Friday, March 12, 2010

Rodney Graham, Freud and Nietzsche's Concept of Eternal Return


I ghostwrote this essay for a Concordia student 5 years ago.


Rodney Graham is one of the most important and exciting contemporary media artists, not only in Canada, but internationally, and his work has proved consistently playful and demanding, asking the viewer or observer to sort through a variety of historical allusions, games of meaning and visual puns to arrive at a suitable conclusion, the nature of which may or may not have been intended by Graham. As I intend to reveal in this paper, Rodney Graham’s looped film and video pieces, his“unending fictional narratives” (or “cyclical narratives”) have their roots in the works of Friedriche Nietzsche’s concept of “Eternal Return” (or “Eternal Recurrence[1]”), as well as the psychoanalytical work of Sigmund Freud.


Mustachioed philosopher and horse-rights activist Friedrich Nietzsche derived the idea of Eternal Recurrence from German philosopher Heinrich Heine, and presented the idea in a parable in The Gay Science:

“What if, some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you.”[2]

Nietzsche’s insistence on this concept marked one of the beginnings of the modern era (and with it, of course foreshadowed certain descriptions of the post-modern condition), breaking as it did with the Judeo-Christian/Aristotlean conception of linear time that had so dominated Western thought

That is, as in Graham’s loops, a moment (such as in Vexation Island (this film is described in greater detail further on in this paper) when Graham’s character, “Robinson Crusoe” shakes the tree, producing the coconut which knocks him back to the sand) leads to another moment, which leads to another one, and so forth, repeating and repeating. There is no end, only the circular path, what Christopher Miles rather artlessly calls “circular behavioral inevitability.”[3] The very moment that the coconut falls upon Robinson Crusoe’s head determines that it will be repeated again and again, ad nauseum.

Nietzsche, frightened and petrified at the ramifications of his nighttime demon’s visit (Eternal Return), writes in The Will To Power that one will be able to endure it through “freedom from morality, new means against the fact of pain(…); the enjoyrment of all kinds of uncertainty, experimentalism, as a counterweight to this extreme fatalism; abolition of the concept of necessity; abolition of the ‘will’; abolition of the concept of necessity”[4] – describing the exact methods that Graham uses to deal with the loops, his own constructed models of eternal return. This “counterweight to this extreme fatalism” is often mistaken as dilettantism on Graham’s part, an unwillingness to engage himself, but I contend that Graham is instead participating in Nietzsche’s “mystery world of the two-fold voluptuous delight, my ‘beyond good and evil,’ without goal, unless the joy of the circle is the goal.”[5] As we will see later, Graham finds parallels between his own “dilettantism”, his Eno-esque[6] nature (from sculpture to film to photography to pop music) and Freud’s ‘hobbies’, which caused him no small amount of criticism, too.

In Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the author articulates the concept of Eternal Return as not so much a description of reality as an idea to contrast with the “unbearable lightness of being”[7] – the fleeting and novel occurrences that make up our existence. For Kundera, eternal return is an existential parlour game of sorts – the familiar multiple universe theme of comic book and science fiction. Taking this into account, Graham’s looped films offer the viewer an opportunity to take the challenge, entering a world of Graham’s creation that through repetition, embeds every detail with gravity and meaning, and impacts how she or he may come to view the minutia of daily life after.

In another looped work Verwandlungsmusik, similar to Cage’s performance of Erik Satie’s Vexation piece, Graham re-writes a piece of looped music used at the end of Wagner’s Parsifal opera[8] to allow for the scene transition (not composed by Wagner), and tears it apart, re-looping the components of the piece so that by the time they return to their original form, close to 40 billion years will have passed. 40 billion years is as about as close to eternity as I can conceive.[9]


Lenz, 1983 is a work of looped text, extracts from an untitled 1835 novella by Georg Buchner, Edgar Allen Poe’s The System of Landor’s Cottage and Freud’s landmark psychological book Interpretation of Dreams.

Rodney Graham’s first cinematic looped work was Dr. No (1991-94), a repeating and painfully recreated segment from the 1962 James Bond spy thriller Dr. No (the set design by Ken Adam, Hollywood’s modernist par excellence[10]) which featured Rodney Graham, in the role of Bond, returning to his hotel room, post-night cap, and preparing for bed. After this, his looped films became more intricate and allusive, beginning with the four film series, comprised of Vexation Island, How I Became A Ramblin’ Man, City Self/Country Self, and A Reverie Interrupted By the Police.

1997’s 35mm short film “Vexation Island” (which premiered at the 1997 Venice Biennale and set the stage for international recognition), alludes to Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. The loop begins – we find Graham done up in 18th century finery, unconscious on a deserted beach, a parrot nearby. Graham is awoken, startled by the parrot, throttles a palm tree in front of him, shaking it to retrieve a coconut which promptly falls on his head, knocking him out, the coconut ending up in the sea. As the sequence repeats, we notice that Graham’s head already has a wound on it, prior to the coconut making contact with his head, Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence already richening the experience. More than simply sloppy film-making, the wound’s ahistorical presence reveals the cyclical nature of the film, the repetitive process that weighs down every act throughout the film as it runs on. It goes without saying that Graham’s masturbatory throttling of the tree and deadly coconut ejaculation carry with them the imprint of the Freudian sex and death drive[11].

