Fifty ways to kill Renny Kodgers

Renny Kodgers (Mark Shorter) and The Twilight Girls
Contemporary Art Tasmania, Hobart
12 June - 6 July 2014

Most of what we are exposed to in today’s media, which is ubiquitous and inescapable, is bad in some way. Advertising is motivated by the base motive of consumption and will use any means available to achieve its goal. We are surrounded by exhortations and simplistic metaphors. Among the many strategies in advertising is the annoyance ad: advertisements that irritate are, chillingly, among the most effective. As for films, the ones that run along the most conventional lines, following conventions of plot and characterisation, are also among the most popular. These are bad in the simplest sense, by virtue of adhering to a formula. But there is also a sub-genre of film that is ‘bad’. These are often euphemistically bracketed as ‘cult classics’. Ed Wood comes to mind, but there are also directors, like Dario Argento and Robert Rodriguez who have used the visual syntax of bad cinema to considerable creative effect. While they avoid bad production values they toy with self-conscious acting, and exploit the visual effects of protracted and exaggerated violence. The installation and the extended film, Fifty Ways to Kill Renny Kodgers is in many respects an homage to the doyens of bad cinema. But it is also more than that, it uses the idiom of bad cinema, amplified to a comedic fever pitch, to launch what is one of the most sophisticated and sympathetic commentaries on the proverbial war of the sexes that I can remember.

Renny Kodgers, the alter ego of the performance artist Mark Shorter, is the kitschified, camp doppelganger of the country and western singer Kenny Rodgers. Although he has undergone a number of mutations, Shorter has assumed this role from the beginning of his art practice, using it as a cipher for a humourous vaudevillianism that both critiques and revels in all forms of popular culture. The artistic marriage of Kodgers and the Twilight Girls now seems all too obvious, as all three artists use their bodies in strangely comic ways to reflect on anything from pornography to schlock horror. 

The installation at Contemporary Art Tasmania was framed like a kind of mausoleum, or funeral parlour, with a coffin on a platform supporting a coffin. There were chairs where one could pay one’s respects and contemplate life’s passing. This was more than a fill-in prop for the film, but rather from the beginning made the film seem like an afterthought, a lurid parody of the films that are shown at wakes, of photographs and home movies of the dead beloved. In this case it showed the reasons for the dead man’s passing—in more than one way. The multiple passing of the dear Renny emphasises our detachment from death, not only through news media, but in the profusion of violence in horror and action flicks, not to mention the limitless lives we are given in shooter video games. 

Staged as a series of comedy skits, Fifty Ways…, is mercifully not fifty segments, although there are several, each with their own absurd scenario: Renny as lounge lizard in a sauna, Renny as lover thinking he is about to embark on a raunchy ménage à trois, or Renny as out in the wild, camping. Each scene ends in his tawdry and protracted demise from shooting to dismemberment. All the while, the two ‘Girls’ wear grim and solemn expressions, taking their task(s) very seriously, as if they were on a mission from God. They are the evangelists, while Renny is just another gormless libidinal male. Rich in prostheses, there are not only fake limbs, but also Kodgers’ famous huge fake penis, while in a nude scene Polkinghorne sports a merkin (a pubic wig). In all scenarios the visual syntax of Z-grade film is writ large, complete with perceptive and ingenious details like speeded up sequences, reminiscent of the great comedian of tits-and-bums humour, Benny Hill. The effectiveness of the mannered aesthetic of all the films strongly suggests that a parody of ‘bad’ is in fact not all that easy but rather requires a scrupulous eye for detail—a scrupulousness to the aesthetically unscrupulous, if you will.

Recent gender discourses of a decade or more have witnessed a split between feminism (now in its nth wave) and queer theory. At its most contentious, queer theory rouses feminism to reflect its power relationships to men, suggesting that, at its worst, it reflects less a campaign for emancipation and more an institutionalised antipathy to certain gender relations. Queer theory admits of feminism as one of a series of divergent struggles against what it calls ‘heteronormativity’, which is basically the middle-brow, Tony Abbott-esque, white picket fence view of gender conduct. But when feminism does not admit of queer as an overarching theory—so runs a particular view—then the wheels begin to come loose. With this in mind, Fifty Ways… was a trenchant and highly subtle critique of a particular brand of militant feminism. A ritualised bloodbath of man-hating mass-murder exacted on a figure that reduces the male ‘race’ to ridicule. In one scene the Girls, dressed in clinical jackets, perform a brain transplant on their hapless host, filling his head with straw—if men could be made any stupider they just did it.

But despite the film’s stylised us-and-them gender dichotomies, the three protagonists in Fifty Ways… were all queer in their way. Renny, in all his male bluster and swagger, was as camp as any gay clone at a Mardi Gras, while the Twilight Girls with their tensed jaws and intent frowns, would have done any mannish lesbian proud. These reversals and ruptures of stereotypes made for a complex and stimulating reflection on gender and the way gender is performed. Fifty Ways… elicited many hearty laughs and guffaws—and you knew that many were at your own expense. 

Renny Kodgers and The Twilight Girls, Fifty Ways to Kill Renny Kodgers. Production still. Courtesy the artist and Paul Borderi.

Renny Kodgers and The Twilight Girls, Fifty Ways to Kill Renny Kodgers. Production still. Courtesy the artist and Paul Borderi.

Renny Kodgers and the Twilight Girls, Fifty Ways to Kill Renny Kodgers. Production still. Courtesy the artist and Jurgen Kerkovius.