Digression à Deux Voix

James Coleman, 2004-11, A Work in Progress, LED screen; courtesy the artist / Marian Goodman Gallery

The gauntlet was thrown down when someone – who shall remain anonymous – mentioned in passing, at one of the serial openings of Dublin Contemporary, that one pitied anyone who was forced to write on Coleman’s video work 2004 – 2011 – A Work in Progress. In 2009, another anonymous individual proclaimed that Coleman had arrived late to the “Rancière Party” when he commissioned the French philosopher to write the catalogue essay for his first retrospective in Dublin. A third form of anonymity sprang forth in the structuring of this text, whereby Michaële Cutaya and James Merrigan decided to write a dual response, but chose to fuse the text into one joint collision of interpretations rather than sign each’s response with initials. A relative anonymity thus alleviates what might be a daunting prospect, writing on Coleman when aware of the layers of theoretical concretions that have accumulated around his work. And yet encountering his work is a remarkably direct and affecting experience that triggers a bold sense of ownership. As it eschews any sense of authoritative approach, we are easily beguiled by the intensity of the images as well as by the multiple associations the work invites, whether with film, theatre, mythology or philosophy.

A gunshot-grey curtain covers the entrance to Coleman’s new work. Two years after his Dublin retrospective, the carpeted floor is back again at the RHA. You smell it when you enter through the curtain, inviting people to lounge on the ground – which they do – making themselves at home in the usually unwelcoming space of the gallery. On the right wall a bench awkwardly lines up perpendicular to the screen, seating two people: Coleman doesn’t want his grey vacuum(ed) theatre to be obscured by square seats, just rounded bodies.

The film is divided into five parts. Multiple perspectives and dual conversations – one-on-one and two-on-one dialogues  – makes it doubly difficult at first to differentiate one conversation from another, especially when two conversations collide on what looks like a two-by-four-checkerboard, multi-screen video work, but is in fact one large LED screen. Alternating between English and French (without subtitles), six characters are involved in an expanded dialogue that is suspended by pauses, questions and a lack of backstory: nothing much is given away verbally. Coleman focuses on the faces of his actors, whose smirks, shouts, grimaces, smiles, taunts, torment and anger may be the crux of the narrative. The faces are multiplied and unstable on the low-definition, occasionally flickering screens, a far cry from Coleman’s earlier immaculate images. Do the screens mirror the characters’ stream of consciousness of themselves and of others as their images appear over one, two, three screens, disappear, include bystanders or, usually toward the end of a one-on-one dialogue, expand to a dual face-off?

There is an interplay between the secret narratives individually held by each character. The conversations take the form of extended preambles – delayed gratification that never reaches a climax – formulating a question of power, or power games. With the continually shifting, silhouetted bodies lying on the RHA floor and gazing at the surprisingly un-Coleman-like low-quality recording that focuses on the faces rather than bodies of the actors / protagonists of his new fragmented narrative, there is a sense that Coleman’s work is always framed by what Rancière calls a “gathering” [1] that invariably lounge before his work.

In his essay on Coleman, Rancière states that the gathering of a community and the rules of justice “stem from the warranty of the visible" and identifies it as the “final issue" of Coleman’s work. He writes that:

… the benefits of invisibility obviously have less attraction for artists than for criminals. And the artist concerned with present-day problems finds more objects for meditation in a well-determined articulation of justice and the visible. [2]

‘Hyper-visibility’ is the regime that typifies the backdrop of graffitied industrial settings where the narrative is played out. Coleman does not colour in the backdrop behind his protagonists. The scene stays the same throughout the one-hour duration of the work and is remarkably incongruous to the narrative. Coleman’s keeps our eyes focused through the intensity of the conversations and facial reactions.

