In the late 1990s, a lot of American artists fancied themselves filmmakers. Most got stuck in a no man's land that was not very fun to visit.
On the upside, artists enjoyed the freedom of including feature-length videos in their installations. And they pretty much did what they wanted: shooting, editing and scoring their opuses as well as packing galleries with prop-like objects. But for viewers, standing around for an hour or two to see the whole show was a problem. As was arriving in the middle of things. So the videos tended to become backdrops for the displayed objects, setting the mood, establishing the atmosphere.
At REDCAT, German artist John Bock takes visitors back to this moment -- but with a big difference. Titled "John Bock: Palms," his sprawling sculpture accompanied by an hourlong film (and six seats for viewers) succeeds where many others failed because the movie is more than watchable.
It is intriguing, funny and weirdly endearing, filled with suspense and just the right balance between twisted turns of logic and reassuringly familiar conventions. It neither plays second fiddle to the installation nor forces the two media to fuse in some kind of Wagnerian totality.
Best of all, Bock's low-budget road movie is terrifically unpretentious, even silly. It never pretends to be anything more than it is: an oddball romp through the high points and low moments of contemporary art, recent movies and much in between.
"Palms" also comes to us after YouTube, meeting an audience accustomed to seeing the rampant nuttiness of contemporary life caught on video by nonspecialists and instantly distributed to anyone interested. The site revels in offbeat absurdity, often revealing chinks in the armor of what used to be called mainstream culture but now seems to be just another niche in a global network of niches, all filled by regular folks who are also connoisseurs of the cockeyed and aficionados of the offbeat. Bock plays to this crowd of Everyman eccentrics.
His installation is standard gallery fare: good enough to get you to look closely but insufficiently distinguished to be memorable until you see the movie, which reveals that most of the objects are props. In a sense, the installation is for fans, an added bonus for visitors who like the movie and want to see more.
The movie follows the misadventures of a pair of nerdy hit men looking for answers to questions that take them deeper and deeper into life's mysteries. Their journey begins on the streets of Los Angeles, in a classic convertible. It takes them into the crawl space under a Richard Neutra house in West Hollywood, where a shadow puppet violently murders its shadow. In the next scene, a hapless mobster is horribly tortured and eventually put out of his misery, crushed by a third-rate steel sculpture.
Then things get strange.
Bock's protagonists, dressed like extras from a "Men in Black" convention, act like extras from David Lynch's "Mulholland Dr.," Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" or Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" -- yet without the high-minded high jinks or film school pretentiousness. They seem to have fallen out of a painting by René Magritte or out of Marcel Duchamp's last masterpiece, a peephole installation famous for its cheesy illusionism and campy wisecracks.
There's a touch of Buster Keaton about the pair, who speak in German and English (both with subtitles) but are silent for long stretches. When they talk, they often sound like drunken philosophy majors whose infatuation with big ideas is comically out of sync with their pedestrian surroundings. Think Sartre meets Hegel, Heidegger and Henry Kissinger by way of " The Colbert Report."
Bock's installation features a finely restored Lincoln convertible. Out of its open hood spills a slew of bright red tentacles made of shiny vinyl fabric. The serpentine tangle resembles a mutant cartoon squid.
Makeshift sculptures -- assembled from such junk as bicycle parts, old suitcases, plastic bottles, cotton swabs, wooden chairs and broken toys -- rest on the car's seats and among the tentacles. The large ones, about the size of a body, are held together with duct tape, wires and twist-ties. The smaller ones are laid out on blankets, like household leftovers set out for last-chance yard sales.
The installation is also a cheeky sendup of Matthew Barney's over-the-top combos of elaborately crafted sculptures and long, drawn-out movies. But where Barney's updated Wagnerianism seeks its pedigree in the Old World notion of cinema, Bock happily dives into the New World of shoot-'em-yourself videos, where seat-of-your-pants adaptation and mutt-style mixtures of anything-goes eagerness make for madcap adventures.