Artful Dodgers

Run, don't walk: A subway passenger from Shannon Kennedy's video installation "Untitled #3"

At the root of much art is artifice--a concealing of the methods of production. Think of Claude Monet, whose outdoor landscapes were scrupulously touched up afterward in the artist's studio, or James Audubon, whose detailed portraits of birds in the wild were created using stiff specimens he'd collected with a shotgun. In order to present the viewer with a beautiful or meaningful image, an artist often hides the tricks used to fabricate the thing--whether it be the long hours spent in a dank studio with a cranky nude model or a slowly rotting bowl of fruit, or any other of the methods of fakery used to make a work (Vermeer's camera obscura, Italian Renaissance painters' perspective grid, etc.).

In two shows currently up in the Twin Cities, artists employ some amount of artful dodging in the creation of their work. The concept is simple enough in Mark Knierim and Robert Lawrence's "An Acre of Art" at the Minnesota Artists Gallery of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. As an experiment, a couple of artists tended a plot of land in southern Minnesota for a year. The results were recorded and filmed, mulled over and examined. Then the artists constructed a tidy and meaningful package that purports to say something about the "rural."

In our post-Survivor zeitgeist of pseudo-reality, when a politician can score points for a staged kiss of his own wife, artists need face no difficulties making art about "ruralness" while faking the pastoral experience. Take their chicken-in-the-gallery piece. At one end of the room the artists have placed a cage wherein two chickens reside, scratching at the bedding at their feet and pecking at corn in a small dish as only chickens can. We are meant to see that chickens are beautiful creatures, and that we don't really consider their nature beyond the frozen-food aisle. These animals have a unique design despite the market forces that turn them into identical parts in a food factory. Beyond that conceit, the chickens are broadcast live via Webcam to the Internet (with a monolithic computer plopped at one end of the cage). With this device, we're apparently directed to think of the dehumanizing effects of technology. The kicker, however, is that these two chickens happen to be Knierim's pets, Scout and Mabel, who have been specially coached by the artist in dealing with the stresses of living a gallery life. And as pets, they have an artificially exalted status removed from the factory-farm life of most of their kin. And the authentic acre of farmland, meanwhile, was loaned to Knierim and Lawrence by a local art administrator: It's as if the Survivor crew had been sent to a backlot in Burbank to live through their jungle ordeal, and not to a real island at all.

Like Survivor, however, the prefabricated nature of the messages doesn't blunt the entertainment value. In the center of the gallery is a long, low table holding a trench full of golden corn kernels, which is quite beautiful. A long strip of lead mounted on the wall opposite the table makes for an interesting foil in color and texture: The golden kernels of corn are earthy; the slate-colored metal is like a heavy, gray winter sky. Elsewhere, three television monitors show idyllic visions of the actual field of corn that the artists planted. The camera slowly pans the feathery tops of the cornstalks as they sway lightly in the sunlight--you almost expect to hear a swelling Copland soundtrack in the background. It is enough that the screens flash superfluous images of mechanical diagrams and a list of the corn's DNA code just in case we haven't yet gotten the point. (This can also be found on the exhibit's Web site: Yes, technology and science remove us from the experience. And thanks for the double dose of postmodern irony in using technology to tell us so.

Shannon Kennedy's show at the Franklin Art Works, "Shannon Kennedy: Recent Video Work," debuts "Untitled #3," a video projection created from footage shot recently in the subway system of New York. Though the artist plays with notions of artifice here, her work is not self-reflexive. Rather than setting up an artificial situation to make a point, Kennedy has employed some legerdemain to facilitate the appearance of naturalism.

"Untitled #3" involves montages of people in the strange underground world of the subway. They move in slow motion through odd passages filled with yellow and orange light. They look at the camera with blank faces, their mouths set hard against the struggle of a long workday. It takes a few moments for the viewer to discover that, oddly, the people in Kennedy's video do not generally notice the camera or the artist behind it. Instead, they simply take in the world with a deathlike weariness. Over the speaker system in the gallery, industrial clanging and moaning noises erupt--the rumbling bowels of an enormous robot--and it makes an eerie counterpoint to the motion onscreen. For seven minutes, people move toward the trains in slow motion, the trains floating liltingly through the subway tunnels. The bodies turn like lumbering beasts as the carriages arrive and depart.

Overall, the video plays like a surveillance tape of zombies: The viewer is likely to be overcome with unease at the misery of it all. And this is as the artist wants it. "My work is influenced by horror movies," Kennedy explains in Franklin's airy main chamber the day before the opening. "I like activating banal experiences and making it into something out of the range of daily experience. Just as horror films do." (Is there any art form more contrived and manipulative than a horror film?)

The artist's secret--her trick--in capturing these people in such unguarded moments is twofold. First, by her own reckoning she is a smallish woman, and thus unobtrusive as she films. Second, she encourages people to ignore her by holding her video camera down at her waist, rather than at eye level. In this way, she looks down into the viewfinder as she films, not directly at the subject. As Kennedy explains it, much of what is seen onscreen--the blank stares, the unguarded looks--comes because the subjects are unaware that they are being filmed. As with art through the ages, the verité of the final product originates in the artist being a little less than truthful in the creation.

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