Time Out’s art critic Gabriel Coxhead strikes back with another non-sensical review. This time he discusses Jaki Irvine’s This Thing Echoes Sadness (currently at Frith Street Gallery in London) which, he thinks, ‘truly’ conveys sadness which, according to him ‘is an overlooked emotion in contemporary art’.
Coxhead gets melancholic after seeing Jaki Irvine’s latest film ‘Se compra: Sin é’. In Coxhead’s own words, this is ‘partly, because of the powerfully lugubrious music… the gradual building of which is what the Irish artist’s video is all about. Filmed in Mexico City, it begins with lone street traders crying out in plaintive, sing-song voices, announcing their wares for sale. Next, an Irish folk singer and stringed instruments – filmed in the more salubrious environment of a professional recording studio – start up, while subsequent street scenes bring in more sounds. You’ll hear garbage collectors, itinerant knife whetters, steam hissing from mobile plantain ovens, accompanied by a haunting Irish folk ballad. Everything coalesces into a wonderfully immersive, deeply melancholy medley’. So? Isn’t this the definition of kitsch? I mean, to transform the representational message into an homage to those same emotions that it is supposed to create?
To be perfectly honest, I had no clue what he was talking about until I read the following paragraph which says more about the Time Out art critic than about the film he is reviewing, when saying: ‘But beyond the music itself, there’s also a more profound sadness at work. The street sellers are, after all, hopelessly poor. And while the transformation of their daily routines into a musical score seems to ennoble them in some sense, at the same time it also indicates their lack of agency’. Lack of agency? Hopelessly poor? What does he consider ‘hopeless’? These people are working and there is nothing hopeless about them. Quite the contrary. Having said this, it is very interesting to see how this avant la letter elitism actually works.
The truth is that I did not like the video, the music or the plastic stools on which the spectator has to sit. I was in physical pain two minutes after sitting here because they are too low and one must look upwards which does not help one’s back. Apart from the physical pain, what Coxhead considers melancholy is, in fact, artificial sentimentalism. The position of the camera monumentalises the seller while turning the viewer into a Dickensian rodent whose body seems to move in half circles as if praying in front of the ‘poor’. The effect of the folk song that gradually takes over the rhythmic chaos of Mexico City’s daily life creates a sense of defamiliarisation that comes across as rhetorical and kitsch. There is no poetry here but the representation of poetry. This whole exercise sounds like one of those ‘Sponsor an African Child’ TV Ads where the face of a starving child in close up is accompanied by a Cello soloist playing Bach. It is effective, for sure, but far too sentimental and easy. It is in this conflation of music and moving image that the comparison with the talented Anri Sala emerges. While Sala raises all sorts of questions about inter-mediality, installationism and the place of the viewer, Irvine only tries to musicalise a preconceived idea. Just a thought.