Category Archives: Ryan Trecartin

A Roof and Four Walls

By Guo Yixiu and Choo Jing Sarah


“When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story’s voice makes everything its own. “ John Berger

Because this morning, someone told me how “blasphemous” it was.

Inexplicably awesome is what it is.

I walked into a room filled with these videos projected on all sides. “Kitsch!” I thought; the graphics seemed awful at first. There were furniture laid around the room; each piece (a sofa, a dining area and a bed), facing a particular video.

I wanted to walk away. I was not ready to sit myself through what seemed like a disappointment. As I attempted to brisk walk across the room, I could not help but have my eyes fixed upon the fast moving images, and their frequent bursts of neon colors.

Eventually, I sat down, willing for a chance to be surprised. I skipped the bed, (it felt too personal), and sat on the sofa instead. I put on the headpiece and started listening. High pitched sounds flowed into my ears; reminding me of that horrible Akon song, “Lonely”.  The voices were half singing, half speaking. I realized that I was in some teenage girl’s room. ‘Yikes’. There was no central character. Just these girls in conversation (they were often scolding one another or were upset about something). It was like watching one of those Korean dramas mother watches, fused together with an ‘MTV’ video. Everyone within the video wore face paint or a costume of some kind. Graphics were often used to juxtapose to the videos. Basically, Trecartin used almost all and any kinds of graphics possible to obtain. They come in an array of shapes and sizes. They overlay, move and often included texts; sometimes internet lingos if necessary. Metaphors were aplenty! The act of smashing glasses, mirrors, and expelling their anger, wearing wigs, painting their faces, swearing, dancing and pretending.

Basically, all I am attempting to show here is that it is not at all easy to know what he is talking about. And like me, you would probably have forgotten (given a week or two) what the video was about in the first place. However, apart from most of the works in the Biennale, you’ll find yourself reminded of this, frequently.

The truth is, Trecartin is one of the few artists who understands and utilizes the media language amazingly. (Forget Pop Art and Andy Warhol; those are now high art). He is able to create a language that is current and relatable to our current day.  His video utilizes the strength of current music, and are highly kinetic; bombarding the viewers with a frenzy of images in a rhythmic fashion. What is so significant is that the visuals work so well with the sounds. It works! It works because this is exactly the kind of environment which people relate to today, as we all lead our fast paced lifes. Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times once wrote an article entitled “At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus” . As the title suggests, Kimmelman noticed the trend where the experience of going to a museum, has been transformed into a quick, snap and go. Whether this is good or bad is not important to our discussion of the artwork here. But in relevance to Trecartin’s work, it definitely supports his work with the demand of a new language that speaks to the people.

In being able to connect to a viewer through the language of the medium (see how I sat down, though I had intended to move on). The viewer then begins to absorb certain parts of the work. Trecartin again, succeeds here by ensuring that metaphors stand out more than the storyline itself, so the first and most important thing you’ll leave with are those metaphors. In doing so, one does not simply absorb the visuals, but rather, easily retains them as well.

I could be discussing Trecartin’s work in greater depth here. But I do not think it is important to refer to those ideas here (family, society, individualism mass media etc.) After all, how much can anyone ever know about a work? How much time would an average person, holding a full time job etc., be able to look into it? Has the Biennale not always been about “impressions”? If the artist were to be able to implant strong impressions, would it not thus be more effective? Trecartin had said himself “time is altered to enhance and encourage felt experience”. People need not get his work. Perhaps he could be the only person in this “Whole Wide World” to really understand it. There’s nothing wrong with that. Works can and should be personal. Yet to be able to leave a room, feeling as though you had an immensely tense, but queer experience that leaves you lingering thinking about it for days; now that’s something.

On top of that, like many other great works out there, it utilizes the strategy of subjectivity. You cannot be objective with his work. It is so personal to an extent that you would either love or hate his work. Either way, you leave with a thought and a feeling.


Because this morning, someone told me it was ‘inexplicably awesome’.


I was jolted awake by rapidly moving images and bizarre characters attacking from all four corners of the room. Watching from the doorway, reflections from several pairs of glazed eyes exposed Ghoulish characters trapped within a mass of static and blurs. Their faces stained; their bodies distorted. The thick application of dirty white and gawdy pink paints was smeared on their faces; like that of Picasso’s unwashed palette. Like ‘oh-my-god-save-me-now’. I was trying hard not to look at the screen.  Strained and exhausted, I focused on getting past this room filled with flashes of neon pink and dirty yellow. The subtle yet lingering nag of the repetitive musical instrumental aggravated the intense throbbing in my head. Hysteria.

