A is for absence. Here are the doors to the gallery (but not this gallery). Here is a VCR playing a tape (but there’s no output). Over there are 12 vintage videocassette packages (but they’re handmade fakes). Here is a printed announcement of an exhibition by Joshua Schwebel (but that’s a Google Street View picture of my house on the front of it).
Okay, not exactly absence—more like in lieu. You know: posing, pretending, standing-in. Like words. The things in this show are all placeholders for something else, and we’re not exactly sure what they’re holding out for. The work is no picnic—typical avant-garde, neo-Conceptual, meta-institutional, smart-ass critique, it exemplifies why so many people hate going to art galleries. But slow down. Those cassette (-like) packages are beautiful: so lovingly rendered with markers, pens and pencil crayons that they humble you into taking another look.
For the Saskatoon presentation of “[Caché],” Schwebel suggested that a film be screened at the beautifully slumped Broadway Theatre. The film, it was hoped, would parallel and hopefully elucidate some of the ellipses and problematics in the exhibition, as Schwebel’s “[Caché]” is in fact a homage to the paranoid world that filmmaker Michael Haneke presents in his own Caché (2005).
Haneke’s Caché has been described as a whodunit without the who. An apparently successful and contented bourgeois Parisian family is slowly undone when a series of homemade surveillance tapes trained mostly on the facade of their house is left at their front door. The shots are, for the most part, taken from the same perspective; they are static, and excruciatingly banal, yet enough, in appearing without source or motive, to drive anyone crazy. During a residency in Paris, Schwebel decided to make his own voyeuristic home videos, and spent two to three hours a day over the course of a week at a museum, recording without permission. He left the resulting videotapes in the mailbox of the house used in the film—successfully delivering four before being confronted by the real-life occupants of the residence.
Provoking the Judaic injunction against graven images, where the fear of mistaking the sign for the real thing gives rise to the harsh taboo, both Haneke and Schwebel shower audiences in symbols and indices but position the referents off camera. All the free-floating signs are intolerable. We start to fill in the blanks: imaginations kick in, we mine our psyches trying to make sense of what we see.
By way of explanation, Schwebel writes on his website (in the third person): “Joshua Schwebel is a conceptual artist…. His body of work questions what it means to witness a work of art, and why the act of witnessing is expected to occur in a state of co-presence with the work (as many works can be experienced via documentation, or through second-hand accounts, etc.).” His objection to the claim that a full and authentic experience of art can only be guaranteed through bodily “co-presence” is actually a challenge to taboos on representation. It asks: why is my unmediated and direct experience any better than yours?
This is a review from the Fall 2014 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents.