Fishing with Rodney Graham (2018)

Since 2003 I have kept a notebook on Rodney Graham that I would return to every four or five years with the intention of perhaps writing a book on the artist. I wrote the following unpublished text, based on these notes, July-August 2018.

Rodney Graham, Fishing on a Jetty, 2000

Rodney Graham, Fishing on a Jetty, 2000

Fishing with Rodney Graham

Into the Forest

What if everything we knew about Rodney Graham’s work was wrong? In spite of all the erudite analyses … and Graham’s work invites nothing but erudite, indeed virtuoso, analyses. Not just wrong, fundamentally wrong—upside down and backwards. What led us astray, off the path, into the woods? As close readings as they were, what averted our eyes from what was before us to surrounding texts, diverted readings? In spite of what was in plain sight, and plainly said so? Not the works themselves with their clues galore. We couldn’t see the forest for the trees. What led us astray … and right from the start? Who, in fact, led us into these woods? Misled us. To be so believed, it had to be an authority, an authority on the woods and on Graham himself.

Well, for a start, there was no forest, or, rather, there was no “into the forest” or “through the forest.” Who said there was? Many have, but let’s go back to a first reading. Not our first reading of Graham’s 1983 bookwork Lenz but to the influential and inaugural reading of it by Graham’s friend and mentor Jeff Wall: Wall’s 1988 “Into the Forest.” [1] Wall inaugurates a reading of Graham by inaugurating Lenz’s reading machine, setting it off. Graham’s was already a reading machine but Wall would torque it by his own strong reading, not initially of its source in Georg Büchner, but Hegel—that Hegel of whom it was said by Marx that standing on his head he must be turned right side up again in order to reveal “the rational kernel within the mystical shell.” On the contrary, Wall would use Hegel to right Graham, to put Rodney in his place. Right side up? This was not so obvious, never has been obvious, and perhaps was not even initially recognized by Graham himself. Because, even with recourse to Hegel, Wall’s essay was a materialist reading, a machine reading (not even a textual reading; no text but the machine), decidedly not a reading of the man, Graham, himself. So it seems.

Wall expends about a third of the first half of his text on several long quotations from Hegel’s monumental Science of Logic and The Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences in order to establish the difference between affirmative and negative, that is to say “bad,” infinity. This was a distinction to trigger a repeating machine. Wall would patent the model, give it parentage. Indeed, it was an Oedipal machine. The “mechanized” and “routinized” progeny of Hegel’s concept of bad infinity were Freud’s “repetition-compulsion,” Nietzsche’s “eternal return of the same,” and Marx’s “circuits of Money-Commodity-Money”—the conceptual foundations of our modernity. Though he dismissed the man, Wall thought Freud’s repetition compulsion enough of a “symptomatic example” to adduce Graham’s Lenz to its mechanics … and Wall’s critique. [2] This mad machine was a pure example of bad infinity.

The happy coincidence of a child’s game was all that was needed to lock Lenz into infinite regression: “Graham’s adulteration of Büchner’s original is entirely organized in terms of repetition-compulsion, and parallels the ‘child’s game’ described by Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Just as the little boy in Freud’s book repeatedly flings away his toy and pulls it back again by its string to which it is attached, Graham’s Lenz expels his new father, Oberlin, too, from the narrative, only to ‘reel him back’ just afterward…. In this light, we can see that Graham’s intervention has the effect, and possibly the purpose, of concentrating on the antagonisms in the father-son relationship which Büchner leaves implicit.” [3] This description would fabricate a two-stroke machine—fort-da—from which Lenz’s subsequent interpretations would receive their perpetual motion.

Except … except that Graham’s machine expels the new father never to reel him in again. Graham’s loops excise the father, banish him altogether. Forever outside, he is only maintained in place in Büchner’s original narrative and constituted anew persistently in Wall’s. It is Wall himself who seems to wish to prolong the antagonism between father and son. Not just the book’s “slipcase is a restraining device,” Wall’s paternal interpretation is imprisoning, too. [4] “Possibly the purpose,” was it written to reel Graham in, to keep him close?

