goes to die.’
In ‘Cat Looks At Dog/Jeff Koons Sculpture/James Bond Movie/TV’, 2008, the viewer encounters a familiar scene: a cat is perched in front of a TV in a cosy living room; the television is a recurring motif in the artist’s photographs and installations. Here, the work captures a still from a James Bond movie, a fleeting moment in the film where Bond (played by Pierce Brosnan) emerges from the Guggenheim, Bilbao. Bond glances across the road and for a brief instant, his profile frames Jeff Koons’ sculpture, ‘Puppy’, 1992, while the real life cat looks on.
There are echoes here of Sherrie Levine’s ‘After Walker Evans’, 1981, in which she photographs Evans’ work from an exhibition catalogue, then presents the photographs without manipulating the images. Also influential are Louise Lawler’s photographs of artworks in various public/private contexts.
In the 1980s, Levine and Lawler experimented explicitly with photographic appropriation. Both artists had a steadfast and ongoing curiosity with the physicality of an original art object. In Wirfelt’s work, however, the idea of the original artwork is present but at a remove. It is a subjective notion that frames our interaction with an atmospheric condition or with an artwork. When Wirfelt takes a photograph of a Jeff Koons’ sculpture, it is not only about the sculpture itself, but the fact that she singles it out from the pervasive white noise of pop culture in a simultaneously informed and quotidian manner. She does not appear to be interested in the art world so much as in the secondary or even third version of the art. Her interest lies in the happenstance appearance of ‘Puppy’ in a Hollywood film.
Wirfelt’s fascination with the mundane is akin to comedians like Lenny Bruce and Larry David. She rejoices in a perceptive, off-kilter sense of humour. The intrigue in her work exists in the process that brings us to the image as much as in the finished photographs and films themselves. She continues to push the boundary of the readymade by inviting us to engage with her experiments in live environments as she did with the recent ‘All Programs To Come’, 2008, now permanently installed in the downstairs bar at The State in Glasgow. It is a simple brass plaque by the door that reads:
THE PROGRAM CURRENTLY BEING BROADCAST ON THE TELEVISION (INCLUDING ITS SOUNDTRACK) AND THE EFFECT IT HAS ON THE SITUATION SHOULD BE CONSIDERED PART OF THE A. VERMIN EXHIBITION, GLASGOW INTERNATIONAL, 2008.
Wirfelt slowly draws us closer into the experience that sets the stage for her works. Like an audience watching a stand-up comic, we become a part of the scene.
Alhena Katsof is an artist and founder of A.Vermin, Glasgow
Stina Wirfelt is currently part of LUX Associate Artists Programme, London. Her film and video can be viewed online: www.castsomelight.ne