Susi Jirkuff’s “Wild Wood”

– an essay by Andréa Picard

“What have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?
What have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?
What have I, what have I, what have I …” –The Pet Shop Boys

It is impossible not to look up, up at the tree, the talking tree stuck in a bulky, square video monitor oddly perched on a white plywood branch of a white column in the basement of the Vienna Secession.  While the tree is ostensibly speaking to another tree—perched on an adjacent white column-cum-branch— one has the distinct impression that the tree is addressing them with its frustrated banter about being stuck, both literally and metaphorically immobilized
. In fact, there are three trees in that tall, spartan forest, whose abstracted triangular space creates an area of congregation for the viewer, caught in the middle of a tragi-absurdist conversation. The niched foreground—a painted wallpaper tableau that strangely recalls the moody, somewhat ominous brush in Bambi—implies a paradoxical flatness and depth with its wild branches and recessed perspective. The illusory nature of the scene is both drained and re-invigorated as we move through the space, consistently interpolated by the slang repartee between the trio of trees—these “boyz in the woods” trapped in their high-hood.

Susi Jirkuff clearly has a playful sense of humour, wry intelligence and elastic range of talent, all of which was on display in her solo exhibition, “Wild Wood” at the Secession. Her mixed media installations, which often include animation, painting, illustration and sculptural elements, draw upon contemporary cinema and pop music references, and their attendant, unavoidable mediation in order to uncannily combine and fold these into one another. What Jirkuff invents and conceives of is recognizable – in some cases deeply familiar to us— and yet the scenarios within these fascinating worlds exist as something entirely new, born of a capacious imagination and a reductive, but no less enchanting style. “Wild Wood” is deceptively, even mesmerizingly simple. Spread sequentially over the three lower-level rooms of the Secession, the exhibition unfolds serially in time as the viewer walks through it, successive atmospheric layers accruing with each ambulatory step and with each staggered hesitation: From the peculiar, confrontational tone of the first room, to the Beckettian ambiance and scarceness of the second with its quizzical, barebones bus shelter and its sidekick empty bench upon which is projected the form of a small boulder, to the ultimate room, where an innocent, airy ebullience reigns despite the protruding, crisscrossing forms which swallow up a sizeable quotient of the room’s volumetric space and impede easy access to its jittery, forest of green.

In all ways beguiling, “Wild Wood” is formed on an axis of threes. Its tripartite structure is replicated several times and in several ways, invoking a spate of tri-patterns (3 rooms, 3 trees, 3 sculptural jetties, 3 projections in the last room), which extends to the exhibition spaces themselves, such as the three vault arches in the second room. Though the show is sliced along guiding binaries – somewhere between a natural habitat and a resolutely urban one (not to mention institutional), between the social and the personal, and the collective consciousness and individual forms of alienation and fantasy—it uses three main media of expression. With moving images, painting and sculptural elements, “Wild Wood” is, like so many of the Secession’s exhibitions, a response to and exploration of the space itself. Its in situ-ness, is further enhanced by a faint wafting sound of a forest breeze, which connects all three rooms, however suggestive in its near-inaudibility.

Though theory may, in some ways, be anathema to the experience and reading of “Wild Wood” given its focus on subjective immersion and participation, its Bachelardian qualities are undeniable. The exhibition’s emphasis on memory and space, nostalgia, reverie, and its active blurring of fantasy and reality form an interesting link, say somewhere between the work of Belgian painter Luc Tuymans and Disney animations circa the 1940s, the so-called “golden age”. Bachelard’s oft-quoted “The forest is a state of mind” recalls Tuymans’ somewhat iconic Schwarzheide painting from 1986 (among others), as much as it does the semi-abstract painted mise-en-scène for Bambi (1942, in which Walt Disney insisted on a less defined and less realist setting in order to amplify the verisimilitude of the animals), and Jirkuff’s talking trees, wall-tableau, painted puffs of shrubbery and buoyant, light-beamed animated foliage. The steely sfumato transmission of a mental universe as emphasized by Tuymans, who, like Jirkuff, seeks inspiration from a wide range of archival sources like magazines, movies, photographs and even television, finds its brooding counterpart in Bambi’s innocence lost paradise and the open-ended contradictions—sensory, stylistic and thematic —nestled within “Wild Wood”.

Bachelard’s duel focus on the phenomenology of intimate architecture (including minutia like drawers and nooks) and wide open spaces (like vistas and woods) in La Poétique de l’espace is irrevocably linked to the imagination, wherein our minds can swiftly transform the urban into the natural, and one would suppose, vice-versa. Imagination, thus, is a place of dwelling, and like the cinema, it aligns with the art of dreams, as best described and appropriated by the unconscious-obsessed Surrealists. Tuymans’ paintings are often called cinematic, their inferred movement and blurring a sort of patina of memory and the darkly oneiric. His reductive palette of pastels – doves, mints and creams—, are awash in insinuation, more apposite of the speculative than the expository. Reconfiguring historical images, even banal and quotidian ones, into a present suffused with the past, Tuymans hints at the ineffable through distillation. Jirkuff’s own minimalist visual vocabulary (celadon green for foliage, chartreuse for talking trunks and the use of primary shapes) was ironically influenced by the maximalist and often hyper-detailed art of matte paintings, so integral to Hollywood films from a certain era. “Wild Wood” both eccentrically and charmingly upends the traditional diorama and creates a set within the exhibition space –one that uses the walls as much as the space before it. Like an idiosyncratic deconstruction of a matte painting, whose perspectival layers are measured and meted out materially, Jirkuff’s interplay between painting and sculpture is a clin d’oeil to the epic backdrops of commercial genre cinema, from recognizable musicals, westerns and science fiction thrillers.

