John Proctor introduces video artist Christine Dehne and her work. This is something else. Amazing, strange, obsessive, hilarious, provocative work. Attentive to small domestic changes & acts. Edging into surrealism and experiment, absent context and frame, in a way. Yes, terrifying, for a writer, to think of giving up so much interpretive cushion. Makes me twitchy, the idea of not being able to explain my characters. Something to think about as NC dabbles in word & photo essays, off the page poetry, photoems and such.
The Video Art of Christine Dehne
By John Proctor
I have a special relationship with the work of video artist Christine Dehne. When I met her in 2007, she was at work on a project in which she was recording cell phone conversations in public places. She had just moved to New York City a few months before, and was using the project as a way of exploring and learning about the city. I asked her once if she was recording our conversations. She responded with something about us not being in a public space, but the message was clear: “Don’t flatter yourself, pal.”
Christine eventually finished that piece as a sound collage, with a video map of the city as the visual. The piece is less concerned with forming any “narrative,” per se, but rather capturing voices, isolating them, and shaping them into a work of art with a logic of its own – in essence making them strange. The piece has shown at Arizona Digital Media Investigations in Flagstaff, the Heritage Film Festival in Baltimore, and Sweet Lorraine Gallery in Brooklyn. You can see and hear it online here.
Though Dehne hasn’t read any Shklovsky, she’s studied Marcel Duchamp, a historical contemporary of Shklovsky, extensively. I won’t even pretend to know more about Duchamp than what she’s told me, but I will say that perhaps his best-known work is his 1917 Fountain, which was simply a “found” urinal he submitted as art for an exhibit that promised everything submitted would be accepted. Duchamp’s intention was to make the statement that anything could be art, if brought out of its utilitarian framework and examined as art – again, if you’ll pardon my intrusion, if it’s made strange.
Dehne actually has a recently piece that is an indirect decendent of Duchamp’s Fountain, titled “Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter as a Fountain.” The piece, from the multi-year lifelog of her pregnancy and motherhood of our daughter Amalia, refers back to Bruce Nauman‘s “Self-Portrait as a Fountain,” which itself, intentionally or not, refers back to Duchamp’s Fountain. Dehne’s 31-second piece slowly, meditatively lingers on Amalia’s chin as she, well, drools like a fountain. The first piece in her lifelog series, “Everyone Told Me the World Would Look Different,” begins completely out of focus, slowly “awakening” to the world of, well, an ear. About a minute into 1-minute, 17-second piece, we hear the sound of a binky being sucked and see, for the first time, Amalia’s face.
One fascinating thing about Dehne’s work, at least to this narrative-oriented writing-type, is the complete reliance on the object and the empathy it can evoke in an audience. To me, this is a terrifying concept – I’ve always relied on the drive of the narrative to pull me and the audience through, and especially expected it in the film work I’d been exposed to before meeting Christine. To think of video as a non-linear, concentric medium is, I guess like reading non-narrative, lyric poetry – something else I’ve frequently stumbled over.
It’s been both ironic and a bit self-gratifying, then, to have worked my way into Christine’s life, and even, in a small way, into her work. Before we were married, she began working on a series of short pieces involving her (and by now our) dog Pants, and decided to use him to symbolize her own domesticating instincts, creating a series of ultra-short film loops with Pants as a stand-in for her. The dog became a metaphor, and also a work-based connection between me and Christine’s art. She eventually showed these pieces together at the “In Home: In Response” show in Baltimore, but the most erudite criticism, in my opinion, came from our friend David Marshall:
What range! I laughed. I cried. Despite his somewhat proletarian appellation, Pants epitomizes nobility. He’s a veritable Lipizzaner of the canine world. His form and tireless pursuit of perfection in “20 minutes” awed and delighted me. His (dare i say it?) dogged search for truth in “30 minutes” was inspiring. His courage and sheer animal magnetism in doing an interspecies homo-erotic love scene left me panting for more.