Kerry Tribe

Wed, 06/08/2014 - 04:31 -- eyeline
'There will be ________'

Time-based media, video art, artists’ films … when moving images get into galleries they carry with them problems for viewers more accustomed to regular film and television. How long do you stay with the work? Should you start at the beginning, and if so, how do you work out when that is? (The Institute of Modern Art helpfully tells visitors that the film centrepiece of There will be_____ (2012) starts on the hour and the half hour, which at least indicates that they feel the knowledge will be useful in this instance.) The protocols for installation art and commercial entertainment are different, but the domains are not separate and artists move over or between them. The Best Picture Oscar for 12 Years a Slave represents an extreme case: the first time such a mainstream award has been won by a film directed by a former winner of the Turner Prize—in 1999 when Steve McQueen beat Tracey Emin.

In There will be_____, Kerry Tribe is explicitly concerned with the intersection of art and entertainment and the different audience expectations involved. The entertainment component is especially important here, the piece works with narrative film and with film genres, but, as is now the case for artists and entertainers alike, not so much film as a physical medium. Almost all work now is on DVD, so the accuracy of the term ‘film’ is threatened as stock becomes unavailable—see Tacita Dean’s many laments and pre-emptive purchases of raw material on the brink of disappearing. Like Dean, Kerry Tribe has long been interested in the mechanical aspects of film, and several earlier works, like H.M. (2009), play with projectors and celluloid as part of the works produced.

There will be_____ plays instead with Hollywood movies, which we can be certain will continue for quite a while. The Institute of Modern Art (IMA) exhibition shows the titular thirty minute film, together with a shorter video clip compilation called ‘Bibliography’, three C-type photographs of the leading actors from the short film costumed and made up in character but named as themselves, Joe, Sam and Camille, and three very dull framed collages of typed words ostensibly from the script. This is the way the work circulates through galleries, but the film centrepiece has another life as a standalone on the short-film circuit, where it is called Greystone, the title that appears in the film itself, although the gallery names it There will be_____. In her lecture at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) before the opening of the exhibition, Tribe mentioned the different names for the two sites and her desire to create a piece that could be entered into film festivals as well as be part of a gallery installation.

The film explores a real 1929 crime in which oil tycoon heir Ned Doheny Jnr and his personal assistant Hugh Plunkett were found murdered in Greystone, Doheny’s newly built mansion at Beverley Hills. Both men were due to testify in the trial of Doheny’s father in what was known as the Teapot Dome scandal. The crime was declared a murder-suicide with Plunkett the guilty party and the senior Doheny eventually acquitted of fraud. Anomalies at the crime scene, indicating that the bodies had been moved, were ignored, though rumours circulated.

The film starts in media res and shows five possible explanations of the events, so if a casual viewer, unaware of the background, walked in even at the start, they would have to wait until the end to see the set-up and the truth claims of the piece, as period photographs of the house and the real people involved, as well as headline clippings, are interspersed with the credits. The stilted line delivery, the acting style and the Rashomon-like different versions of the same events (although no versions have identifiable points of view) make no claim for realism. Tribe is insistent she cast good actors but that the script they worked with was flat. Surely, though, this derives from its method of construction far more than the (varying) quality of those original movies. There is an aleatory aspect to the tightly framed shots of objects and the servants speaking directly to camera, just head and shoulders plus the top of a chair back, as they respond to questions from an unseen, unheard detective. Some location shots down darkened hallways of servants going about their tasks, or distanced shots of principal characters greeting one another, are technically arresting, but add to the claustrophobic atmosphere.

Tribe has said she thinks Plunkett was framed, that a rich man got away with murder, and perhaps this is evident in the bookending sequences in which a maid takes the gun from the crime scene to the kitchen and inexplicably places it in an oven. But tempting as it may be to treat the whole thing as a Cluedo game where the most persuasive explanation wins out, that surely is not what Tribe intends—at least for the gallery audience. Unlike most artists she test screens her work, not to maximise its entertainment qualities, but to ensure that the ‘facts’ she wants to share with her viewers—wherever they are—can be seen in her films. But there is no solution to the crime offered here, no definitive resolution to the narrative.

Various servants, police, and a doctor appear and in all but the scenario with a hired killer, a key element of the mystery is a sexual relationship between the two men. In one version the wife kills them after finding them in flagrante, in two the murder suicide roles are reversed, and in the last the deaths are consensual, resulting from a pact between the men before the doctor, butler and maid rearrange the bodies. For most of the possibilities, the anomalies are unexplained.

