richard grayson: a diary, a history, a walk up the hill

Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide
12 September - I 2 October 2002

A multiplicity of narrative structures and devices is utilised in Richard Grayson's collection of video works 'A Diary', 'A History' and 'A Walk Up The Hill'. Using a medium traditionally associated with narrative and including literal narratives in the form of descriptive voiceovers, Grayson has explored the potential of the genre in the creation of suggestion, alternatives, and possibility. His interest in such potential is not only explicitly stated in his catalogue essay, but is evident also in his theme of the recent Sydney Biennale of which he was Director. Interestingly, despite such provision for the subjective, the exhibition remains curiously unpoetic, its complexity provided by the concepts it eo-opts rather than their (in parts) malnourished manifestation.

Each video work is the result of separate projects, though their concerns are interrelated. The motion-sick-making 'A Walk Up The Hill' was filmed on a hand-held camera during a trek through the bush, while an increasingly puffed Grayson read descriptions of fantastic places such as Utopia, Shangri-La and Narnia. The relationship between visual and verbal here is not one of illustration: what we see is obviously not what we hear described. Rather, the literal overlaying of these made-up topologies, voiced over the sunny Australian bush, is an attempt to demonstrate how experience is always attained through a filter of some kind; how throughout history certain narratives, or ways of knowing and understanding the world, have replaced those previously in existence. Though not explicit, Grayson presumably refers to how colonial ways of understanding the world and seeing the landscape influenced the conception of the newly discovered Australia and led to the erasure of indigenous understandings- narratives- already in existence. The juxtaposition of the two landscapes - the two worlds - is a gentle reminder of the concept, if not the existence, of multiple realities, something that has remained a post-modern, intellectual possibility rather than an actuality. We are reminded that the world is complex and mutable not so much by the co-existence of the landscapes but by the suggestion that there may be as many realities as there are representations of it. The artist's shadow, glimpsed occasionally, also gives a rather Brechtian reminder of the structures at work in presenting this particular reality.

If 'A Walk Up The Hill' examines the omnipotent narratives of history and geography and the literature that sustains them, 'A Diary' is situated firmly in the realm of the personal. While Grayson recounts a trip to New York, a television screen shows a sequence of various objects, the lengthy narrative being divided into segments demarcated by the individual objects: a set of keys accompanying a discussion of New York security, a cigarette packet with the tale of smoking prohibited. Obscured by the overriding audio of other works, the verbal description is less immediately accessible than the visual component, yet these objects, Grayson tells us, are 'without resonance' until given meaning by the narrative. But surely one automatically (and perhaps over-generously) ascribes to the banal and uncommunicative collection some meaning or purpose, yet their history is, he states, irretrievable, forcing them to rely on the accompanying narrative for meaning. Indeed, it is commented that they rely on it for their very deliverance to us: it is not the objects that conjure up the stories but the other way around -less the missing person's possession in the hands of the psychic than the flotsam washed into being by history. Such an approach is odd given Grayson's stated aim of alternative histories and subjective hypotheses: the allocation of specific stories prohibits the multiple possibilities inherent in a complex history, and it is this very capacity that is both the function and value of narrative.

Grayson cites the word 'literary' as once being a derogatory description. 'A History' is literally literary, using all the books left in a studio by visiting artists. Standing in a line on the studio's concrete floor, the books face the camera, which is used like a battering ram to knock down each volume one by one. One waits: to see the next title (and these artists exhibit an intriguing array of high and low-brow tastes), to see if it will stand or fall- and in fact the whole of the exhibition holds this kind of seduction. The disorienting bush-trek, the progression of titles and incessant thump of paperbacks hitting the floor, the lazy voice recounting lengthy anecdotes, all create a lulling ambience that encourages protracted viewing. One waits: for the last story, the last book, for Grayson to reach the end or the top. But of course the videos, once ended, always begin again and Grayson keeps climbing, talking and knocking things down, the continuous narratives neatly delaying 'The End'.