The only thing inviting amidst this disorientated cluster of moving images was represented in the form of furniture. Yes, couches, chairs and even a bed. Succumbing to the enticing and possible satisfaction which this couch could bring, I acceded to watch this visual mass in hope of finding some form of epiphany which might change my perception of what seemed to be a self indulgent film. And yet, the minute I put on my headphones and looked ahead, I was confronted with a sensory assault.

It is the theatre of the absurd and cruelty. Not my cup of tea.

By now, I had forced myself to watch the disturbing, and “visually narrative time sculptures”, at least three times. And whilst I felt as if I had been run over by about 40 trucks, hammered on the head 27 times and stabbed in the stomach 12 times; I am no where nearer to understanding the reason behind such a disconcerting production.

Gaudy pinks and greens were discomforting.  It was perhaps the combination of such De Kooning hued makeup on attention-demanding youths that leads one to relate his work to that of an amateur. The experimental nature of Trecartin’s works puts one’s opinions to the extreme. I cannot deny that there might have been moments of illusive proficiency; where the peculiarity of his cast and their improvisatory abilities made for utter brilliance. However, there were just as many, if not more moments that came off as mannered and exasperating; like the persistent and jarring antics of an overindulged and over stimulated child.

Throughout the repetitive videos, I saw the same motifs and style present in all of them. Perhaps this dread and revulsion one experiences is the desired effect; to exemplify contemporary culture’s ludicrous aspects through the combination, into one “loathsome beast”.  I’d rather, however, Trecartin tell me something which I don’t already know.

About a third into the second video, it finally dawned upon me that the type of seating complimented the length of his video works. Indeed, the furniture brings about different intensities of comfort according to the duration of suffering which one has to endure. From bleachers in front of the shortest film to a consoling Queen Sized bed in front of a 40 minute video.

Sprawled across the bed, I found this all too familiar. One’s begging mind and struggling limbs desperately trying to break free amidst this fully conscious experience. Like my first encounter with sleep paralysis.

Whilst I appreciate the subtle nuances in the layering of his videos, I was rather appalled by the display of Trecartin’s films in a museum. The overlaying tunes and distorted, fast paced voices speaking what might be interpreted as Gibberish, served to be entertaining on a certain level; like that of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” which proved to be a big hit.  Yet, I find myself questioning the value of art in his videos. Perhaps his works should remain on online spaces such as Youtube, instead of being brought to an exhibition space. In addition, one observes that a rather spacious area has been dedicated for these jittering moving images accompanied by shrill voices and high pitched laughter. This unique combination of Duchamp and Warhol taking up such a generous amount of space thus provokes much controversy.

Indeed Trecartin’s work tests the boundaries of creative practice. I am sure he applies a dense and precise focus on editing and the meaning generated by those edits. Hence, I shall not compare his work with fellow video artists Kalup Linzy  and Pipilotti Rist. Trecartin’s intent for his work to have a ‘lack of distinction in binary terms’ , certainly proved to be successful. The ‘ride-like digestion of the story’(according to Mr Trecartin himself) exemplifies his ability in achieving his intent. Yet in effectively conveying his message, I would say his language ‘so does not work for me’. It is really not all that fantastic and I am only relieved to not have to go through this experience all over again.


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Filed under Artists in the News, Open House Notebook, Ryan Trecartin, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore Biennale 2011

Re’Search Wait’S


A full-out embrace of the modern, technological world on hyper speed. That’s probably the best way to describe Ryan Trecartin’s Re’Search Wait’S. Others have described it as a sensory overload to the extreme of a visual assault. I like to think of it as a mass media horror movie. Trecartin’s videos, supposedly scripted, and bearing something of a plot, are pretty much non-linear. The greatest binding elements are the crazy colours of body paint and sets, the manipulated high pitched annoying chipmunk-sounding over emphasized American accent (and one pseudo British one!), and the ‘poor image’ created with over-done editing.

Re’Search Wait’S actually does bear some sort of a plot. In about the one and a half hours it takes to view all four videos, this plot must have missed me. UbuWeb fills us in: Able (played by Lizzie Fitch) searches for subjects to use as part of her (or his?) marketing research. The rest of the video is supposed to show these subjects trying to advance their careers, playing into the agenda of Able. One of these subjects is Wait, played by Trecartin himself, who eventually decides to quit his (or her?) career (I had no clue he/she was pursuing one), but at the end we see him/her in a degenerated state. Wait gives us a curator’s tour of the art pieces in his possession – boards with multiple copies of different constitutional acts, and also, a bucket of water with random bits floating about, attempting to justify them as artworks… not too different from the game played between artists and critics.

