Dark Learning: Jacobus Capone

Dark Learning: Jacobus Capone at Pakenham Street Art Space. (PSAS)
By Graham Mathwin

It seems it has been a year for performance art on video, with Ragnar Kjartansson’s massive installations across John Curtin Gallery and Fremantle Arts Centre. I can’t help thinking that sending Jacobus Capone to Iceland to produce this body of work has proved even more fruitful than bringing the Icelandic artist to us. There is no question for me about the quality of this body of work – it is incredible. As opposed to Kjartansson’s often not very filmic work, Capone has not only succeeded in making a series of his usual poetic endurance art forms, but also in creating a successful filmic and installation experience. It is rare to pull off something wherein the documentation is as powerful as the action, but here that combination has been achieved. The multi-part performance does seem to lack any obvious narrative, but happily, as Capone’s work always does, it makes up for it by being poetry.

The aesthetic use of the landscape here is employed to the full, and though there are perhaps some Romantic inclinations behind the work, there is a brutality and engagement in the visceral that removes the distance often experienced within the Romantic depictions of distant mountains. Here the artist trudges slowly and difficultly through the snow, retracing his steps, and crushes deep black coals in his hands, and rests immobile on freezing ice, his skin reddening. Despite the visually overwhelming experience of witnessing the seven-channel installation in action, it is this tactility that brings the work back from the spectacular into the personal, and the realms of the poetic. The ritualistic nature of the gestures Capone performs still invite a sense of the spiritual, but not one that is distinct, that is to say, distanced, from us. This is a spirituality of the earth, if any, and is not always uplifting – Capone spends most of the time with his face looking down, or propped up by forms in the landscape, and his body takes on the shape of mountains and rocks.

I would particularly compliment the timing and pacing of the works. The filmic and installation quality that I spoke of is due directly to the fact that we are not witnessing an actual performance. The slowness of the images gives an indication of the time spent in the landscape, while we are given the edited, symbolic vision of this work. The time is implicit in the reddening of his hands that grip the ice, and their later blackening in coal, and the footprints in the snow. The difficulty of viewing Kjartansons work was that it was so still, so focused on the endurance performance, it sometimes did not invite us to stay and watch (the visitors and the end being the two major exceptions). They operated like images, and not video. Capone’s work is also often still, but he moves through the landscape frequently, and close up shots of the landscape pan slowly. It is this that really sets the work visually, allowing movement through the landscape for us as well. The work invites us to watch. The installation complements this, the poles and the screens positioned at diagonals inviting us to move around, sometimes obstructing our view of other parts of the space. This dynamic, which is perhaps inaccurately entitled ‘site specific’ is yet brilliantly conceived in the space. Capone clearly realized the potential of the space (PSAS), perhaps more successfully than many other exhibitions before, have. Though I would dispute its claim to site specificity, it is by no means to suggest the work does not act successfully in the space, indeed, its consideration of the space and its very installation is its great success, yet perhaps it is more ‘site adjusted’ than ‘site specific’ – to nit-pick using Robert Irwin’s terminology – and especially as I hope to see this work again, in any number of different configurations and spaces.

The work is of a quality comparable, as you may have gathered from my opening, with some of the best contemporary art in the world, or maybe even better. It is comparable to various artworks I saw at the Palais de Tokyo, on a level with Phillipe Parreno’s explorations into film. The technical excellence of the set-up, and the filmic execution of works that are brilliant performances gives this work an enormous amount of power, and places it firmly at the top of the most wonderful things I have seen this year.


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