Author: Chris Fite-Wassilak
Publication: Frieze Magazine
Press Date: 26 March 2009
In 1938 all it took was Orson Welles delivering a grave, news-bulletin-style reading of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) to make people think his radio broadcast was reporting a real occurrence. These days, a ‘based on a true story’ claim doesn’t even cut it anymore; it seems a work requires at least a ‘making-of’ documentary and a book’s worth of supplementary documentation to be able to pull off the same trick. There’s a moment in the main film of Lindsay Seers’ vertiginous installation It has to be this way (2009), in which we see through the blurred greens of a video camera’s night vision a woman in a long dress wading slowly through a fountain pool. ‘It’s like The Blair Witch Project,’ whispers a male voice, unseen behind the camera. Like the 1999 fake documentary-cum-horror film, Seers’ video installation attempts to retrace the last days of a missing person, here her step-sister Christine, who we are told disappeared in Rome in 2001. Unlike The Blair Witch Project, though, It has to be this way never resolves the tensions between its immediate, experiential reality and the documented reality it supposedly represents; knowledge of the narrative’s facts and fictions remain blurred and elusive.
It has to be this way balanced its several modes of presentation effectively, but in progressively decreasing amounts of ostensible objectivity. At the entrance to the gallery was a library-like foyer, where a short documentary was screened of talking heads discussing elements of the work (handily broken down into chapters, ‘Memory’, ‘Theatre’, and ‘Memory Theatre’), and copies were provided of a publication containing letters and notes on which the show was based, both by M. Anthony Penwill. Acting as a sort of fact-gathering, pep-talk den that attempted to begin digesting the work before it had been ingested in the first place, it also gave us the background story: Christine, a scholar on the 17th-century Queen Christina of Sweden (a figure who, due to masculine aspects of her character, has become a transgender icon), was involved in an accident that incurred severe memory loss. Papers that apparently came to the artist after her disappearance also revealed Christine’s disintegrating relationship with a man identified only as ‘S’.
The gallery space was dominated by a royal blue stage structure – a simplified replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – punctuated by two intrusive, crystalline star sculptures of the same colour. Hiding behind one of these was a short video, which through a series of layered, overlapping monologues wove together a portrait of both Seers’ step-sister and the Swedish Queen. Interviews with historians of the monarch were intercut with the views of film critic Rachel Moore, who claims to have met Christine, creating the impression of a single, fused character whose most definable trait seemed to be a resolute indeterminacy.
The whole room rumbled with bass tremors emanating from the stage, which turned out to be the halting, staggered thoughts of S: entering the theatre, we are inside his head, a dual projection of two circles looking out as he goes over the time from the accident to Christine’s disappearance. Through the callous apathy of his narration, what emerges is a set of relationships to imagery, particularly photography. Seers’ mother, looking after Christine in hospital, provides her with a box of old photos in an attempt to jog her memory and awaken her dormant personality. Christine, unable to recognize anyone in the images, instead arranges them as a set of tarot cards, turning their indexical record into a generative set of possibilities of the present. S takes her use of the photos as surrogates of her thought processes, going so far at one point to take an image of the actress Harriet Bosse in shackles as a suggestion of masochism. Implicit in all this is Seers’ own methodology, involving us in the breadcrumb trail of hints and insights the images might provide. Despite this intense proximity, however, S’s own motivations or personality don’t become any clearer. The protagonists remain conspicuously absent from any of the imagery; the only shots supposedly of Christine, she faces away from the camera.
Seers has previously mixed autobiography and history to suggest an alternative family tree of the image, as in Extramission (2005), using a combination of the testimonials from familial stand-ins and the opinions of apparent experts in a television documentary style. It has to be this way goes further, literally stepping inside the talking head, taking the video’s projection as a simultaneous act of hers and our own projection of character onto these misplaced protagonists. The maze of archaic references to Neoplatonism and Swedenborg, hiding at their core a raw, personal trauma, is strongly reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s Valis (1981), its obsessive cosmology disclosing a defensive escapism. Here, through potent allegory that may or may not be true, we are presented with the question of how images are interpreted and used in the present tense, the question of what we can know from an image. For Seers, it remains impossible to answer, a space where fact and fiction are co-dependent, and which inevitably has to remain an open wound.