Open Eye Gallery Liverpool

Open Eye Gallery

Lars Laumann

Liverpool Biennial ‘Touched’ 2010

‘I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.

Everything in this exhibition makes you question what constitutes “truth” and how it can be distorted through subjective readings, clever editing and censorship. In each piece Laumann skillfully plays off reality with fiction, making you realise that labeling something as being “truthful” can be a deceptive act. The whole show concerns the truth, or rather versions of the truth, and none more so than Laumann’s latest work made especially for this year’s Biennial.

Helen Keller (and the great purging bonfire of books and unpublished manuscripts illuminating the dark) New commission for Open Eye Gallery and Liverpool Biennial 2010, Touched.

What are we to make of Laumann’s new commission, set in its own space towards the back of the Open Eye gallery, a bench provided for the convenience of viewers to settle down and watch this video of nearly 30 minutes duration. At first it feels like a straightforward narrative film, albeit of inferior standard, but it’s difficult to penetrate the unravelling story-line. We are told this is a post revolutionary Iranian T.V. adaptation of J.D. Salinger’s 1963 short story “Franny and Zooey” overlaid with English subtitles. A grainy V.H.S. ‘pirate’ quality drama is played out on screen, even the Iranian T.V. network logo is visible in the corner. We struggle to make sense of the subtitles in relation to the actions of the characters on screen, especially since the main actor displays a highly emotionally charged persona which appears at odds with the lines we are being fed. We come to a sudden realisation that all is not as it seems when she declares “What you are really afraid of is the America inside you!” Again, this outburst seems out of context and leads you to fully examine the details of the video and draws your attention to the fact that the subtitles have been pasted over the pre-existing text of the T.V. version. Just when you are still trying to come to terms with the complexities of this piece the faux-narrative changes again and the many twists and turns of Laumann’s artistic style reveal themselves, taking us on a journey and making our heads spin in confusion. Images of book burning, one being Salinger’s own “The Catcher in the Rye”, are inter-cut with archive footage of Nazi posters being ripped from walls. The viewer feels disorientated and wonders what happened to the original story-line and how does this treatise on propaganda and censorship relate to what we have already seen? But we are never to return to the story of “Franny and Zooey” as Laumann develops his film/collage technique even further by throwing other elements into the mix. A series of bodies forming letter shapes, presumably a reference to the Helen Keller of the title since she was both deaf and blind, are followed by a child narrator clumsily telling the story of the book “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils” and how its Swedish author, Selma Lagerlof, was accused of prejudice since she omitted the whole area of Halland from this tale of the History and Geography of Sweden. It was thought that she considered this region to be racially impure and unworthy of inclusion in this bestselling children’s book of 1902. But how do all these separate issues connect? Could we use the title of this work as a starting point?

Let’s begin with Helen Keller whose extraordinary life, with its own manipulations and complex historical re-telling, is an enthralling read in itself. Keller (1880-1968) was a deaf/blind author, suffragette and lecturer whose inspiring life story even produced an Oscar winning film ‘The Miracle Worker’ 1962. Her Socialist political activism was frowned upon in her native USA and her essay ‘How I Became a Socialist’ was burnt by the Nazis in the infamous book burnings of 1933. There was also an accusation of plagiarism levelled at her for a story she wrote when she was just 11 years old. “The Frost King” appears to be an example of cryptomnesia where an author can subconsciously re-use another’s words and innocently pass them off as their own since Keller’s story bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘The Frost Fairies’ by Margaret Canby. This is not something we could accuse Laumann of doing in his work since he very consciously appropriates and recycles others’ images, words and stories for his own purposes. Keller’s plagiarism is touched upon in the subtitles accompanying the first part of the video when the main protagonist alludes to this, possibly false, allegation.

