[Originally published on Exhibit-V, February 2011.]
Referring to Debora Alana’s recent piece for Exhibit-V on Rebekah Johnson’s The Hamlet Panels, Christine Clark has commented, “Poor Hamlet.” That seems to be a good place to start. Why? Hamlet is one of those roles that consumes the actor’s personality, or insinuates itself in. Thinking of Daniel Day Lewis on stage frothing & neurotic, or Mel Gibson’s jocular striving to show himself to be both robustly and pragmatically insane, or my old favourite Lawrence Olivier, absorbed, withdrawn, narcissistic but tender (in response to what? To whom? To the form of the play, to the script. His tenderness is almost John Cage-ian in its withdrawn, abstracted amorousness for passage.)
Why this aside? The role is famous for connecting player to part to play to form. It is acting about acting in a play about plays (literally the theatre Hamlet creates within the play but also his own “antic disposition”.) That is important to notice here because the piece that RJ has made references Minimalism, specifically (in the statement) Donald Judd’s ‘specific objects’, for instance. Now the old debate about Minimalism (esp applicable – or at least the fight worth fighting- in the case of Judd), is Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” in which Fried argues that Minimalism engenders a theatre for itself…a theatre of viewer response, self-consciousness and action. This is a problem for Fried, who argues that ‘absorption’(a kind of self-forgetting) is a key experience in western art. Minimalism, with its call to action, its theatre of the literal, disrupts this contemplation, spectacularizing itself in a way that becomes a didactic object lesson. OK.
Now, the problem (meaning the knotty problem, the interest, the tension) in The Hamlet Panels is that it is a theatre itself. A theater about Minimal form and its concomitant action…the surveillance cameras record your responses. A second clue is the floating ‘X’, like a patch of gaffer’s tape marking a spot for an actor in rehearsal, insinuated into the glass sandwich which is the the small zone, the puppet theatre if you like, for real viewer interaction in the piece. Caught between absence-presence-x-marks-the-spot and the cameras trolling, self-consciousness becomes self-surveillance. Obvious enough but keep it in mind.
Now we are quite acclimated to self-surveillance, as it has become pretty much a social form online in ways that pursue the courtly mirror-world of Hamlet. It is an adolescent environment, and Hamlet, though thirty, is an adolescent character, which explains why some playwrights despise him and modernists adore him. Moderns also love him because as a neurotic non-decider, Hamlet’s diffidence between problem and action becomes action itself, an interstitial zone that is rhetorically dynamic but practically static, indicating the importance of the courtly mechanism, the mechanism of the play and Hamlet’s playing as pivotal within it.
I want to argue that self-surveillance inherits this trope, that social networking for instance with its passion for text and mechanism and prurient curiosity for exposure and echo is very much the fit to this glove. It is important that Johnson’s not-quite-Minimalism-as-theatre-of-Minimalism has plenty of open ends when thought of this way…the absolutist qualities of many minimal forms as something we now accept as part of designed environments, both real and virtual for instance, reminding us that the big Hamlet-gambit of ‘specific objects’ (that the Minimal object is non-relational, anti-Cartesian, irrational in its insistence on unity rather than a compromising interplay of parts) has long since been absorbed into the current state of virtual environments as theory, but that as practice, having space ‘to stretch one’s arms again’ (as Rothko, pre-minimalist and dramaturge once said) is very important.
Thus the Fifty-Fifty for this show, thus (though I think it’s a weak point) so much loose swagging of cable around the site. Outside of the institutional habitat of the UVic Visual Arts department where this work was made (itself a nod to Judd, clarified) Johnson has shifted ground to surround her work with cameras and their cordage and the close walls of an artist run centre that has long made a name for itself as an ad-hoc venue. This is an authentic strength of the Fifty-Fifty at times, and a ranklesome irritant at others. Here it works, mostly. Knowing what we know, it would be great to see Johnson work with cameras again, and aim them more directly at the problem of lighting (attention that grants what Fried called presentness, grace) vs. surveillance (attention that implicates and frames), and all this vis a vis the question (thinking of Viola’s Room for St. John of the Cross) of connecting or divorcing the space.