1999’s How I Became A Ramblin’ Man was an experiment in the drastically commercial form of the music video, with Graham cast as a cowboy minstrel, in the vein of Lee Hazlewood, riding from the horizon, dismounting, singing of his life’s journeys, mounting, riding back and returning again, eliminating the expanse of space and freedom of the Wild West that he alludes to, through this mechanical repetition.

His 2000 4 minute long film, entitled City Self/Country Self relies on the repetition of an action to at once add gravity and to take it away, evoking the life and death cycle. In City Self/Country Self we are introduced to a particular Grahamian technique in his loops, possibly alluding to eternal return. The film is a loop of a fairly pedestrian gag – a country bumpkin (played by Graham) is booted in the buttocks by an urban noble (also played by Graham), both decked in appropriate nineteenth century clothing. As the film repeats, one begins to notice certain details that add the gravity and depth to the situation – we notice that the dandified noble is wearing a shoe on one foot which appears to be either specifically designed to accommodate a rather lengthy and pointy foot (is a mark of blue blood an extended foot, specifically designed for kicking ass?), or fashioned to extend his foot, to be used in kicking the posterior of the peasant, who is either genetically predetermined to have a rather large posterior, or, in anticipation of feeling the brunt of the nobleman’s boot, padded his pants. Regardless of ass or foot enhancements, as the film loops, the viewer soon becomes aware that this event is not an anomalous occurrence, but one that both noble and bumpkin are prepared for, and have been engaged in for time eternal.

A Reverie Interrupted by The Police (2003), the final film of four, sees Graham cast as an old-time convict, being led onto a stage by a grim-looking policeman, who allows Graham to play a piano set on a stage, in handcuffs. Graham, in prisoner’s stripes, opts for a half-hearted rendition of a wretched pseudo-Schoenbergian piece. His heart’s not in it, obviously, and four times the piano cover is depressed, producing a sonic effect mimicking that of the gavel that sent the wretch to his fate. Soon enough, the policeman gathers Graham up and drags him back. And soon enough, Graham appears on stage again, to play the sloppy Schoenberg, which incrementally attracts the viewers’ interest as the sequence repeats itself.


Freud’s concept of visual defamiliarization “entfremdungsgefuhl” – which he believed indicated repression and affected constructions of reality. In 1996, Graham published an essay called “Oeuvres Freudiennes” – writings on the works of Freud resulting from indepth research on Freud. In an essay entitled Siting Vexation Island, (published in a book of essays on his work entitled Island Thought), Graham discusses how his earlier experiences of the cinema (his father doubled as a projectionist for a logging camp in the interior of British Columbia) were experienced in “close proximity not only to the patriarchal authority but also to the cinematic apparatus itself.”[12] One can also see in Graham’s work an engaging with Freud’s concept of visual defamiliarization – the tongue-twister “entfremdungsgefuhl” – the presence of which indicated repression and affected constructions of reality.

“Freud treated them as clever fictions created later by the unconscious to veil other, real, memories – often of a traumatic nature. In his own analysis of his own so-called “Botanical Monograph Dream” in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud alludes to this concept in a footnote that research has show is not really a footnote at all, but an association – for Freud’s essay entitled Screen Memories cites a personal recollection, Freud’s snatching of a bouquet of yellow flowers from the hands of a little girl in an Alpine setting and the theme of the forgetting and violent misappropriation of flowers plays an important part in the dream where another memory is evoked: the four year old Freud’s gleeful destruction of an illustrated feuilleton on Persia (ripped apart leaf by leaf like an artichoke, Freud recalls) in the presence of his younger sister and under the (oddly) approving gaze of his father. Whenever I envision these scenes I see them in garish Technicolor.”[13]

As Graham alluded to in the quote above, he was involved in an earlier work, a 4 page insert into Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, an analysis of one of Freud’s dreams, entitled “Dream of the Botanical Monograph”, rendered in the same typeface and paper as the book itself and written in Freud’s style, meant to be seamlessly integrated into the book and expanding on Freud’s work as a result of Graham’s research into Freud.

As a result of his many diversions into a variety of mediums (photography, music, sculpture, installation works, drawing), Graham has often struggled with, and been criticized for, not applying himself in one area, and consequentially some feel that his work has suffered from a lack of focus.

