Project Series 13: Hilja Keading
Hilja Keading’s video installation—Backdrop— reflects her longstanding interest in issues of desire, illusion, and performance. For over ten years, Keading has created single-channel video and video installations that examine social and cultural norms, in particular, the discrepancy between facade and reality, judgment and perception. By transforming everyday images, sounds, and words into extraordinary and mysterious narratives, she creates environments that are profoundly moving in their evocation of both simple childhood joys and fears and complex adult psychological dramas.
Subtly influenced by Hollywood, where illusions are created and consumed, Keading addresses performance as a behavioral pattern along with the desire to create and believe in fantasy. She is interested in the desire to perform and the constant fear that what is—the unmediated, unadorned, “off-camera”—is not good enough. Her work investigates the impact of experience and memory on judgment, and examines the constructs of illusion and perfection—those stories, products, and other fabricated realities that drive one to search for an illusionary goal, that distract one from the truth, or that falsely promise control over one’s life.
In her past work, Keading’s interest in illusion and judgment manifested itself in explorations of absurd situations that reinforced an unreachable ideal by underscoring its impossibility. Her work attempts to deal with the struggle between the authoritative voice of society and the inner voice of the self—the conflict inherent in reconciling the gap between childhood and adulthood. She considers the conflicts of judgment—how something can be simultaneously beautiful, ugly, stupid, profound, tragic, and comedic. At the same time, her work contains elements of the performative ranging from the artist herself performing for the camera to footage she shoots documenting events such as circus acts and rodeo performances. Her work also incorporates the often unconscious processes of language and wordplay.
The exhibition of work by Hilja Keading was the thirteenth in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of small exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
The video installations of Los Angeles artist Hilja Keading probe the psychology of performance and the creation of, and desire to believe in, illusions.1 Imagine that the proscenium is invisible, the room entered is the stage, and the mise en scène is a series of projected video images, overlapping to create a translucent architecture as if constructed for narrative import, but somewhat opaque in meaning and audaciously hermetic. There is a suggestion of the performative with no encouragement to the viewer’s cognition, but there is an indication of a desire to capture the imagination. Tauntingly, the artist/performer recites a talk that is reminiscent of wordplay, and often the words are provided by the lyrics of a recognized pop song. It is appropriate to call attention to a sense of imminent high drama underlying all of Keading’s imagery, yet the drama is never centered or resolved with a full climax. Moreover, her work suggests a real situation, but like traditional theatre, operates in the artificial with no obvious theoretical underpinnings or clear indication of fitting into a larger metanarrative. The work is structured more like a three-ring circus yet exists as an experiential entity that is simultaneous.
I am drawn to Keading’s installations because for me they are a return to the sensibilities of the earliest antecedents of video art. Artists such as Vito Acconci, Lynda Benglis, Chris Burden, Joan Jonas, and Bruce Nauman used the medium to create a hybrid art form, defined then as performance art—an alternative to theatre or cinema and, when successful, an immediate panacea for the suspension and cogitation of disbelief. Burden and Nauman used their bodies to “write” verbal formulae, Acconci exposed the hidden agendas that couldn’t be revealed in live performance, and Benglis examined artifice and the adoption of a fictional performing persona.2 Of all the artists, Joan Jonas continues to make pieces by taking disparate elements of her live performance and literary sources, then putting them together by associations and content. “…At best, there are partial excavations which only act to enforce and emphasize Jonas’ heterogeneity, a realm created where even documentation defies conventional perceptual habits.”3
Like the aforementioned artists, Keading is often the protagonist but distinguishes her work by emphasizing the dialogue between the performing persona and personae. She represents the grandiose child in all of us, eager to enter the illusion. Her work Dangler (1995-1999) takes on a larger meaning as Keading, not versatile in the rudiments of legerdemain, dangles and then falls from a circus trapeze. She is wearing an orange costume that transforms her body into a larger- than-life carrot, replete as the visual pun of allure (dangling a carrot), conversely desexualized by taking the form of a root. The image is elongated and flopped as a mirror image to scrutinize the true self. The voice-over is that of the artist singing lyrics from a children’s song—if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands—while a television evangelist sermonizes “straighten up and fly right…God works from the top down…” Disjointed, fragmented thoughts appear like credits: I want an explanation, as much as I can handle, a connection, my childhood back, the phone call, to levitate.