At the RHA, the live audience gives away what they accept and deny from Coleman’s obfuscated narrative through their shifting movements. While up on the screen, a play is acted out which slowly – but not torturously – circumscribes what it is that separates each individual from merging fully, and it is not a question of gravity.On a level that veers into the celestial, when two bodies come into each other’s orbit, the larger body will control the orbit of the smaller body, such as the planets orbiting the sun or the moon orbiting the earth. On a micro level, such as the interplay of physical relationships, we never actually touch another person physically; due to gravity there is always a gap between the tips of our fingers and the skin of another person. Without this gap, our organic bodies would merge into one, such as a stellar collision between two stars that creates black holes and white dwarfs. In our case we would obviously die if such a merger could occur. Coleman’s new video work focuses on the imperceptible gaps in human relationships, without giving away the ghost as to what that gap actually is.

The dual screens that end each confrontation between the lovers are like this equilibrium of stars that D.H Lawrence’s character Rupert, in Women in Love, demands of Ursula: “What I want is a strange conjunction with you not meeting and mingling, but an equilibrium, a pure balance of two single beings — as the stars balance each other."

In Rancière’s catalogue essay for Coleman’s 2009 Dublin retrospective entitled From the Poetics of the Image to the Tragedy of Justice, he writes of the disembodied voice of Coleman’s previous body of work. The experience of Coleman’s works always includes the relationship between bodies, such as Retake with Evidence at Documenta 12 in 2007, where the audience are backed up against the soundproof glass while a projected moving image of Harvey Keitel towers over the gathering.It may be that Coleman’s new work is coming closer to cinema: reuniting the voice and body he long kept separated. And it is with the work of filmmakers that 2004 – 2011 A Work in Progress perhaps resonates most directly: that of Igmar Bergman, whose close scrutiny of his characters’ inability to express emotions, as in the emotionally handicapped couple of Scenes from a Marriage, constantly points to the failure of words. In Coleman’s piece the words are impoverished and repetitive: as if already defeated: “Why did you leave? I had to. Why did you have to? Because I did. Where did you go? It doesn’t matter, I had to leave. Why did you leave? To save us…” – recalling the description of lovers’ words in Nancy’s Inoperative Community.

Of course lovers speak. But their speech is ultimately impotent, excessive in that it is excessively poor, a speech in which love is already mired: lovers speak, and their overwhelmed words deflate and inflate at the same time the sentiment that moves them. For they transfer into duration something whose truth holds for the instant of a flash. [3]

The body and the voice may have been reunited but the inadequacy remains. But it is also the ever-eerie world of David Lynch’s film that is called forth through situations which, bereft of any context, leave the viewer face to face with the nakedness of affects. The anonymous man wearing a woolly hat in Coleman’s piece comes straight from the mystery-character wardrobe of Lynch. His Lynchian grimace and cocky, unfounded authority over the main character of Julian in the second act of Coleman’s shuffled narrative is reminiscent of the “mystery man” in Lynch’s Lost Highway. We gradually learn that Coleman’s ‘mystery man’ gains his authority from the fact that he was the previous lover of the female character. Julian is desperate. He has only known the female character for twenty-four hours while the mystery man seems to share a history with her, or a different relationship that does not equate with love, but maybe lust – the moral turpitude of the Greek god or hero.

In the RHA catalogue Coleman’s work is loosely described as “an interpretation of a classical drama, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.” The story goes that Eurydice and Orpheus were inseparable; an almost unhealthy love for one another, the latter sang : “Love was too strong a god.” When Eurydice was sent to the underworld after being bitten by a viper, Orpheus entered Hades to get her back and, after charming Hell’s cohort with his lyre, a deal was made. The conditions were that if Orpheus could walk out of the underworld with Eurydice in tow – without looking back once – then she would be free. Alas, when Orpheus exited Hades he looked back too soon – Eurydice was still in the underworld – so she was lost forever. This reference to Greek tragedy corrupts ‘our’ reading of each section of Coleman’s work, which is in essence a five-act play.