“I’ve always identified with Freud in this respect because Freud had this problem. I did some research on Freud for part of my work a few years ago. During the period he was making most of his important discoveries, he was being criticized at the time for spending too much time on his hobbies – he had all these other interests. But these interests informed the transformation of his ideas. This was something that plagued him for years, this criticism of being too absorbed.”[14]

The criticism may be mostly the result of Graham’s willingness to present his pop music works (such as his double LP Rock Is Hard) in gallery and artistic settings, not cowtowing to the high art/low art dichotomy that even throughout the past 15 years or so, in the age of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, still irks critics every now and then.[15]

Freudian Inner States: Dreams and Psychoanalysis

Halcion Sleep and Photokinetoscope both explore and poke fun at the Freudian idea that the unconscious can be navigated by voyeuristic observation, tying it to the suspect idea that film is a medium that reveals meaning. The 26 minute long video Halcion Sleep features a double dosed-up Rodney Graham (the brand name of the sleeping pills is Halcion) chauffeured from a suburban Vancouver area to his downtown apartment, sleeping and dreaming, we assume. The prostrate Graham, spread out across the back seats in a vehicle, mimics the physical state of the patient on the analyst’s couch. This is surely a non-traditional approach to the “interpretation of dreams.”

The riveting and beautifully conceived 2002 piece Photokinetoscope is a nod to Albert Hoffman’s accidental discovery of the hallucinogenic properties of LSD, with a few cinematic and musical nods to cultural touchstones like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barret. Comprised of a film five minutes in duration, shot in 16mm, and a 15 minute long 12” LP, the film is activated by placing the needle on the groove of the record (mimicking Thomas Edison’s photokinetoscope, but differing in that the film will start no matter where the needle is place on the record, thus producing a more random effect, a de-synchronization). In the film, Graham, sitting in Berlin’s Tiergarten park, ingests a quantity of lysergic acid diethylamide from a blotter, and bicycles about on an older style “cruiser” bicycle. The viewer scours the face and actions of Graham, looking for the effects of the very hallucinogenic substance, but though his inner state may be in flux and turmoil, he remains relatively placid throughout, confounding the armchair psychoanalysis of the viewer of the piece. At the end of the film, Graham playfully rides his bike backwards (that nod to Newman’s gag in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), a patient’s playful gag on an over-eager Freudian observer. “My point is, the trip is the thing.”[16]

It could be that the shadows cast by Nietzsche and Freud over the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly in the Westernized world of contemporary art, are unavoidable, but I am aware of very few artists who are willing to engage these two thinkers on the same level as Graham – directly and indirectly. The majority of Graham’s works are deft combinations of Nietzschean loop trickery and identity games cast within Freudian dream states. Like Nietzsche’s ubermensch ideal, his playful Dionysian, Graham has no interest in uniting the fragments of modernism, but derives value and pleasure from taking up. The paranoia that Kafka beheld in modernism and the schizophrenia that characterize the post-modern condition are fields of play, to be navigated with the intellectual tools left behind by the two Germanic intellectuals who so perfectly defined the neuroses of the 20th century, and in the end, Graham creates something more cerebral and intellectually invigorating than his pieces may first seem to be.

[1] In the interest of full disclosure, in the process of researching for this essay, I came along an article in Cinemascope #19 by Jason McBride, that made a conjunctive leap from Graham’s loops to another fashionable existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, but where McBride uses Kierkegaard to affix an idea of blissful security to Graham’s loops, I see a shade more critical process at work.

[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science New York: Oxford Press, 1988: p. 341

[3] Miles, Christoper. “Lost In The Moment.” Art in America, March 2005: p.?

[4] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will To Power NY: Oxford Press, 1988: p. 1060

[5] Ibid, p. 1067

[6] In reference to musician, producer, artist and author Brian Eno.

[7] Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York,1988. p.3

[8] It behooves one to mention Nietzsche’s somewhat difficult friendship with the composer Richard Wagner.

[9] Lubbock, Tom “Out Of The Loop”, Independent (London), The October 2002, p. 35

[10] Adam designed the sets for another deceptively titled film that may have been initially regarded as a medical thriller: Dr. Strangelove.

[11] Freud, Sigmund Beyond The Pleasure Principle. New York: Norton Press, 1961: p.42-43

[12] Graham, Rodney “Siting Vexation Island”, Island Thought, Toronto, C. Pavilion, 48th Venice Biennale, 1997, p. 27

[13] Ibid.

[14] Cranfield, Brody “Relaxing With Rodney Graham” Discorder Magazine, March 2002, p. 12

[15] I’ll speculate that critics might feel that his albums lack the ironic (Brechtian?) distancing that constitutes the secret passkey into the art world for elements of low and middlebrow culture.

[16] Graham, Rodney “A Thousand Words: Rodney Graham Talks About the Phonokinetoscope” ArtForum, November, 2001, p. 33

* Many thanks to Brett Stabler for this.

1 comment:

Nosebleed Cinema said...

Inspiring! Far too much for me to properly absorb in merely one read-through however, and hosting many references I'm unacquainted with, but an absolutely fascinating piece.