It has to be said that the casual viewer will undoubtedly miss the subtlety of Laumann’s message since we had to do a lot of homework to discover the full complexities lying within this narrative. However, our efforts were fully rewarded as this seemingly simple understated film has revealed itself as a disturbing moralistic debate on presentations of truth, justice, power and propaganda. Multiple layers are woven into this disorientating narrative which manages to combine references to censorship, plagiarism, prejudice, Socialism and Nazi-ism. Maybe the thread that holds it all together can be summed up in the sentiment “the truth will out!” As Helen Keller herself declared in 1933 when she discovered that her book on Socialism had been burned, “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them. You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels, and will continue to quicken other minds.”


The new commission is exhibited alongside two existing video works;

Duett, 2010

Consisting of a large black monitor standing on its end and leaning against the gallery wall “Duett” takes on the appearance of a monolith or shiny granite gravestone. The viewer is coerced into an intimate connection with this work since the sound can only be heard by way of two sets of headphones hanging either side of the monitor from a short lead. In this way we get “up close and personal” with the two combative performers who Laumann has appropriated. These two giant historical political figures combine to perform a digital, yet somewhat sinister, X factor style challenge. Laumann presents Margaret Thatcher and Donald Rumsfeld. They are given a few inches of screen space on the monitor, two talking heads facing each other producing two extraordinary pieces of dialogue. We hear first from Margaret Thatcher whose voice is digitally manufactured making it appear that she is singing her words in an otherworldly tone and sounding like a robot devoid of human emotion. The speech is taken from an interview with David Frost on TV AM in 1985 just 3 years after the controversial sinking of the Argentinian warship Belgrano. This action was sanctioned in Westminster by Thatcher’s cabinet despite the fact that the ship was sailing away from the Falkland Islands and was outside the British government’s self-imposed exclusion zone. It was sunk by HMS Conqueror with the loss of 323 lives. Laumann has taken short segments of the interview and synthesized Thatcher’s voice to such an extent as to transform it into musical notes. The words are repeated, accelerated and slowed.

‘That ship was a danger to our boys, that’s why that ship was sunk, I know it was right to sink her and I would do the same again’.

Rumsfeld’s part in this performance is taken from a speech he made in 2002 at a press briefing regarding the Iraq government and their alleged weapons of mass destruction:

‘The message is that there are no “knowns.” There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that’s basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns’.

It’s an amazing statement which lies central to the access and consequential use of information which can develop policy and ultimately make a case for war. Rumsfeld presents a spaghetti of words which Laumann manipulates as a soundtrack to ridicule and emphasise the confusion attached to belief systems of truth seeking. This work again plays on ideas of the truth and belief. Can we take the words of these world players at face value or are we cynical enough to suspect that we are being manipulated in the same way that Laumann has manipulated Thatcher’s and Rumsfeld’s speech patterns to create this strange alien rhetoric? Their words are cleverly deployed to justify multiple enemy deaths in times of war and we must wait for 30 years to discover the whole truth of the circumstances.

Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Diana, 2006

Conspiracy theory and belief are investigated within a classroom setting as the audience are invited to occupy infant size school chairs to watch and hear a collection of strange obsessional findings. Each track from the Smiths 1986 album ‘The Queen is Dead’ is given detailed analysis by a voiceover to prove that Morrissey (with the help of extra-terrestrial beings) foresaw the death of Princess Diana in 1997. A series of clips from archived sources slickly edited together and projected on a screen brings a convincing documentary style to the work. Belief systems and manipulation of information make this a comical and entertaining piece which can be seen as mocking devoted followers who are too willing to believe a set of given laws and half plausible facts. It is more evidence that Laumann is intrigued by definitions of the truth and its presentation.

Informational based current affairs and historical interpretation are at the heart of today’s modern societies. Control and influence of news networks, newspapers and publishing is crucial in shaping opinion and debate. An agenda setting regime can to a certain extent manipulate and direct policy towards a specific religious or political philosophy.  Laumann himself uses a subtle form of creative subversion which could easily be seen as haphazard and chaotic but ultimately reveals itself to be the absolute opposite!


~ by looopart on February 28, 2011.