Gallery at Sketch (The)

In addition to his work as artistic director of performance company Forced Entertainment, now in its twenty-third year, Tim Etchells has begun to exhibit visual and gallery-based work over the past few years and will have a novel (The Broken World) published next year. His recent exhibition at the Gallery at Sketch, consisting of four video pieces projected in series, explores ‘the relationship between language and image’ – but also, unsurprisingly, the performative quality of video and the theatrical encounter it conjures.

Three of the works consist of monologues to the camera in which the speaker describes an imagined future for him or herself. In Kent Beeson is a Classic and an Absolutely New Thing (2001, 12 min), the title character describes for himself a celebrity lifestyle in which he is fantastically rich and powerful. In So Small (2003, 10 min), Katie Ewald describes her own funeral and the wide range of significance her death will have. And in Erasure (2003, 12 min), Nicholas Cooke imagines himself moving though the world with complete anonymity, leaving no trace or memory of his passage.

The length of these monologues means that each video is able to explore the interior richness and contradictions of each fantasy. Beeson’s is torn between an ambition toward a common idea of the ‘good’ person – one who is polite, chivalrous, and generous – and that of a powerful person – one who can change people’s hair colour, who can buy a hotel whose service he doesn’t like and fire everyone, who can have people killed. In Ewald’s monologue, the indulgencies of her imagined death fantasy get carried away into indulgencies of thought and language itself, becoming more and more grand in the conceptual and figurative range they encompass: she predicts, ‘”How could this girl be missed?” will be one of the great unanswered questions, like “Where is the North Pole?” and “Did Shakespeare write all of his plays?”’ And in Erasure, Cooke’s dream of invisibility draws on both the appealing fantasies of being unseen (leaving no footprints, going unnoticed by CCTV cameras) and the banal realities of insignificance (wearing clothes from the same department store as everyone else, having a face that people instantly forget).

Though they borrow the form of the confessional video, these three monologues vary in their delivery in ways which expose their performed nature. Ewald’s is the most naturalistic, and, watching it, it’s possible to believe that these words and thoughts are her own – that she is in fact imagining this funeral in the moment of being videoed. Like Ewald’s, Cooke’s performance is a single take and has a naturalistic quality; but in comparison with Ewald’s his delivery is noticeably regular, proceeding with the measured cadence of written text. Beeson’s performance is comically botched, as from the get-go he misspeaks his text, goes back and repeats himself, and berates himself every time he gets it wrong. As Beeson grows increasingly frustrated, there’s an implied connection between his inability to get his lines right and whatever forces are keeping that fantasy out of his reach.

In this way, what’s going on in all three pieces is less a revelation than an aspiration, less a stripping away to get at the core of these characters and more a layering of textuality and language. That which had appeared to be an invitation to an intimate disclosure turns out to be a process of accumulation and assumption, and the more is revealed, the more is assumed. A kind of theatricality is in operation, in which the harder these performances work to get to the truth of their characters, the more theatrical they become.

By contrast, 100 People (2007, 20 min) has no actors in it, only a series of short textual descriptions of individuals and groups of people. Many of the descriptions focus on minute details, as if these tell you everything you need to know about this person: ‘The fifth person is out of breath and wearing a big brown jumper and blue tracksuit trousers that evidently weren’t really purchased for jogging’; or, later, simply ‘Big nose.’ These funny, pathetic, and cruel synopses invite the viewer to sit back and imagine this parade of characters, conjured here for the viewer’s benefit.

But something else is going on. It seems as if the subject of 100 People isn’t actually this series of imaginary people, but the viewer him or herself. The texts increasingly refer to the moment of encounter, with some of the imagined persons arriving late or resenting their place in the order. This moment of encounter might at first be taken to be a past event, something which the author experienced or imagined. But increasingly it seems as if this encounter is the one happening here and now, in the darkened cinema. And so, finally, the 100th person is ‘you’, sitting in the dark, watching words on a screen.

With its written printed text on a black screen, 100 People seems similar to the printed page, but the way in which the viewer is folded into the work is enabled by the particularities of video in a darkened room. Printed text has a permanence – it sits out there, waiting, untroubled by the passage of time. It also has a multiplicity – there might be many simultaneous readers in different locations. But 100 People does not have a reader but a performer, and it’s me – conjured out of thin air and placed here in a strange room for the benefit of the piece (and not the other way around). I played my part by showing up and sitting in the dark – otherwise the words would have played to an empty room. What makes this a performance is that it needs me, not just to complete it, but for it actually to exist.