The city of Beverly Hills bought the Greystone property in 1967 and in 1976 placed it on the Registry of Historic Places. Even before that, it had become a much used film location—over sixty-two films between 1963 and 2010 were shot there, including Death Becomes Her, X-Men, The Social Network and There will be Blood, this last based in part on Doheny Snr’s life. Tribe continues her long term combined fascination with cinema and with memory and representation by convoluted speculating about the crime and rumours. Her five possible explanations use only dialogue culled from many of the features shot there, all of which are listed in the credits. The characters’ names are not those of the real people, indeed only the wife (really Lucy) has the same name, Elizabeth, in all five scenarios. Although this is just one of the many signals of the mutability of the facts, the actual rooms where the murders occurred were used and costumes and other details were drawn from the crime scene photographs. However, only fans of old American true crime would know that, if viewers recognise anything, and there is an odd element of familiarity nudging as you watch, it will be from a fiction film. There is, for instance, a shot of the house’s basement bowling alley which was significant in There will be Blood and The Big Lebowski, but which plays no part in the stories of the crime. Viewers familiar with those films can be jolted out of the Doheny story into the fictions they recall, but not helped narratively by this. Presumably this will be even more the case where the film is seen in festivals without the accompanying ‘documentation’.

In constructing the script, the words and their fit with Tribe’s reconstructions are all that mattered—so Garfield the Movie (yes) was as useful as There will be Blood, and the speakers’ gender and the films’ genres were both irrelevant. Watching the clip compilation of the scenes from the movies shot in Greystone from which the dialogue was taken is (intentionally) disorienting, as is the decision to call it a Bibliography rather than what would be more accurate, a Filmography. An actual bibliography of data about the real event would have been more useful, but the restraint is part of Tribe’s approach. The cinematic narratives set in the house shape the various versions as much as the reports of the time. Inasmuch as this, located in Australia, can be about memory, it has to be based in the traces of the fiction films.

In interview Tribe has talked about the cost of hiring the location (US$10,000-20,000 a day, unaffordable had she not been commissioned), but this would still have been less than the labour costs (Gilmartin). She talked in her GOMA lecture about working with a crew of forty, far larger than on anything previously and this does not seem to have included the post-production people. The film was a substantial and expensive undertaking. If Tribe had to pay for rights to the dialogue and the clips, the cost of the eventual artwork would have been even more substantial.

Craig Burnett’s discussion of video works at the 2013 Venice Biennale includes discussion of the cost of Mathias Poledna’s Imitation of Life, a hand drawn animation whose enormous production costs he claims could only have been made possible by the Biennale itself and the Austrian Federal Ministry. It could not, he claims, be shown in a cinema, but part of his review also turns on those artists in film who are now working in commercial cinema—adding Julian Schnabel and Sam Taylor-Johnson to McQueen. Tribe provides a telling intervention in this. Her work, underwritten by a commission, was significantly expensive to produce, as is evident in the quality of the images on screen, but its core element is both destined for commercial cinemas and galleries. In the gallery it asks us to draw on the cinema to untangle not the crime from so long ago, but the uncanny feeling that somehow, something here is familiar, has been encountered before. Whether we do so probably depends on how much we know about the genesis of the work and how many times we see it.

Kerry Tribe, There will be _______, 2012. Video Still. Courtesy of 1301PE, Los Angeles. 

Kerry Tribe, Camille, 2012. C-type print, 24 x 36inches. From There Will Be ______ 2012. Courtesy of 1301PE, Los Angeles. 

Kerry Tribe, Sam, 2012. C-type print, 24 x 36inches. From There Will Be ______ 2012Courtesy of 1301PE, Los Angeles. 

Kerry Tribe, There Will Be ______ 2012Installation View. Courtesy of 1301PE, Los Angeles. 

notes: 

Tribe’s assertions about the work have been drawn from the lecture she gave at GOMA, 22 March 2014; the interview conducted after that by Simon Marsh for Panoptic, edited for You Tube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IakijMKIyY; and Gilmartin, Wendy, ‘Artist Kerry Tribe’s New Video Reconstructs the Famous Doheny Murder at Greystone Mansion’, LA Weekly, 28 September 2012, http://www.laweekly.com/publicspectacle/2012/09/28/artist-kerry-tribes-new-video-reconstructs-the-famous-doheny-murder-at-greystone-mansion

 

Burnett, Craig, ‘Flickerings on the Lido’, Sight and Sound 23.9, September 2013, pp.54-55.

Dr Frances Bonner is an Honorary Research Associate Professor in the English, Media Studies and Art History School at the University of Queensland.