Upon entering James Harney’s exhibition Veneer, the visitor could be forgiven for suspecting that the television screen in the installation was showing some kind of monochromatic test pattern. Held at Firstdraft in Sydney, Veneer featured a viewable library of video artworks, with each tape named after—and encased in—a different variety of plastic ‘wood’ veneer. These stood to attention like a small geometric forest, positioned on a shelf next to the television. The TV, along with the VCR and a wall of the gallery itself, was also clad in wood veneer. By interacting with the work—ejecting one video and playing another—it became clear that each tape contained footage of a different type of wood grain pattern. Each video corresponded with the particular veneer of its VHS cover, and the room sheet read like a catalogue of botanical specimens, with exotic names such as ‘Milano walnut’, ‘Rock maple’, ‘Tauny limewood’ and ‘Palisander’. However, the allusion to nature in these titles was not reflected in the electronic graininess of the wood-grain imagery on the screen, nor in the shiny plastic veneer of each video cover.
The inspiration for the exhibition was the op-shop discovery of a VHS tape that was oddly encased in a wood veneer sleeve. This led Harney to imagine what video might have been originally contained within this sleeve. By taking a discarded object and inventing an alternative future for it, Harney’s process calls to mind the exploration of the ‘butterfly effect’ in the 1998 film Run Lola Run (1998)—in particular, the director’s use of ‘fast forwards’ through the lives of auxiliary characters. Harney’s similarly close observation of everyday detritus provided some surprising insights.
Veneer brought to light ideas about whether technology and its buzzing dynamism comes at the expense of the preservation of nature. This is of course a universal question now, as humankind grapples with the way that its advances have impacted upon the natural world. Technology has provided the capacity to reproduce the appearance of nature on a superficial level (the veneer) and even variances within it (the different ‘species’ of veneer). However, by emphasising the plasticity of the veneer and static of the video, ultimately Harney suggests that such representations are a poor imitation of nature. This is reflected in screen culture itself: what is shown on television is mostly a manufactured imitation of reality, which does not engage the senses the way reality does. In this way, the different veneers have never lived the way their namesakes have. The ‘Noble Cherry’ has never held the form of an imposing and dignified tree. The ‘Natural Zebrand’ simply isn’t. Further, the fact that each of Harney’s videos were presented as individual works, called to mind the novelty videos designed to turn a television into a fireplace or aquarium. The exhibition therefore provided the opportunity to apply a veneer to the television screen itself, papering over the medium in response to its own superficiality.
Just as a video provides a less intense experience than film, and a film is not as vivid as reality, there were many acts of translation running through Veneer. The stylised image of the wood veneer was visibly removed from the appearance of the original tree or wood. The found video sleeve was removed from its context (the junk shop), and subject to reinterpretation. The videos themselves were removed from their cases in order to be played, and the final image on the screen was so far removed from its organic cousin that it was sometimes difficult to discern its origin. Meaning became altered as the wood grain pattern was translated from one context to the next. Even the clunky and outmoded media format of VHS spoke of a distant time. Whereas today’s digital technologies strive to create an image that is as close to ‘reality’ as possible, plastic wood veneer and VHS tapes nod towards the philosophy of ‘near enough is good enough’. The quality of a VHS is simply not acceptable in the current heyday of DVD, just as a kitchen bench decked out in wood veneer would pale (or rather peel) in comparison to a granite bench top. What was once an acceptable contribution to the domestic interior has fallen into the category of kitsch.
Nevertheless, superficiality has become something to embrace. It is now fashionable to focus on one’s veneer. First impressions are very important, and these days no one has time to look below the surface anyway. In this exhibition, viewers who delved beyond the wood veneer of the video covers were rewarded with yet another—slightly fuzzier—veneer. Harney’s work was deceptively simple: it ultimately revealed a great deal.
James Harney’s Veneer was held at Firstdraft Gallery, Sydney from 10 to 27 June, 2009.
Originally published in Runway, Issue 15, Lies, Summer 2009-2010, pp 78 – 79.
Chloé Wolifson was a member of the Management & Editorial Boards of The Invisible Inc. from 2013-2016, and held the position of Deputy Chair of...