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Anthology of American Folk Song by Artfag

Showing at Robert Birch Gallery (September 2-October 2, 2004)

We are all too aware, ladies and gentlemen, of the potential unpopularity of the following statement, but we are going to make it nevertheless (we are nothing if not controversial): When it comes to the more accessible modes of art-making, we propose the following maxim: just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The nigh-overwhelming accessibility of, oh say for instance, video cameras (and therefore video art) has produced a seemingly endless river of terrible art: if it isn’t glib, it’s attended by miles of theoretical footnotes; if it isn’t bland and nose-picking, it’s possessed of the kind of earnestness that induces nausea. We find video art, despite the relative ease involved in picking up a camera, to be entirely inaccessible. It is exacting, its limitations are harsh and severe, and demands a balancing act of Sheherazadean proportions.

When we first encountered the work of Steve Reinke, during a video program of recent work organized by the Pleasure Dome, we were not impressed. We were assured by those familiar with his oeuvre to withhold judgment; this was not Reinke at his finest. We obliged, albeit grudgingly. And so, it was not without some small measure of apprehension that we entered the doors of the Robert Birch gallery during Mr. Reinke’s show there. For if there was ever a time to judge, this was it.

We are delighted to say that Mr. Reinke did not disappoint, this time around. Materially speaking, it was a show of, one might say, pure accessibility: two videos, some naughty polaroids, and a few drawings on standard sized paper, some business cards. And Mr. Reinke dons full Sheherazade drag to produce a work of subtle, probing intelligence and moving sparseness.

The main thrust of the installation consists of Mr. Reinke’s 30-odd minute video projection, “Anthology of American Folk Song,” which is the first installment of his “Final Thoughts” series, although ‘series’ doesn’t quite capture the nature of the project. Mr. Reinke will collect bits and pieces of found footage as an archive, to be combined with original footage old and new, for future video works. It can only be seen as a complete series posthumously, as the one to decide the end of it will be Death, rather than Mr. Reinke.

Even without foreknowledge of the morbid raison-d’être, “Anthology of American Folk Song” comes off as elegiac and eulogistic. This is a video with a clear beginning and end, however, so one has to sit with it to unravel its nature. At first, the video seems to meander, taking the scenic route through sundry bits of seemingly unrelated visual material: a baby gorging on chocolate cake (which takes on the unnerving visual quality of shit) being cooed and gawked at by surrounding adults, scientific footage of underdeveloped pubescent boys in various states of undress, a pornographic gay sex scene, someone rifling through naughty polaroids while manically singing “Jenny From the Block,” some pretty flowers serving as the backdrop for a musing on mortality and the desire for transcendence. What emerges from this collection of detritus is something with a clear trajectory, and a lofty purpose; Mr. Reinke has constructed a eulogy to a life’s worth of desire. He moves smoothly and elegantly through its various stages: the animalistic, immediate urges of infancy; the private shameful desires of adolescence, the full-bodied lust of adulthood, the fearful nostalgia of old-age. Mr. Reinke’s image-history is viscerally felt, and married with a tone of sorrowful poetry made all the more poignant by the brief stabs of humour.

To produce something of such grand scope is a difficult thing to do with video. It is, after all, a medium, like snapshot photography, known primarily for its domestic uses. To marry the elegiac and the mundane without pretension is no mean feat, and Mr. Reinke does it with deft legerdemain; by constructing a life out of its documentary detritus, “Anthology...” captures its subjects when they aren’t looking, in their few moments of naked truthfulness. This is the work of someone operating at their pinnacle; as such, we are gratified indeed that we have chosen this instance to make our judgment.