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Piercing the subject
David Rosetzky creates photo-based, video and sculptural installations that deal with issues of identity and subjectivity in a global capitalist culture in which identity is commodified through media imagery, fashion and advertising. Rosetzky’s subjects often seem to be imprisoned by their own anxieties as they grapple with the futility of their own agency. As well as dealing with self-identity, the artist also focuses on interpersonal relationships and the problems that people have in accepting intimacy. His works probe the existential anxiety that haunts the postmodern subject in a world where globalisation promotes hegemony in a bid to erase difference.
Rosetzky looks closely at documentary, reality TV, fashion and advertising to analyse how these media construct images of self and other. The talking head of realist confessional TV recurs, as subjects face the viewer to tell intimate stories about their own lives and experiences. The viewer finds him or herself in the position of voyeur looking into the world of another’s anxiety. Rosetzky’s work acts as a kind of psychological probe that utilises the languages of popular and commercial culture. The aesthetic he favours is mostly flat but highly charged in terms of colour and there is often an ambient sound track that acts much like the white noise of advertising, prompting the viewer in unconscious ways.
Critics have often used the term existential as a way of describing some of these video portraits, however, the term is mostly used as an adjective. There is certainly a sense of existential anxiety as Rosetzky’s subjects meditate on their own failures to truly connect with others, but it is the ontology of existentialism that punctuates the work and makes it more complex and unsettling for the viewer. Jean Paul Sartre’s often quoted anecdote of a jealous lover spying through a keyhole trying to see a moment of infidelity on the other side, is a story about how the self only knows itself in the world by virtue of his or her relationship to the other. The person spying is consumed by his or her own sense of purpose, Sartre says it is a means to an end and that ‘the end justifies the means’.(1) But what is important in this tale is that the spy is interrupted by the sound of someone approaching. It is at this point that our voyeur recognises his/her subjecthood and s/he does this at the prompt of the other—the one who approaches. Jacques Lacan famously wrote that ‘I is an Other’(2) to emphasise that as would-be individuals we only really identify ourselves through the eyes of other people. Thus, identity as such is always fragmented and fragile. The advertising and fashion industries know this well, which is how they are able to market commodities and identities that we do not need—the psychological pitch is one which traps the consumer in a nexus of his or her own desire: the desire to be Other, to aspire to another’s desire.
David Rosetzky’s video, photographic and sculptural installations present a seductive critique of the psychological relationship between power and desire by utilising some of the techniques found in consumer culture. The underlying agenda throughout the work is to try to uncover, in order to crack through, the complexities of identity, subjectivity and desire. He does this by presenting the viewer with familiar looking scenes, those that proliferate in fashion, advertising and TV culture. Thus, in Weekender (2001) good-looking young adults ponder their vacant existences and their failures to connect with each other. The language of their meditations and their confessions sounds like the facile speak of commercial magazine columns where people try to get their problems solved. Mirrors recur and Rosetzky’s subjects peer into their own surface images just as unable to connect with themselves as with others. For the viewer the scenarios are tediously painful and frustrating as we are presented over and over with the subject’s misplaced yearnings to be different when all the time they are boringly the same.
In Justine (2000) the video focuses on the anxieties of a young woman who cannot know herself because she is so tied up with other people’s image of herself monitored through commercial culture. She says: ‘In my spare time I get stressed out ... I feel like I have to create my whole lifestyle, like, does my music match my mood, my décor, my hair?’. Trapped in this teen pop psychology she is bound to disconnect further from whom she might be. Again, the viewer is in the position of voyeur, listening and watching this testimony, which reinforces the power of consumer lifestyle magazines to infiltrate the psyche of the subject. Justine is destined to be unfulfilled because her desire is fundamentally the desire of the Other.
Using the visual and audio languages of consumer culture, Rosetzky’s video installations Justine and Weekender are poignant reminders that commercial culture’s power is driven by the misplaced desire of the consumer.
Custom Made (2000) and Maniac de Luxe (2004) are described by Rosetzky as immersive installations. Both works, installed in a gallery setting, present the viewer with a mirror image of the set in which the video characters perform, in this way the viewer cannot escape his/her own complicity in the psychological scenes being enacted. In Custom Made we sit in the same alcove seats that the video subjects inhabit, we hear their confessions whilst occupying their place. In Maniac de Luxe the audience sits in a duplicate designer retail space and watches the video characters on screen in a similar space. The meeting of video and sculptural installation in these works acts to blur the distinction between the viewer and the screen, suggesting that we are all infected by a consumer malaise that increasingly infiltrates our sense of self and subjecthood.
In the Hothouse video (2001) beautiful men and women in designer swimsuits look directly at the camera and in confessional mode describe their romantic relationships. Each subject’s body is trapped in an especially designed enclosure that has holes in it that allow others to penetrate the space and caress the body. The touchers are anonymous and unseen. The camera pans the flesh of each body slowly and the soundtrack is a mix of erotic porno-disco. Hothouse was on display in a window that faced into Centennial Park in Sydney, which is known as a beat for gay men seeking anonymous sex with strangers in the middle of the night. This was a bold work and one that neatly exploded the boundaries between art and life, confession and sex, whilst creating an edgy analysis on the failure of relationships in a material world where lifestyle magazines determine experience for so many people.
In the photo-portrait works and recent photo-sculptural/design installations Rosetzky underlines the fractured nature of subjecthood in the Western world more literally. Here head and shoulder shots have been manipulated by a process of overlays which are then cut out by hand and repositioned. The final result is a portrait that displays the subject as a series of cut outs, as if identity itself is shot through with holes. These portraits may well be recognised as signature works because the message is very clear, however, Rosetzky’s video installations and his recent foray into design-sculpture shows a more complex engagement with issues of psychological displacement.
A recent exhibition at Sutton Gallery in Melbourne represents the beginning of a new area of exploration which represents the constructed body-perfect of design and lifestyle culture as a dismembered body. Self Contained and Ink Swim (both 2004) engage with commercial design aesthetics and alienate the subject beyond recognition. Here existential confessionals have been made redundant—the subject no longer speaks, he and she are locked in and chained up. Their bodies are pierced by holes that enable the continuos loop of a decorative chain that ties them to commercial culture. The chains are anchored to balls creating an endless entrapment and reinforcing the message that subjecthood in 21C culture is mediated through commercial culture that imprisons the individual.
Rosetzky’s work is always cool in terms of its aesthetic but the message is unrelenting and powerful. We are prisoners of our own desire to become other and to be the other’s desire. This other does not have our best interests in mind. It’s time to break the chains and leave our existential angst behind, like so much wallpaper in a homeware display emporium.
David Rosetzky, Without Jeremy, 2004. Type c photographic collage. Courtesy the artist.
David Rosetzky, Custom Made, 2000. Video still. Courtesy the artist.
David Rosetzky, Hothouse, 2001. Video still. Courtesy the artist.
David Rosetzky, Self Contained, 2004. Type c photographs, stained Victorian Ash, acrylic sheets, nickel chains, acrylic on mirror balls, 145 x 144 x 181cm approx. Courtesy the artist.
1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes. Methuen & Co., London, 1958, p.259.
2. Jacques Lacan, ‘Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis’ (1948) in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. A Sheridan. Norton & Co., New York & London, 1977, p.23.
At the time of writing Anne Marsh was Associate Professor of Visual Culture at Monash University.