Exhibition Essays

The Screen

August 2014

Other people’s problems

Emma Ng

Our day-to-day lives are awash with the ambient light of many screens; a constant stream (both garish and banal) of pixel-photon-pixels that pass before glazed eyes and flow over numb bodies. We have learned that these images are too complex, too distant to grab hold of—we have tried before to plunge our hands into the stream only to pull them out holding nothing, wet only with the anxieties of a world too vast and too slippery.

‘The Screen' brings together Cream (2014) by Angela Tiatia and Shahriar Asdollah-Zadeh’s Michael Jackson Motorcade (2012), two artworks that resist the relentless tides of easy information and news media. Each work pivots around two simultaneous events, with their juxtaposition drawing attention to naturalised hierarchies and magnifying the misalignments of a world that has somehow been made both bigger and smaller by network technology.

YouTube footage of two 2012 events collide in Tiatia’s Cream: rioting that occurred across Europe in response to proposed austerity measures, and the sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which broke records as the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. Shahriar Asdollah-Zadeh’s Michael Jackson Motorcade also combines news footage and citizen-filmed video to form a silent compilation of Michael Jackson’s funeral motorcade, as observed from helicopters, windows, and other tentative vantage points. Absent from the video, but discussed in Asdollah-Zadeh’s exegesis, are the protests and social unrest that was juddering through Iran in June 2009, simultaneous to the death of the King of Pop. 

Cream and Michael Jackson Motorcade are artworks steeped in a sense of overwhelm—the sheer gross numbers of The Scream’s sale at action, of people gathering in Iran’s Azadi Square, of people watching a silent trail of black cars move through Los Angeles, and of people desperate in a climate of economic crisis. Ever present is the sense of news stories being overwhelmed by other news stories and squeezed out of hourly news bulletins by other things happening in other places.

It is with a certain self-consciousness about their geographic distance that Tiatia and Asdollah-Zadeh address these events taking place in Europe, the United States, and Iran. Tiatia currently lives in Australia, Asdollah-Zadeh in Auckland. Here in New Zealand it is through screens (YouTube, the TV news, a cellphone’s Twitter feed…) that newsworthy events become known to us. In the face of such keenly felt distance, Tiatia and Asdollah-Zadeh trace the paths of least resistance to easy focal points, presenting performers that vie for our attention: Michael Jackson, and an art auctioneer driving home a record-breaking sale. 

Through Tiatia’s work, the smooth charm of the bow-tied Sotheby’s auctioneer becomes uncomfortable. We watch as the auction climbs into hundreds of millions, observing a career-best performance from this man who has honed his craft. Like a conductor before an orchestra he shapes the auction’s dynamics, ending in crescendo. 

The notion of the performer implies the separation of one from many, the extraordinary from the masses. As in life, Michael Jackson’s last journey is watched and recorded from all possible vantage points. Writing in 2009 for e-flux, Lebanese writer and journalist Bilal Khbeiz described Michael Jackson at the end of his life:

The consumate performer, a firecracker on stage, spent his last days in a pile of shaved skin and bone and the muscular remains of memories. Michael Jackson died with half a body, half a gender, and half a colour.1 

Khbeiz’s description of Michael Jackson, “this painted, surrogate self”, echoes  the hollowed out figure in The Scream—a lone, pale-faced figure, subjected to a swirling, overwhelming world. As a painting, The Scream itself performs, both inside and outside of Tiatia’s work. Describing the work, Tiatia cites the way The Scream has overflowed the canon of Western painting since the expiration of its copyright, beaming into homes around the world via reproduction and parody in popular culture. Making appearances on television shows such as The Simpsons and The Nanny, and printed on umbrellas and coasters, the painting (as an object) climbs in value. As a performing investment, The Scream’s ascendance drives it further from the reach of the same masses who clamour for its image. 

Pixellated and shaky, Cream and Michael Jackson Motorcade have none of network television’s slick production values. With edges left ragged, the works have a directness that perhaps speaks to the artists’ desire to position themselves as the antithesis to the performer—not spinning the audience, nor pulling some clever trick (as if saying, “trust us, no distancing affectations to be seen here”). These same ragged edges remind us of the anonymised individuals who have filmed these events; from their windows, on the street, or from their seat at Sotheby’s. Cream’s opening shows us the auction room: full of people with cellphones raised, filming the proceedings. 

The use of Twitter and other social media as a means of assembling, as well as cultivating international attention, was foregrounded by the civil unrest in Iran surrounding disputed elections in mid 2009 (as discussed by Zara Sigglekow in previous essays on Asdollah-Zadeh’s practice).2 In what has been dubbed the ‘Twitter Revolution’, heavy censorship of conventional news sources within Iran led international news agencies to rely on social media for live updates and real-time accounts from Iranian civilians. Once international coverage was interrupted with news of Michael Jackson’s death, this Twitter activity became an increasingly important link to events inside the country for Iranians living around the world. 

As twenty-first century cellphones enable the acts of participating, observing, and reporting to overlap in unprecedented ways (and among unprecedented numbers of people), are we more akin to the performer or the masses? Viewing these works in the comfort of an Antipodean gallery, our geographic distance from the subjects may be great, but we each hold unique emotional and ethical positions in relation to these same subjects. In the context of this globally-networked terrain, the identity of the foreign correspondant and the ‘situation’ they report on fold into one another, and the clarity between us/not us collapses. Who is the citizen reporter? Are they us, and are we them?