Repetition, reproduction and return have been persistent themes in art production for more than half a century now. The latest variation on this repro mania is re-enactment. Events as diverse as 19th-century pageants, miners’ strikes, feminist protests and Hollywood films have been obsessively researched and restaged by artists in the last few years. While the generation of artists working in the 1950s and 1960s made copies and reproductions to comment on the perverse logic of mass production, contemporary artists’ use of re-enactment reveals an uncanny interest in history. Given that search engines like Yahoo and Google lie at our fingertips and the world’s largest archive is just a click away, today’s focus on researching, reading and reinterpreting history is not surprising.
Role, a 2008 film by the Vancouver-based artist Denise Oleksijczuk, is a prime example of this trend. Oleksijczuk has remade the last few scenes of Robert Bresson’s 1967 film Mouchette with the sinister aim of re-enacting the film’s final suicide scene. Oleksijczuk casts herself in the role of Mouchette, the teenage protagonist of Bresson’s film, who spends her days taking care of her ailing mother while suffering abuse at the hands of her neighbours, teacher and alcoholic father. But unlike the original film, which ends with Mouchette rolling down a hill and into a river with a splash and presumably drowning, Oleksijczuk’s remake allows the cam- era to pan across the surface of the water and back onto the shore, where an adult Mouchette (the artist) drags herself out of the river.
What is most unsettling about Role is not, surprisingly, its theme of adolescent identity and the moral implications of suicide, but imagining Oleksijczuk working on the film. I cannot help but picture her at her desk, watching Bresson’s Mouchette on her laptop again and again. I imagine her pausing the film, rewinding, pausing again, taking notes, mimicking Mouchette’s blank expression in the mirror, memorizing the film’s theme song and roaming the rolling hills of Burnaby Mountain in search of landscapes that resemble rural France, where Mouchette was shot. I see her becoming so engrossed in the film that she does the impossible: breaks the cinematic “fourth wall” and literally steps into the film, walking along the cobblestoned streets as the young Mouchette. Watching Role I think about the alarming prospect of collapsing fact and fiction and actualizing the private affair of giving in to the illusion of a film.
Even more disquieting is the contagious nature of Oleksijczuk’s obsession. After watching Role, I felt a nagging urge to see Bresson’s Mouchette myself and looked it up on the Internet before renting it on DVD. Interestingly enough, my Google search led me to a short 1966 documentary titled Au hasard Bresson, which showed Bresson at work on the set of Mouchette. To my surprise, this short clip about the director and his diverse cast of actors featured several elements that never made it into his film, but which occur serendipitously in Oleksijczuk’s Role. These include a clock tower displaying the time of one o’clock and a long picnic table around which the cast gathered periodically for lunch.
Watching this documentary made me realize that Oleksijczuk’s remake deviates from the original film beyond just its alternative ending. Role also interrupts the flow of the original narrative by offering a simultaneous look behind the scenes, showing actors taking coffee breaks or chatting over lunch. It is as though the artist has attempted to pull her audience into the movie with one hand—encouraging them to suspend their disbelief and get lost in the film—while pushing them back out with the other by adding scenes that disrupt the story and are meant to be left at the edges of the screen.
Oleksijczuk’s play with the film’s boundaries was also plainly evident in the way the piece was installed at Artspeak, a small artist-run space on Carrall Street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Role was projected into a darkened room with the aid of a large and noisy 16-mm projector that confronted visitors as they walked into the gallery. The humming groan of the projector clearly indicated that the film was attempting to bare the mechanics of its own illusion before you. Role invited you to join in and identify with Mouchette, but its installation managed to agitate and keep you at a distance.
Oleksijczuk’s modification of the original film’s narrative flow—her insertions, interruptions and alterations—is characteristic of recent re- enactments and remakes in contemporary art. Such works attempt to reinterpret the historical record using disruptive narrative strategies. This often involves a great deal of research and meticulous re-presentation of collected materials. Oleksijczuk is no stranger to this process. She has a Ph.D. in art history from the University of British Columbia and currently teaches art and culture studies at the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University. Her extensive training in reading and interpreting cultural productions preludes her recent artistic practice.
Oleksijczuk’s preoccupation with narrative systems is apparent in an early work titled 200 Nouns (2004). The piece consists of a series of words printed on a single sheet of paper. The list begins with words such as “idler,” “soul searcher” and “doodler,” seemingly describing an easygoing attitude towards life. But as the list goes on, it slowly turns to more judgmental terms, like “layabout,” “wallower” and “truant.” The derogatory tone becomes even more intense as the list continues, with nouns like “lard-ass,” “good-for-nothing” and “free-loader.” Halfway down the page the con- notations hit rock bottom, and words like “self-sabotager,” “self-loather,” “scab-picker” and “masochist” are strung together in a smaller, tighter font than further up on the page. As we move even further down the list, the words begin to gradually brighten up again, sliding slowly from “loser” and “killjoy” to “idealist” and “rebel” and then to “creator” and “ponderer.”
200 Nouns is a fitting precursor to Role. In 200 Nouns, the words transition from describing self-reflexive activities to cultural evaluations of those activities. The list then shifts to describe psychological internalizations of such cultural evaluations: the “big lug” becomes a “self-loather” and a “self-pitier.” The list then spirals out of its miserable state and offers a new beginning, proposing a “recommencer” and a “fresh starter.”
The arc is similar in Role. Oleksijczuk begins by choosing a film about a teenager whose lack of interest in her friends, school and family and her inability to fit into her small, rural community lead her to commit suicide. Bresson’s film provides Oleksijczuk with the themes of teenage withdrawal, bullying, self-deprecation and suicide that we find in 200 Nouns. The artist then remakes this film 40 years later, casting herself as the adult Mouchette and in so doing bringing the young girl back to life. Role attempts to add to Bresson’s film the new beginning that 200 Nouns offers.
Neither work, however, is naively optimistic. Once you reach the end of the list in 200 Nouns, you can simply glance up and start the (abusive) cycle all over again. The “ponderer” and the “muse” at the end of the list can easily become the “idler” and the “deferrer” of the beginning.
Similarly, Role might seem like a happy ending to Bresson’s film, but the redemptive potential of suicide, so present in Mouchette, is missing. Instead, Oleksijczuk’s re-enactment makes Mouchette’s dramatic act seem like a failed suicide attempt. The girl rolls into the river and, after the camera pans across the water, rolls back out again, completing a wishful but ultimately vicious circle that brings Mouchette back to the shore and her unhappy life once again.
Oleksijczuk’s artistic practice is in part about examining history through narrative devices. Her work demands the same from the viewer. Role sent me searching for the history of Bresson’s Mouchette, but it also managed to bring me back to the gallery, where the installation challenged me to consider the material existence of the film as an illusory image projected onto a flat screen. This seems to be a common trait in re-enactments and remakes in contemporary art. They strive to dig into history, pulling up loose strands that carry the potential to lead us in different directions, where we can fabricate new stories and follow alternative courses of action and different versions of events. Paradoxically, however, the deeper we dig, the closer we get to the surface.
SPOTLIGHT This series of essays on emerging Canadian artists is sponsored by the Fraser Elliot Foundation in Memory of Betty Ann Elliot.
This is an article from the Winter 2009 issue of Canadian Art.