He loves me, he loves me not…
When does a work of art slide out of the defining, albeit hazy boundaries of artwork and into something else entirely: sociology, anthropology, geo-political criticism? Even post-Duchamp and Magritte, we still have to sometimes ask: How much transformation from an originating source is required before transcendence, a.k.a. “art,” occurs?
Edinburgh-based artist Phil Collins often challenges this notion with his work, and quite boldly so in his three-channeled, massive installation at the Dallas Museum of Art, a video and sound piece titled the world won’t listen. The work may leave a few suspicious souls a bit nagged by the sense that Collins’ achievement isn’t art, strictly speaking, but something more political and academic, and therefore not deserving of the rarified museum environment but rather belonging somewhere on HBO or VH1 or even the Discovery Channel’s fall lineup. But that doubt doesn’t seem to occur to the vast majority of viewers. Most file through the darkened rooms and, as they let the surprise, joy and melancholy wash through them, seem relieved that they can be so affected by something they’re seeing in a museum. Perhaps it’s in that poetic moment of the viewer’s emotional transformation that the art occurs. I don’t know. I like it very much, despite a second, creeping sense that Collins’ goal isn’t as warm and fuzzy as this piece seems to be.
Collins, with the dogged ambition of an award-winning documentary producer, spent the last four years traveling to far flung locations — Indonesia, Turkey and Columbia — to film fans of the rock band The Smiths singing karaoke to the band’s wrenching, triumphant songbook. If you’ve never listened to The Smiths — a defunct band from Manchester, England with impressive influential reach — watching these often awkward young people give their English-as-a-second-language renditions of the songs becomes a cleverly instant distillation of seeing the human condition played out, or as the artist once put it, “the sweet agony of self-fulfillment and self-limitation.” For those who have been as touched by The Smiths and their brooding messages as these brave (if not a tad exhibitionist) karaoke singers seem to be, the experience is probably much, much more.
It is to Collins, who was a huge Smiths fan growing up in Manchester in the hard-bitten north of England in the 1980s during the band’s rise. He still is a huge Morrissey fan—Morrissey being the loose-limbed, hyper-charismatic frontman of the band. As a self-martyring, uncooperative figurehead who claimed, quite weirdly but convincingly at the time, to be “omnisexual,” Morrissey makes for one hell of an act to follow. But in Collins’ piece, these intrepid subjects give it their best, including acne-riddled gothed-out Indonesian teens, tall and handsome Turkish queers, giggling young Columbian mothers who encourage their pre-verbal babies to groove along as well. In about an hour’s worth of simultaneous footage, each country gets its own channel, which in turn gets its own semi-connected viewing room, so you can meander through all three countries at the same time to watch the global reinterpretation of each song. You can take in as much or as little as you like, though the longer you stay, the more affecting and provocative the piece.
What a strange thing, though, to watch a teen from Jakarta getting really worked up while singing, say, barely-veiled criticism of Thatcher’s policies. Not that The Smiths’ themes were always tied up in such specifics — much of the band’s content is Rockin’ Angst 101: longing for something or someone just out of reach, being misunderstood, having love to give and things to say and nowhere it put it all. The piece seems to point out that teens everywhere, no matter their cultural or religious upbringing, share these intense notions and have found a kindred spirit and mouthpiece in the ever-restless Morrissey.
But in knowing that Collins himself, as he claims, still listens to The Smiths every day, that second string of doubt surfaces. You realize that one can interpret what Collins has done in several ways: the straight-ahead affection of an artist who loves it that the rest of the world’s youths can, like he did, self-actualize through this band and its leader; that what this band achieved was so superior that other places and generations are forced to co-opt it for themselves; that the bemused artist doesn’t quite believe that these people can fully understand the Smiths — given the cultural, geographical and age gaps — but that it’s fun to watch them try.
Maybe it’s a bit or even a lot of all the above. But if there is a dose of imperialistic contempt in what Collins has created — a jealously-guarded notion that no one but the northern English kids of the 80s can really own The Smiths, even as kids everywhere else are still discovering and revering the band — then of course it’s possible that even the artist isn’t completely aware of it. It’s also possible that, although tight-lipped about it, Collins is very aware of it, meaning that this piece isn’t nearly as straightforward as it appears, and so that is where the transformation takes place, that is where the art occurs.
Collins is an extremely intelligent and eloquent speaker when he wants to be. He can vivisect his own work with the precision of a surgeon, yet when he was in Dallas for the opening reception for the piece, in a panel discussion held upstairs in the museum’s restaurant, Collins was surprisingly reticent. He let the two other panelists, international art and music journalists, talk endlessly about the importance of Morrissey. He chimed in sporadically, half-heartedly, and answered a couple of questions from the audience, but he never discussed any of his other work, never discussed this piece in any depth, and when, finally, the time came to use the optimistic-looking video screen hanging nearby, Collins very pointedly chose to project a brief video of a Morrissey concert shot in Dallas in the early 90s. The footage was from the end of the concert, when Morrissey and his stage are overtaken by hordes of exuberant fans. The singer beats a hasty retreat, leaving the fans singing and dancing in self-involved ecstasy.
I watched Collins watching the Dallas audience on screen, and watching the Dallas museum audience. He smirked beguilingly, and said nothing at all when it was over. What to read in this gesture? That Collins is proving to us that Morrissey is universally and timelessly powerful enough to break through the conservatism of the Bible Belt to liberate teens even here, and that when the singer saw his victory he quietly retired to let the troops celebrate? Or that the naïve, overenthusiastic (and sometimes posturing) worshippers managed to snuff out the presence of their own god? Collins could be praising the transatlantic, second-generational embrace of his hero, or casting doubt on its very legitimacy and quality. We don’t know what Collins meant by showing the video, because he didn’t talk about it. Thus, would you like a side of ambivalence with your artwork? Call me happily paranoid, but I think we really do.
Still photos courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.