The childlike performance and sense of wordplay are the exegeses of Lacan’s ideas about the similarities between the structure of the unconscious process and language, and the mechanisms of condensation and displacement. Both are essentially linguistic phenomena, where meaning is either condensed (in metaphor) or displaced (in metonymy).4 Keading is straddling the traverse between the external authoritative voice and her inner voice while coming to terms with a childhood mourned. In Good-bye Illusions (1997), childhood fantasies are revealed, like the simple explanation of a magic trick or a boy filmed to appear as if he is falling from the sky. Using found footage of a didactic film that instructs children on how to “trust” (hence the “falling” images), Keading incorporates continuous audio loops of Sam Cook’s “That’s Heaven to Me”: God is somewhere near. It doesn’t have to be a miracle for me to see the goodness of my God— God is everywhere for me— even the children in the street… Projected on the floor mirroring the children is the image of a flying banner in the shape of a pink pig, flagging us to the use of children as “guinea pigs” to entertain adult fantasies. There are no real substitutes for what is missed, but seeking heaven on Earth is a move toward healing. A ladder is placed in the installation for projection and ascension.
Installed at the Pomona College Museum of Art, Keading’s most ambitious installation to date, Backdrop (2002), was set up like a video arcade of monitors and video projections. The audio track was calliope music, similar to what one might hear while riding a carousel. The first image was a tangled garden hose, placed in what appears to be a domestic scene. Upon turning on the water, it is revealed that the hose is badly wounded with many leaks, but the water’s mist creates a beautiful rainbow. At times the sprays of water appeared like television “snow,” interrupting the “read” of the image. An unidentified female figure, assumed to be that of the artist, franticly patches the leaks with brightly colored paper labels, a temporary solution to an overwhelming dilemma, as she is being drenched with water. Despite her delusions of controlling the situation, deceptive images appear as a respite: Surrounding pink flowers pelted flat with water against the garden’s blue wall appear as if artificially created to be shot against a blue screen and edited to the music; a paper butterfly on a headdress made of shiny Mylar hearts and flowers is shown in close-up, holding down the tresses of a young girl sitting in the audience at the circus; bright yellow walls of the circus tent are panned, altogether creating a panoply of happy color.
Suddenly the “peace” in our virtual backyard is disrupted. One by one the individual monitor and projection screens are violently disengaged by the vertical fall of an unknown image that crashes with a loud bang as startling as a gunshot and edited in sync with the cascading rhythms of the calliope. It turns out that the image is taken from the film The Sound of Music, at the precise moment a scenic backdrop falls during a puppet show, shattering all illusions. Moreover, it alludes to the historic tape Vertical Roll (1972) by Joan Jonas, where an equally jarring image and audio track confront the viewer, changing the perception of viewing television forever. Keading commingles the anxiety over the leaking hose with the manic acceleration of the calliope music and the crashing of the backdrop(s), building like the gyrations, horns and whistles of an arcade. Above this frenetic scene is an animated frieze made up of the puppeteers as depicted in the film, gesturing as if pulling the strings of marionettes that are out of frame. A close-up of a young girl taking a deep breath, ready to exhale, is repeated over and over. When she releases, a spray of liquid spews forth, replicating the mist of the hose, and wetting the face of the object of her frustration. The backdrop is the legacy of hiding from the true self while operating unconsciously under the influence of repressed memories. The backdrop has been acknowledged for what it is— an idealized vision.
C.A. Klonarides, 2001
Carole Ann Klonarides is an independent curator and educator of video history and art and technology. A resident of Long Beach, California, she formerly was a curator at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and the Long Beach Museum of Art.
1. Artist statement, 2001
2. I am thinking of the works from the mid-Seventies as described in the Long Beach Museum of Art catalogue Southland Video Anthology 1976-77, with text written by the then-curator of video, film, and performance, David A. Ross
3. Ferguson, Bruce, “AmerefierycontemplationonthesagaofJoanJonas,” catalogue essay for Joan Jonas Works 1968-1994, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1994, pg. 16
4. Artist statement