Catherine Sullivan (4 stars)

  • The List
  • 20 December 2006

The fourth wall: the Self

Alexander Kennedy is shaken back to reality faced with an exhibition of new installed films by Catherine Sullivan.

We are witnessing a return to the hermetic, the abstract and the dissonant in art. This is because the falsely unified, centered subject - the awful misconceived and misunderstood sovereign child of the Enlightenment - has not been dethroned or fragmented as our deconstructive predecessors hoped. Liberating difference did not materialise - it seems it can only exist as a postulate.

Catherine Sullivan’s exhibition of installed films (‘Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land’ and ‘The Resurrection of Uplifting’) at the CCA is in line with this reassessment of our sorry reality. Her film ‘Ice Floes . . .’ takes the occupation of the House of Culture theatre in Moscow of 2002 by Chechen rebels as its primary influence. It would be wrong to label this event the work’s ‘subject matter’ as it would reduce both the political enormity and horror of the event, and the power of the work itself. The psychic and political stand-off between the audience and the actors, the rebels and the hostages, the viewers and the art object forms a spiralling unsteady core to the piece that should not be reduced to an originary event, primary cause or explanation. This is not, therefore, simply a piece of Brechtian theatre, the fantasy of a purely political avant-gardist art that hopes to force the people to rise up. This work becomes laughable tragedy, somberly marking the many failed attempts of artistic practices that hoped to achieve such an outcome.

Here we all are on the screen, social actors as subjects wondering what our motivation is. In ‘Ice Floes . . .’ actions are ruthlessly chopped up into repeatable units, made a mockery of and emptied out through endless repetition. Signs act the body in Sullivan’s work; subjects are stuck in existential traps that clamp around their limbs forcing robotic spasmodic movements. Characters shout, moan, cry, eat, smile and grimace in a theatre and what appears to be its surrounding locale. Madcap cappers interweave with hysterical histrionics with the players acting out scenes that they have rehearsed to ‘death’ and back to ‘life’ again. On one of the - screens a character barks: ‘I am a prisoner of the Arctic Sea’, as the chorus holler back mockingly: ‘You are the pervert of the Arctic Sea’, with the relentless scene then going right back to the beginning. Elsewhere, figures line up, rocking back and forward and from side to side, mirroring the viewers who stand in the firing line before them.

The viewing subject is bombarded by signs that refuse to give us any purchase; there is no easy, traceable narrative that allows the viewer to dominate the scene and let her/him forget the mess of life. We cannot melt into the luxury of following an inanely unfolding plot; the glorious sensation of forgetting oneself through over-identification is thwarted. The self is mercilessly shattered into agitated psychic fragments in front of the clamour of a cacophonic art. Subjectivity has re-solidified in the bowels of the ego, toughened under the enormous critical pressure, as anti-philosophy, anti-theory and an aversion to ‘difficult’ politics takes hold. These ignorant negative poses are taken for liberating individualism. But the subject is only another illusory object amongst the rest, the effects of the dominant ideology demonstrating the commodification of the subject as a shiftable unit.

Catherine Sullivan, CCA, Glasgow, until Sat 27 Jan 2007

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