“I’ve discovered,” claims the haughty voice-over of Uri Aran’s video Harry, 2007, “I can provoke just a bit, but with a certain charm or grace it will go unpunished.” This cheeky brinksmanship runs through the sculptures, drawings and videos in Aran’s exhibition Doctor, Dog, Sandwich [Mother’s Tankstation; 15 September – 30 October, 2010]. Works that are at times trying, dissipated, wilfully obscure or just plain absurd are balanced, or at least slightly reined in, by also being playfully open-ended and gently humorous. Cumulatively, they manage to construct a comprehensive, if unsettling, sort of non-sense. His repeated use of horses, dogs, and cookies throughout the show gives a heavy whiff of adolescence, like one of those innocuous posters of cute puppies found in a girl’s bedroom. But in Aran’s work, it’s as if someone has snuck into the bedroom in the middle of night and replaced the ‘Hang in there!’ words of dainty encouragement on the poster with random gibberish, something like ‘Idiot boat turtle’, leaving us as witnesses to an indefinable crime and with a vague sense of violation.
A pair of desks leave a trail of clues, the wood shavings from repeated holes bored into the furniture scattered on top, alongside chocolate chip cookies, fake eyelashes, a plastic coin and a cat toy, all mired in sticky pools of uneven wood varnish. A small black and white TV, the kind that people used to have on top of their fridge, sits on the desktop of Couldn’t be here, 2010, endlessly repeating the final credits of 1979’s Black Stallion, complete with soaring strings and a boy and his horse frolicking in the sand. These works exude a precise sense of neurotic frustration, an extreme instance of a bored pupil etching their criticisms of school into their desk. There’s a similar sense of mis-firing education coming from the poster Unititled (By), 2010, where a cluster of internet-sourced portraits of people, horses and dogs are seemingly arbitrarily assigned a mode of transport. An earnest-looking Labrador is labelled ‘by boat’; a poodle wearing a beret, ‘by car’; a studio shot of a German Shepherd, ‘by train.’ The careful accumulation of these placements and designations starts to lend each image and item the weight of a cryptic symbolism, but one, you suspect, that might be hollow.
The video The Donut Gang, 2009, is an assemblage of voiced-over rehearsals, easy-listening music, and footage of a girl (in horse-patterned pyjamas, of course) trying out different phrases prompted by the camera operator. It is, as a bold title at the start proclaims, ‘A VIDEO’, while the English-accented narrator stumbles over what sounds like is meant to be a joke: “What’s round, green on the outside, red on the inside, has pips, and is sweet?” There is no punchline, just the implication of one extending from the structure of the question. Likewise, the video doesn’t claim any subject, appearing more as the preparation towards a video, though still occupying its formal structures as simply moving image placed alongside sound. The girl waves at you with the arm of an Elmo toy, with a high-pitched “Hello!,” while the narrator repeats countless times, “We tried to stay awake all night. It was so much fun.” The patterns of sounds from Aran’s other works begin to interject and interrupt: Harry’s narrator incessantly trying out phrases like ‘my love,’ ‘my dear,’ a low grumble from the crying man embracing a dog in Untitled, 2006, all the while the music from Black Stallion placing us in a swirling, never ending melodrama.
Aran’s repetition of phrases, imagery, and cultural idioms has a strange effect; as incidental occurrences, he astutely multiplies them to the frequency so as to be co-incidental, to suggest an apparent structure. But at the same time, like the experience of looking at a word until it becomes unfamiliar, their repetition moves them towards dissolution and meaninglessness. Aran’s structures are hollow, his focus instead to find in their frameworks the exact point of tension that provisionally holds together these disparate elements that are constantly threatening to collapse.
Originally published in Art Papers, Vol. 34 No. 6, November – December 2010.