Monday, December 15, 2003

Jana Sterbak is a ...?


Sorry that I'm late to the party, but as far as I can tell Ms. Sterbak took George Bush's idea lock, stock and barrel for her piece that was in this year�s Venice Biennale. [Full disclosure - I have not seen From Here to There and although Ms. Sterbak lives across the street from the gallery has never, been here, or if she has, she was incognito.]

Now, it wouldn't be considered a major news item, but it caught my eye none the less, this year on the White House website, they have as their Christmas treat "Barney Cam II - Barney Reloaded" a video taken from a dog's eye perspective in this case, George Jr & Laura's. The sequel aspect of it caught me eye, too. Reading further, Barney Cam I came out last year, and according to the NYTimes article that I read, was the most popular offering on the White House web site.

In one of the catalogue essays for From Here to There, John W. Locke, writes: "...this is the first use of a canine camera in narrative or experimental film or video." Wrong-O! Boy-O! Thank god he also wrote "as far as I know..." otherwise he'd look really, really dumb.

Now critics can rant all they want about the "paradox, irony and sometimes even the absurd" make all the references they want to Decamps, Chardin, Lascault, Varchi, Poussin, and others, and make mention of 6 big screen videos, desaturation, and blah, blah, blah. But in a nutshell, Ms. Sterbak didn't do much that was original.

Compare this (concluding) paragraph from the catalogue for Ms. Sterbak, by Gilles Godmer (Curator at the Musee d'Art Contemporain de Montreal)

Under the influence of Stanley who, clearly, is calling the tune, at the mercy of his raw, playful energy, we are definitely confronted, in this work, with a disorder bordering on chaos. This disorder is obviously related to the size of the animal, but even more so to his nature which, for the most part, relies on the extraordinary acuity of his sense of smell a sense that has always been considered suspicious, long since dethroned, eclipsed or even sometimes banned from Western civilization. Consequently, this disorder goes well beyond the purely aesthetic aspect of the work. Having its origin in a return of the repressed, it is linked with a position of the subject whose emancipation dates back to the dawn of time. It is a disorder that may be described as fundamental (because it relates to animal nature), and that has resonances in the writings of Georges Bataille in that it goes back to very murky waters of sexuality and death. Quite insidiously, this has the effect of greatly increasing the discomfort we feel, and in which this new work by Jana Sterbak plunges us without any doubt.

With this paragraph from the article by Elisabeth Bumiller

The video, appears designed for the under-7 set. But it is notable for adults in that it captures the president of the United States talking to his 3-year-old Scottish terrier as if he were a small child. (Mr. Bush has referred to Barney as "the son I never had" in political speeches.)

I think Ms. Bumiller got it dead-on-balls-accurate - and M. Godmer missed the boat.

Now to jump into the theoretical analysis (ok, sorry, those are big words). Let's break it down, ok?

George Bush is the president of the United States, last year, as an obvious publicity stunt, he got some folk who worked for him to make a video with his dog, in order to make him seem to sorta, kinda, you know, nicer and more of a regular guy. It was such a humongous hit, and exceeded any and all expectations, that he figured "hey! let's do it again!"

Jana Sterbak is a Czech artist, jet setting between Montreal and Barcelona. Recognizing the obvious absurdity if a dog shilling for the president, decided to take that absurdity and toss it into the Art World. Like deciding that the War on Terrorism was/is a good thing and then using the same tactics and methods to start a War on Dumbness. The only problem is that by not making the obvious connection between Stanley and Barney, Ms. Sterbak ends up looking and sounding like Mr. Bush.

Add in the hit-you-over-the-head-it-is-so-obvious reference to the James Jones book (1951) and the Burt Lancaster film (1953) made at the height of the Cold War, and things start to get murky.

Copying from the inside flap of the slip cover of the book: "In this magnificent but brutal classic of a soldier's life, James Jones portrays the courage, violence and passions of men and women who live by unspoken codes and with unutterable despair...in the most important American novel to come out of World War II, a masterpiece that captures as no other the honor and savagery of men."

So, do you think that while most folks out there think that Artists and the artistic world are in general a bunch of pansy ass liberals, that Ms. Sterbak is secretly doing stuff to help make the world a safer place for democracy? Or that by using the methods of the leader of the free world and a toss off line from Rudyard Kipling she ain't saying more than it's a dog's life?

I guess I'm going to have to find a way to see the damn thing now.

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