Various slower interludes punctuate the videos, perhaps as prevention against heart attacks. In one there is a dream sequence, in another the video tells you outright to stop and take a break, and in the last video, we get song and dance. Ariel the Little Mermaid makes a guest performance as well, singing about the world where we walk, talk and stay in the sun while she spins a globe, dressed in a long red wig, a dry-fit sports top and some shorts. Sorry, no mermaid tail here.

Jessica has an imaginary friend who is her muse, yet bears a sinister control over her, calling her his “Jessica project”. When she tells him to go away, we are treated to the sight of what must be G-cup breasts jiggling about as their carrier laughs and wriggles about on the floor, and also she uses threats, giving the appearance of a relationship similar to The Phantom of the Opera tension between muse and artist.

The room where we watch these videos is filled mostly with Ikea furniture, except for some bleachers at the first video. There is a desk with mismatched chairs, and then a bare bed, and finally some sofas. None of these are actually comfortable for the length of the videos. Perhaps it is meant to provide a fake comfort – in the same way that Trecartin’s videos provide entertainment in an assaultive manner. Trecartin has often mentioned that he uses IKEA furniture for most of his sets, citing their “their ubiquity and faux-designery corporate blandness”.

Trecartin has said that his works are mainly about language. In some ways, it is the creation of a new language in the visual and audio sense. Voices no longer have any gender or individual personalities. They are blended into sameness. The dialogue, while grammatically sound for the most part, is disjointed and at times extremely hateful.

Different actors play the same character at different points. At one point, there is a switch between a male actor and a female actor playing the same character, wearing the same clothes and bearing similarly coloured hair (this is where Little Mermaid makes an appearance). In the credits, there were three different actors for the character of Jimmy (not that I really noticed).

Yet the strongest experience you take away from Trecartin’s work is the visuals. It is one that a generation that has no memory of a world without the internet can identify with, the language with which they experience information. Non-linear, over-saturated, over-balanced, over-done. In Rosemary Heather’s writing on Trecartin, she identifies the web as the hub where cultural activity takes place. This energy, present in our homes in the form of our computers, was lacking in the galleries, that is, until Trecartin cross-bred these opposite spheres of existence into artwork. Irony and sincerity, high-low and in-out. Trecartin sees himself as a transitional figure, and aims for a world where “people start seeing technology as us, as humanity, [then] our whole idea of what existence is, is going to shift.” YouTube is in the ‘hood of the galleries, yo.

The exchange of energy seems to go only one way, however. For an artwork that is made as a commentary on home-made video aesthetics, it seems ironic that other than stills, Re’Search Wait’S cannot be found online in any form (although there are other Trecartin works online). Even Elizabeth Dee Gallery, which represents Trecartin, lacks a downloadable press release about the work. It continues to exist within the traditional institutional walls of the gallery, not the free-flowing accessibility and mobility of the internet. It seems like a convenient overlook.

For an artist mainly dealing with the aesthetics of our virtual reality, the lack of a strong online persona is surprising. Other than a semi-updated Vimeo page and a YouTube account, there isn’t much else. It does come off as a betrayal of his message. But what exactly is his message? He definitely jumps right into the visuals, barrages us with an information overload in the same way that the internet does. He takes us to the extremes, and the result is entertaining and memorable, but not a pretty one. Perhaps the lack of an online persona is the result of his decision to remain disconnected from the virtual world as a critical statement on the substitution of physical communication virtualisation has led to.

Walking away from the installation, I am unsure what to feel. Besides having to take some time to recover from the sensory assault, I wonder if the length of the videos was necessary. Knowing the attention-deficit impatience of the cyber-generation, evidenced by the fact that I was the only one who stayed to view all videos in their entirety that day, one would expect shorter videos. If this fear of the overload is what he wanted to trigger, perhaps a room with projections on all four walls would be more effective, creating a sense of claustrophobia. At the end of it, does this installation even matter? It is likely that one day we’ll just be watching it at home on our computers. That is, if he finally decides to expand its existence to the internet.

Trecartin’s work leaves an impression, but not a very lasting one. Looking at A Family Finds Entertainment (2004), the first piece that catapulted him into success, the aftertaste is not too different from a work made five years later. One could argue that he is maintaining consistency; yet, does he bring anything new to the table that he has not already brought? Like a one-hit wonder, he seems to reuse his characters, sets, aesthetics and editing style to the point of the dilution of his own work. Young, beautiful, creative and successful… I wonder, for how long.

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