Go west: Print The Legend
Alexander Kennedy looks at Print The Legend, where nine internationally acclaimed artists take images from the western as the inspiration for their work
The idea of the American West once stretched out like a great virginal expanse of prairie, a fantasy only limited by imagination and the Pacific Ocean. This myth is not only an American obsession, but one that the whole western genre film-viewing world shares.
Patricia Bickers – editor of Art Monthly and curator of Print the Legend at the Fruitmarket – has chosen nine European artists to deconstruct and reconstruct this myth. The show brings together film, sculpture and photography to explore the idea of the western, using various methods in order to unpack issues surrounding the genre.
If westerns are about goodies and baddies, let’s start with the good guys and girls. They might not seem so impressive, but they usually end up winning. In one of the small dark rooms upstairs Salla Tykkä’s modest little film ‘Lasso’ steals the show. The sexualised male figure of a cowboy fills the screen, but his story (if he has one) seems irrelevant. At first glance, Tykkä appears to give us a seven-minute slice of a larger film, where a young girl stares longingly at a semi-naked boy practising jumping through his lasso. Narrative, music, action and the emotion comes to a crescendo; this is both the apex of a narrative and the formalist examination of a filmic device, where all constituent elements meet in the art object.
Cornelia Parker’s simple little sculpture, ‘Embryo Firearms’, takes an iconic object from a violent past, the Colt.45, and hands us back something useless and clunky. Peter Granser’s photographs of German weekend cowboys also plunder the myth, and mess up the distinction between past and present, myth and reality. The cowboy is presented as a posed construction, an amalgam of signifiers that all desperately say: ‘I’m a cowboy, honest!’ Isaac Julien’s installed film deals with a similar sense of desperation, with two gay cowboys trying to remain butch while figuring out their passionate attachment through the medium of dance. This may seem funny, a bit of old-fashioned camp, but can’t this also be said of the figure of the cowboy generally?
So, what of the ‘baddies’? It’s difficult to care about Simon Patterson’s wall drawing, and Mike Nelson’s sculptures and installation also fail to convince. Douglas Gordon gives us another ‘Douglas Gordon’, and many people seem to like this. As is often the case with Gordon, it’s all about scale: in this case ‘bigness’ and slowness. It’ll take you five years to watch his drive-in film projection installed outside the gallery, but about five seconds to get to grips with its meaning.
Now that America is fully conquered and colonised, and, in many ways is ‘the West’, like any other expansionist super power it must spread further, again becoming a myth fuelled by empty bywords such as ‘progress’ and ‘democracy’, an ideal to fill the hearts and minds of occupied peoples. This may have been too trite a political point for Bickers to make. Here the myth of the West is embodied in the cartoon figure of the cowboy, but the viewer cannot help but interpret much of the work on show from a contemporary political perspective.