Megan Dunn – 4 May, 2017
And I think Graham knows a thing or two about cowboys; that's what gives this confident and primal exhibition its largesse. It's when the archness of Fred's echo drops away, that the muscle and the shape of things start to coalesce, that's when the subtext starts to glimmer with its own subtext.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham
Look out, Fred!
6 April - 29 April 2017
The setup is simple: five wooden seats in a circle as though around a campfire. On each makeshift seat, a pair of headphones. One seat is more significant than the rest. On a craggy low lying log, rests a tanned riding whip. Pull up a pew and listen, stranger. “It was a dark and stormy night…” an American voice begins. “A group of cowboys sat around the campfire. One of them said, “Hey Fred, tell us a story” and this is the story Fred told…”
This looping and loopy circular story is told by two voices: the cowboy Fred and his echo or alter-ego, the stranger. Fred sounds middle aged, a heteronormative John Wayne type, but his echo is a very camp fellow whose vocal characterisation reminded me of the dulcet tones of Mr Herbert, the decrepit next door neighbour and paedophile on Family Guy. The stranger echoes Fred’s seemingly straight narrative, pulling “it up a yank”, from behind - where else?
“Don’t let the ride rub you raw,” the stranger says in his syrupy voice, dripping innuendo.
Look out, Fred!
“Don’t get your chaps wet,” hisses the fire.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham has based the structure for her five Perpetual Cowboy audio works on a musical composition. The canon is a melody that employs one or more imitations after a given duration or rest. In Graham’s work Fred is the initial melody, called the leader (or dux), and his echo is the follower (or comes). In the perpetual or infinite canon, as each melody arrives at its end, it can begin again.
So each set of headphones offers a variation on Fred’s story but the echoes, stresses and tenses fall in different places, as the narrative goes round, Fred and the stranger seem to swap places in the orgiastic flicker of the campfire. This is an effective strategy; it means the listener can enter and exit the narrative at any point in the round. But why leave so soon, stranger? Graham’s story is riddlesome (who is the stranger with “the sooty mouth”?) and her language cracks with authenticity (like the whip stationed nearby.) At one point the camp fire “jumped up like it drank the whiskey” and “the heavens bent in a rip line of rain.”
Graham calls Fred’s echo a Dionysian reveller but it’s the pleasures of language itself that are ample here. When Fred “came up a yank”, he was “feeling cranky”. She personifies the fire and its embers, but even better describes fire with the properties of water, so that Fred often seems licked wet by the flames. Out on the prairie Graham wants to show us “the muscle and the shape of things” as her group of cowboys melt away in the rain. It was a dark and stormy night, remember?
This phrase functions as an anchor, a familiar pit stop on the audio merry go round, and is occasionally accentuated by bursts of thunder and the crack of a whip, or is it the flicker of lightning?
“It was a dark and stormy night…” is the opening sentence of an 1830 English novel and is often parodied as an example of purple prose. Graham uses it to good effect, eliciting its scene setting qualities and milking it for its melodrama too. One senses she is in thrall to melodrama and it’s the ways she gets away with it, that make her own writing so enthralling. Not many could pull off a narrative that said of horses, “the beasts of the field stamped in the darkness, each themselves the breathing being of Gods…” At times I wondered, how oral can her story get? Better ask Ginger, Fred’s horse. “O darling girl, you’ve been a horse and a half to me for so long.” But just when I thought I had Graham’s tale boiled down to saucy cowboys, she inserted the word: copacetic.
Huh? That one drew me up a yank. Copacetic means fine or completely satisfactory, and is a piece of American slang of obscure origin that dates to round the 1920s.
“What kind of story is this?” Fred demands at one point.
Good question, that’s the fuel that keeps the camp fire burning.
Is Graham’s Perpetual Cowboy about sex? “Tell us something with girls in it,” the cowboys demand. And if so is it also about something…bigger? “Tell us another one, Fred,” the stranger says. To what end is Fred defrocked? Is he humiliated and emasculated or released from his macho stereotype? Is the story a ride that has rubbed us raw? Is that why Fred has his chaps on “back arsewards”? It says something about the durability of the story, its ability to get its spurs into our side, that this installation sparks so many memories of other tales from the western canon: Tarantino’s garrulousness, Heath Ledger brokeback in denim, Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller and Hans Christian Andersen’s short story, The Shadow, about a foreigner usurped and finally executed by his own shadow.
Who or what is real here? And is the stranger just Fred’s shadow leapt out of the fire?
Graham’s Look out, Fred! is a lesson in what happens when text becomes subtext. Then subtext takes over. Imagine if Top Gun was only the volleyball scene, the shirtless actors forever brandishing the ball, in a ring of tanned hellfire. What if Tom Cruise was only his shadow trapped in the closet but he can’t stop speaking from it? But I’m not telling you about cowboys.
And I think Graham knows a thing or two about cowboys, that’s what gives this confident and primal exhibition its largesse. It’s when the archness of Fred’s echo drops away, that the muscle and the shape of things start to coalesce, that’s when the subtext starts to glimmer with its own subtext. In her artist’s talk at Enjoy Graham revealed that “Fred” is vocalised by her father. In her childhood, Graham’s father began his stories, “It was a dark stormy night, a group of cowboys sat around the campfire…” So her father is the leader and Graham the follower in this line of American storytellers. Her rebellious homage is never less than copacetic. And the stock whip in the show was her grandfather’s. When Graham asked her father about it, he quipped, “well, it wasn’t the one that was used to whip me.”
“Whips, there’s so many tricks to them,” Graham said.
This is the best show I’ve seen at Enjoy in a long, long time. And I ain’t no stranger.
Two Rooms presents a program of residencies and projects
by leading international and New Zealand contemporary artists.