James Ormond Wallace
SoFA Gallery 19 Oct – 28 Nov 2004
Australian broadcaster and writer Robert Dessaix advises potential inhibitors of the radio waves that the ideal would-be voice used when broadcasting is slightly fragile, appearing as if addressed to an audience of one, an imagined person who is ‘known, trusted but not uncritical’.
The space which opens for inhabitation by your listener(s) is then a personal one, in which, however anonymously, you are ‘known’, and they ‘know themselves’. Radio’s intimate space reminds me of the similarly mediated performative spaces suggested by James Ormond Wallace in his series of videos, which are points charged with communicative potential. Here, the camera becomes ‘imagined other’ in Wallace’s videoed performances, which in turn become the portals through which we are invited into a relation, focused at a variety of points variously identified with the subject. The camera is repository for improvised musings, and with it we are led through the mythic/familiar spaces of Hagley Park, like Gerard de Nerval’s lobster on a blue ribbon. It gives us images of the artist as sensitive, imaginative outsider, which Wallace climbs into like a series of second-hand suits and proceeds to take for a latter-day flaneur’s stroll through the familiar, punctuated by endearingly purple prose, a series of half-improvised, half over-determined visual and linguistic images of his city, where he grasps at beautiful and banal straws, finds pearl necklaces in the gutter, and pathos in the decaying Dickensian facades and grungy inner spaces of the labyrinthine High Para building. It suggests an eternal loop in which the Hammer Horror humour of the theatricality of death remains forever unresolved, in the ragged and stuttered lo-fi of broken media, of pixelated rewind and retake. It is benevolent, non-voyeuristic watcher over two sleeping human animals in bed with identical heart-marked white t-shirts on, in a work which sets up a relationship with the sculptural candy hearts trailing red cotton thread on the adjoining wall, originally shot, like Jarman-esque Sebastian/Cupid offerings, over the inner city spaces of High Stret. It is an outpost of the body, sharing its visceral fragility, as in a sequence pitting the camera, without a shred of photo-journalistic neutrality, but with something approaching the rush of desire, backing around a room against the thrusts of manic kitchen knife play. Then, abruptly, the worm turns, the camera is tossed between subjects, and the hand with the knife is also holding the camera, in a quick reversal of the eye as opening, site of puncture, to the eye as phallic and threatening. It moves forward to carve space sculpturally, becoming bull-like to the opposing identity’s proffered red rag. The camera attacks, the camera is attacked, it is like a boundary-testing dialogue. We are investigated for our loyalties and our imaginative expansiveness, and not once allowed to rest on our laurels, to be the invisible observer(s). Throughout all the incarnations wielded by Wallace, his camera, and by extension his viewers, can fall into dreams and wanderings, but it/we is/are never allowed to be ‘uncritical’.
The potential of the hand-held camera to delimit spaces of intimacy, that reference the intimacies of other eras and forms, of the Wordsworthian monologue, the painterly eye, the contested, collegial oppositional space of friendship, is elevated into another space via the video Wallace made in other spaces. Not obviously a New Zealander in another place, this is a filmmaker using the techniques of the outsider to feel at home in dis-placement. The amateur theatrics are less joyously fresh, less obviously personalised, less ‘art school’, perhaps, and embedded in a more complex schema, a wrestling with the iconic power of recorded images and the flows and undercurrents which undercut them. At the rim of a recurring image of stagnant ponds, the camera is there, wanting to plunge in like a butterfly net, to dredge the depths beyond the visual rim of crusty green sludge. It is there to collect personalised, non-touristic footage from Europe’s public spaces which intercut and intertwine through an imagistic stockpile – teeming invertebrate life, sad humanoids in museological cabinetry – like fever-dream poetic flipcards, their simplicity often breathtaking, their juxtapositions irreducible, interspersed with the mute narrative theatricality of the sequences with a statuesque, wig-swapping, part-Asian beauty, gripping a kitchen knife, staring out a castle window, and picking pastoral apples in a gothic horror imbued with the medieval drama of a postcolonial Lord of the Rings. Partly edited in-camera, a whole gamut of techniques sees time played with, pixels breaking up the screen, horses’ tails flipping backwards, to a soundtrack of guitar loops and ambient noise that preserves the half-improvised tone of the vocal musings in Wallace’s earlier works and introduces a less obviously personalised thematic which makes it strikingly evident that my being held in thrall by this work for its entire duration – and it is long – is transcendent of the respect-paying sadness of being here, at a retrospective exhibition for an artist born the same year as myself, in a gallery which, itself imperilled with threats of closure by University funding cuts, is invaluable in terms of providing room and time to re-pose the work of local graduates like Wallace, becoming in itself a space of relation and intimacy which does not lack bite, ‘known, trusted but not uncritical’, in the best sense.
Sally Ann McIntyre