Pete Volich, Attempting to say cheese whilst remembering the Kellett Street massacre, 2009, single channel video with sound. Photo: the artist.
Disconnected sounds of police sirens, coughing, spluttering, and flocks of birds confronted the viewer as they entered the darkened space of Pete Volich’s exhibition Dirty Fingerprints at Canberra Contemporary Art Space. Videos projected on left and right walls stood either side of me as I walked into the gallery; behind me were a small number of collages, lit from above by fluorescent lights.
An ongoing concern in Volich’s work is the social history of public space and vernacular photography, which he has recently explored through performance. The video work Attempting to Say Cheese Whilst Remembering The Kellett Street Massacre (2009) was filmed in Sydney’s Kings Cross, where the infamous 1927 Razor Gangs riots occurred. The work shows the artist standing directly in front of the camera in his deadpan style. He stares and grimaces, his lips appear to be wrestling a half-formed smile.
This a reference to the history of the toothy grin found in snapshots. As Christina Kotchemidova discusses in Why We Say ‘Cheese’: Producing the Smile in Snapshot Photography, the origins of the smile in photography are not solely due to speedier camera shutters or improved dental care in the early 20th century. Kotchemidova suggests that it was, in fact, Kodak’s monopoly over the photographic industry and pervasive advertising that shaped the cultural habits of the amateur photographer. We traded the solemn face for the grin and in doing so adopted signifiers for consumer happiness. Attempting to Say Cheese Whilst Remembering The Kellett Street Massacre makes an effort to examine this cultural norm against the context of local histories. Through Volich’s performance of the ‘Kodak smile’ this vacant cultural pose all but eclipses the significance of his chosen site.
Volich’s deadpan performance incorporates a level of absurdity in his attempt to recall, or maybe more accurately play tourist to, events that occurred well before his lifetime. By returning to the site of the riots he uses the location to construct a kind of memory machine. In this regard, the work is similar to Mike Kelley’s project Educational Complex (1995), in which Kelley drew on fragments of his memory to construct architectural models. These models sought to recreate spaces that Kelley had lived and worked in since childhood—resulting in an architecture of impossibility as he focused on the gaps and disjuncture of his memory. Both Kelley and Volich use the interrogation of space as a vehicle for the recovery of repressed memory—be it social or personal. Yet as Volich stands with the lights of Kings Cross behind him, the effects of urban development on the city are evident; the place bears no evidence of the traumatic history that Volich half-heartedly seeks to evoke. By using space as the material for recollection, Volich touches on the inexorable mutation of city environments and the inevitable erasure of the past through change.
Pete Volich, Man with cold #1 (Monday), 2005/10, single channel video with sound. Photo: the artist.
A spluttering sound echoed through the space and I turned to the second video piece Man with a Cold (2005/2010), where Volich’s breathing labours under the weight of a nasty cold. His eyes are closed as mucus drips down from his nose. Using the close-up as a framing device allows a detailed examination of Volich’s features as he struggles with his ailments, bringing the artist’s own fragility to the fore. The work is a snappy reply to Bruce Nauman’s Self Portrait as a Fountain (1966-67) which sees Nauman spout water from his mouth for the film’s duration. While Nauman makes ironic reference to the artist as a source of social nourishment and refreshment, Volich alternatively shows the artist as harbouring the common cold and thus susceptible to human frailty.
Volich effectively highlights everyday actions to humorous effect in this film. The simple portrait composition and the silliness of his actions are akin to the work of New Zealand artist Campbell Patterson. Campbell’s video Chewing Brothers (2005) shows the familiar action of chewing gum, yet rendered strange as the gum is passed between the artist and two brothers in a potentially endless chain. Both Volich and Campbell play on the banality of everyday actions in their videos providing an economy of means and an immediacy that characterises their practice.
Disappointingly, the placement of the videos in Dirty Fingerprints did not negiotate the particular qualities of the gallery space. This, I believe, prevented a direct dialogue between the video works, and resulted in a somewhat disjointed exhibition. Central to the strength of both videos is the duration of Volich’s actions. His performances are reminiscent of performance video of the 1970s, with the video camera used as the stage for his ‘barely there’ acting. Lynne Cooke’s observation of Nauman’s practice could equally be applied to Volich’s work—‘Time is experienced as repetition within a never-ending succession: no resolution can be expected, and closure remains deferred.’
Pete Volich’s exhibition Dirty Fingerprints was held at Canberra Contemporary Art Space from 15 October to 17 November 2010.
 Christina Kotchemidova, ‘Why We Say “Cheese”: Producing the Smile in Snapshot Photography,’ Critical Studies in Media Communication Vol. 22, No. 1, (March 2005)
 Ibid, p. 2
 Anthony Vidler, ‘Mike Kelley’s Educational Complex’ in Warped Space: art architecture and anxiety in modern culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), 159
 Lynne Cooke, ‘Bruce Nauman: a waiting’ in Bruce Nauman: International New Media Art (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2002), 40
Originally published in Runway, Issue 18 , EXPECTATION, Autumn 2011, pp 70 – 71.
Liang Luscombe is a Melbourne-based artist and curator. Recent solo exhibitions include: Three Sailors, Sutton Project Space, Melbourne, 2014; Non in Casa, 157 Blyth St,...