Sally McKay, On-line review of Regarding the Pain of Susan Sontag at Gallery TPW, Toronto, 2005


Steve Reinke has coined a narrative tone. I can't find a word to describe it: "laconic" is too arch, "dead pan" is too comedic, "detached" and "sincere" are equally both right and wrong. The best I can come up with is "psychopathic", but that's too sensational. In the current show at TPW, Reinke's unique point of view folds in nicely with young collaborators Jean-Paul Kelly and Anne Walk. Touted in the invite as a rehabilitation of the "tired indexicality of photograph", Regarding the Pain of Susan Sontag (Notes on Camp), shows images that evoke a contemporary emotional ground zero.

Jean-Paul Kelly's Mom and Dad photos are fantastic. Two middle aged people in green hospital gowns adopt saucy poses; with small, secret smiles eachs shows a little leg, hands clasping ass-cheeks. They nod, coy, over the shoulder as their gowns reveal glimpses of pale flesh. Neither flamboyant nor exaggerated, these matching poses are quietly sexual. On the oppposite wall is a yellow photocopied hospital brochure, matted and framed, with pencil scrawlsindicating directions. A room number is written next to an arrow that points to a spot on the map, "Dad is here."

Plastered about the walls are pictures of Anne Walk's webcam persona, Miss Mew, leering and grabbing her titties. The images themselves look like commonplace amateur soft-core porn. The accompanying dialogue is chilling. Walk shares an online correspondence with one "Tony" who sent her donations via Paypal in exchange for photographs. The dialogue is predictable — "you are such an incredibly sexy-lady" — but interspersed with automated messages from Paypal: "This email confirms that you have received a Payment for $25.00 USD from Anthony P". The exchange is stark and raw, the fact of the transaction itself disturbingly arousing in its utter lack of either content or human contact.

I'm tempted to say that Steve Reinke's excellent video, "Ask the Insects" stole the show, but it's not true. Despite the fact that his work is more hone and mature, the group dynamic works very well, and Reinke's contributions are equals rather than anchors. Nonetheless, his oblique style cuts through hubris like a laser beam from another planet. The 8-minute video, refreshingly not projected, was displayed on a little personal dvd player with headphones. True to form, Reinke presented several short visually distinct episodes with pithy voice-over narration that borrows from science, philosophy, fiction, autobiography. A phallic, abstract shape throbs and shudders to the tones of Reinke's voice as he delineates the merits of book-burning. Small jewel-like globs jiggle like captivated life-forms. Reinke ponders the fact that while the basic functions required for life are limited, the array of forms that living creatures adopt is vast. "There are too many species. But that doesn't mean we can't learn something from their strange irrelevance."

Too many species? Who else would ever articulate such a barren concept? Reinke is shocking on some levels, yet he describes a state of mind that is utterly appropriate to contemporary world conditions. Like Walter Tevis' Man who Fell to Earth, this is a dehumanised worldview, but the stark clarity is at the same time full of feeling. Reinke begs the question: why do the rest of us persist in wallowing around in our gooey, sticky traditions and murky social tropes?

There are other notable works in the show, but in the interest of brevity I will skip to the theme: what of Susan Sontag? The title riffs on two of Sontag's writings, "Regarding the Pain of Others," and "Notes on Camp." In Jean-Paul Kelly's exhibition essay, he talks about Sontag in the context of Roland Barthes' "Camera Lucida". The big question, what is "photography's ability to elicit empathy within the viewer?" It may seem superfluous to tack art theory onto such a successfully expressive show. But the theory and the art are well-married. This exhibition expresses pain. Both Kelly's essay and Reinke's accompanying manifesto ask the viewer to acknowledge their empathy, while at the same time note with detachment that these images are not empty gestures nor self-reflexive art commodities, but are functioning signs of pain in the human condition.


- sally mckay 6-17-2005 11:18 am