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice offers many tempting parallels: when Coleman’s Eurydice leaves is she gone to the underworld where she is confronted by a young couple who insist on her joining them in such exciting ventures such as swimming with dolphins or a hot-air balloon trip? Maybe something along the lines of Sartre’s idea “l’enfer, c’est les autres”? And do the dead speak French? Do we read the performance of the character of Julian, crawling and searching through what looks like a derelict industrial site, as Orpheus’ descent into Hades – surely not? Depending on what section you enter the video work at, the main character of Julian comes across as being mentally unstable, or just tormented by some previous undisclosed episode. Torment in a Greek tragedy is always initiated by a taunt by the protagonist of the drama. The taunt sets the stage for revenge and inevitable tragedy.

Maybe the most striking motif from the myth is the look: the fatal look that sent Eurydice back to the underworld. It is a recurring element in Coleman’s work, as in Charon – another myth of the underworld – when the viewer is to seek the truth of the murder in the eyes of the witness. Here to look, to see, to seek is repetitively invoked:

Her: “Look at me!”

Him: “I am looking at you.”

Her: “But you do not see me … do not look at me like that … not like that … you’re taking me apart … analyzing."

Him: “Look at me and tell me, why did you leave?”

Her: “Why? Is it written in my eyes, the truth?” 

From Greek tragedy there is more than the Orpheus and Eurydice myth: the structure in five ‘acts’, the unity of place, the continuous take on the actors – even though the bodies are fragmented and multiplied, the camera never leaves them – all point towards theatre rather than film. But what characterized classical Greek tragedy was the tension between the singular destinies of the suffering heroes in the dialogues and the expression of the community in the verses of the chorus – before, according to Nietzsche, Aristophanes degenerated the genre into psychologizing. In turn, Nancy places the lovers at the heart of the community rather than in opposition to it:

Thus lovers are neither a society, nor the community effected through fusional communion. If lovers harbor a truth of the social relation, it is neither at a distance from nor above society, but rather in that, as lovers, they are exposed in the community. They are not the communion that is refused to or purloined from society; on the contrary, they expose the fact that communication is not communion. [4]

The lovers of Coleman’s 2004 – 2011 are struggling between communion and ‘compearance’: their exclusive desire for each other is doomed to fail: her young friend, her ex-lover pull them apart; they in turn make them confront their selfishness and the illusion that they know each other: “when you’re in love you just want to stay with your lover … but where is she now?” Thus she leaves. There are also silent people, who may be looking on. Or not. Whose presence is not acknowledged by those that speak, but who are always there. A form of ever-present unarticulated shared humanity? The encounter with the young people may be then seen as a coming to terms with the community: a sort of exposure to the necessary others – their invitation to swim with dolphins could then be an opening toward a community of creature beyond the human realm. We do not know the nature of her relationship with the young people, but as she partakes of their life we may suppose her a teacher: another form of sharing. When she returns we are told things are different. She concludes: “This is it." But it does not feel like the end, rather like another beginning which is to be invented: one “in reality," not “in illusion," she says. Following the presumption that the female protagonist is a teacher, we can almost pluck Coleman’s interpretations of loss, love and learning from the pages of Rancière’s Short Voyages to the Land of the People; he writes:

The project of the teacher in love, of the historian of the people, is very precisely dismissed by two tercets in the nineteenth sonnet of the first part of Sonnets to Orpheus:

Never has grief been possessed,

never has love been learned,

and what removes us in death

is not revealed.

Only the song through the land

hallows and heals.

Rancière continues “that Eros is neither rich nor beautiful, and that he bears within himself no promise of reconciliation.” [5] From any other artist the subheading  of ‘a work in progress’ could be viewed as a cop-out, giving the author space to improve or rectify the errors of their unsure creation. Although it produces doubt, from an artist like Coleman any conclusive outcome or remastered aesthetic would defeat the ongoing premise of a work that tests the gaps that remain in love and understanding.

Written by James Merrigan and Michaele Cutaya

[1] Jacques Rancière, ‘From the Poetics of the Image to the Tragedy of Justice’, in Jacques Rancière et al, James Coleman, Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art,  pp. 11 – 32

[2] Ibid

[3] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p 36

[4] Ibid, p. 37

[5] Jacques Rancière, Short Voyages to the Land of the People, James B. Swenson (trans.), Stanford University Press,  2003, pp. 95 – 96