Largely obsolete since the dawning dominance of digital technology, matte paintings were once considered vital to the magic of cinema, harkening back to the seventh art’s very origins with magician-inventor-filmmaker Georges Méliès (1861-1938). The latter is commonly referred to as the founder of cinematic fiction and fantasy and his elaborate set pieces, painted mise-en-scènes and camera trickery have been immeasurably influential, from Robert Wiene’s Expressionist milestone, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, its funhouse and diagonal axes seem to be invoked by Jirkuff), to the exaggerated scale and skewed proportions in Metropolis (1927), Fritz Lang’s towering Manhattan-riffing masterpiece, to the Technicolor acid trip that is Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939), and of course the teeming urbanscapes of King Kong (1933, Manhattan, again, with its soaring Empire State building) through Ridley Scott’s futuristic dystopia, Blade Runner (1982), awash in an apocalyptic glow. Artists like Albert Whitlock, Chris Evans and Peter Ellenshaw were the major proponents of an invisible art, and sometimes referred to as ‘glass artists’ by Hollywood studios, who were producing films on sound stages, deep in the land of make believe. Their painstakingly painted landscapes were microcosms unto themselves, an entire world within a greater fantasy, representation once removed.

While “Wild Wood” takes inspiration from the idea of such painted backdrops, it relinquishes the primary illusionism so fundamental to transcending the spatial limitations en route to reverie. The depth techniques used in Bambi’s painted scenes, for instance, in which spatial layers are defined by contrasting and darker hues, are mimicked in the forest wall tableau, with its charcoal and cement grays in the foreground and its milky green and white hues opening onto a contained expanse, scissor-hand branches pointing toward a center. But aside this, the rest of the exhibition employs a material play that flattens, while actually being three-dimensional, which can partially be attributed to Jirkuff’s drawing style and technique, but also her deft use of both negative and positive space in fashioning a stripped down, walk-through film set, whose narrative elements are fragmentary, inscrutable, referential and mischievously suggestive all at once.

The animation—the bitching trunks in exaggerated close-up (the horrors of Videodrome!), the weird, projected Flinstone-esque rock, and the hovering vegetation—is done in Jirkuff’s signature drawing style. Not unlike the film and video-based animation of American artists Jenny Perlin and Karen Yasinsky (the latter, whose work is also heavily influenced by the cinema, though in less popular forms, i.e. Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky), respectively, and especially the work of Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based Marcel Dzama, Jirkuff’s reduction of line and her felt-tip strokes adhere to a childlike charm and unsuspecting elegance. As demonstrated in some of Jirkuff’s previous videos, such as her Choreographies series which distills the gestures of an action to its repetitive, and nearly defamiliarized essence (knitting or manhandling the remote control, for example), her portrait series depicting people in their milieu and providing snippets of their lives –like in Cuba where a faint wind continuously blows a tuft of hair as her subject speaks, or in Los Angeles, interviewing a gay German man as he, of course, drives a car—, and her refreshingly original music video ‘remakes’, in which the artist creates captivating, and at times, hilarious settings and scenarios for iconic songs by The Pet Shop Boys, Timbaland, Notorious B.I.G., and her more experimental riffs on The Cure and Bonnie Tyler, Jirkuff opts for a resolutely pop aesthetic.

But by mixing this visual and sonic vernacular with a minimalist conceit more traditionally attuned to the white box—here, a trifecta of them—, Jirkuff adroitly formulates a cool, conceptual, totemic trip that proposes the “liberation of the body” which German theorist and music critic Diedrich Diederichsen has identified as one of Pop’s utopian ambitions. While Jirkuff’s ‘Boyz in the Woods’ lament their state of eternal stasis, and the reference to John Singleton’s 1991 award-winning film, Boyz ‘n the Hood, about the deep-rooted social injustice and hierarchy within South Central Los Angeles, provides ample clues as to the exhibition’s narrative value, replicated with suggestions of confinement and isolation, “Wild Wood” appeals to our own sphere of reference in order to fill in the gaps—to imagine a film or graphic novel, whose setting we find ourselves in. (Case in point: the Oasis-Ken Loach story elaborated in this very monograph!) Translating a classical shot structure into space, Jirkuff fashions an experience of close-ups with the trunks, a medium shot with the bus stop strategically drawn on the wall to incorporate a fluorescent tube, and a long shot in the final room where the oblong sculptures (echoing the columns in the first room and the bench in the second, floor-bound and elongated, like graphic matches in the cinema) propose an exaggerated proximity to the image, all the while luring us toward the light, inviting us to transcend the distance in order to delight in the forest’s glow.

References can be inferred to Sol Lewitt, Dan Flavin, Carl André, Anne Truitt and Rachel Whiteread, perhaps even to James Turrell and Ann Veronica Janssens with their immersive light play, and yet, Jirkuff’s wild update of Minimalism is an invigoratingly eccentric rejoinder to today’s mass proliferation of images and the velocity in which these are disseminated and shared. Heavily influenced by pop music and its origins in incitement to rebellion, the artist plays upon a feeling of temporary joy and respite: An escape, from social and financial constraints and pressures, from the unfathomable and vertiginous pace of it all, from increasing uncertainty and instability, from loneliness. As we move from the desolation and foreboding of the first room, through the emptiness and longing of the second, shimmying along the open passageway of the third in order to bask in the glow of the forest, Kool & the Gang’s ubiquitously sampled hit, “Summer Madness” can be heard rising and falling from the speakers. Like a sun-kissed childhood memory, the soft, sensuous, euphoric emotions induced by this jazz-funk-disco-fusion track provide a subjective release, tempting us deeper and deeper into the untamed woods…