We can only counteract the interpretative force of this diversion by attending again to our own close reading of what is repetitively printed within, not outside, the loop’s enclosing brackets. And here we find Lenz never reaches the forest. A crisis befalls him every time he approaches it. He only ever reaches the edge of the forest before he is reeled back into the originating narrative. It is not the case, as Mark Godfrey writes, that “Lenz thus walks through the forest forever.” [5] The forest is the resistance whose edge provokes the repetition compulsion. [6]

Jeff Wall was a close enough reader never to say Lenz went into the forest, but under his titular authority and tutelage of his title he led others astray. So much so that the woods have became a symbol or metaphor for Graham’s overall work itself and our lost peregrinations within it. “One is lost in the text,” Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev writes of Lenz, “as one is lost in the forest, in the wilderness.” [7] In our own compulsion to repeat, we can’t see the trees for the forest. [8]

Lenz repeats on the typesetting of the words “through the forest,” at the edge of their appearance. The machine turns over on its typography. The machine is set to repeat, and to repeat merely its mechanics. No less so, though, the machine repeats the contents of its loop, its abbreviated story of Lenz. That is, between the machine’s formal, mechanical, and abstract iterations, another machine reproduces the arc of Lenz’s delirium. We should read closely what the text has to say. On the mountain, first Lenz hallucinated the landscape; then felt the paranoid chill of feeling “terribly lonely”; only to be revivified later that night in town amongst company, while the mania slowly builds until he threw himself in a fountain. In between his manic acts “he knew nothing of what had happened.” Lenz was already looped, even before Graham isolated his etiology in Graham’s own enveloping mechanism. Lenz was already self-iterating: “Isolated thoughts rushed through his mind; he held fast to them. It seemed he should be always repeating the ‘Lord’s Prayer’.”

Lenz’s delirium repeats over and over again as Lenz’s looping content. His resistance at the edge of the forest motivates Graham’s machine, makes it turn and repeat. They say a machine only works by breaking down. In this mechanism, approaching the edge of the forest would lead to a fall: “he stretched himself out and lay across the earth, he burrowed himself into the universe, as though it were a joy that caused him pain; or else he stopped and laid his head in the moss and half closed his eyes, and then it went far away from him, the earth sunk under him, it grew small as a wandering star and dipped into a raging storm whose clear waters swept beneath him.” Repeat. Repeat with cinnamon; repeat with Halcion; repeat with a coconut.

It is curious how Graham defaults to typography when he found that the phrase “through the forest” fell just right for him to engage his machine’s mechanism in short-circuiting the original text. In light of Lenz’s falling sickness, it is curious how Graham, describing Reading Machine for Lenz (1993), repeats a coincidental fall of words—the word “fall”—as if by words’ fall alone they were enough to induce psychosis. [9] We are not done with falling and lying down.

Was Wall cunning enough to make his essay a critique of Graham, too? Standing on Hegel’s shoulders, Wall used this lofty perch to scold—father(s) to son—Graham for his failing and falling: his auseinanderfallen, his falling asunder. [10] How did it come to this: the fall? Could Graham ever recover upright, secure his identity, or would his work, its “somewhat and another,” eventually lead, like Lenz, to inevitable disintegrative madness and inconsequentiality. Indeed, could Graham ever stand up to Wall, counter him, make a counter-critique to Wall’s implicit critique of him? Could he come back with a riposte, even if only lying down—especially by lying down? The wit of the staircase could only lead to a tumble.

If this ever were to happen—the possibility of a riposte in the unveiling of his work’s actual content—we would have to see a change in Graham’s production and not only in our interpretation of it. We would have to recognize a turning point that was not a simple repetition. But we would never see anything anew if we continue to be blinded by another error in interpretation of Graham’s work: that it is essentially circular. [11] This is near universal opinion. But it is not quite accurate. Yet we have to wonder whether the bad infinity of his own works bit back at the author himself, absorbed the artist into its effects, locked him in a looping mechanism of repetition: of witty and recondite, yet “trivial,” conceptual artworks? [12] Was Wall’s complaint perhaps realized?

Yet we have witnessed a major change in Graham’s work, a very obvious one. We see it in the costume trilogy of 1997 to 2000, which opened the floodgates to the light boxes in the style of Jeff Wall, his medium of choice till today. Not just a new direction, these new works were a critique of his earlier self. He was sick to death of his work’s laboured preciousness: research-based and obscurely referential to art or literary history. He wanted “something that didn’t involve so much information and so much backstory,” something that was accessible as popular entertainment and not just intellectual wit. The backstory was now foregrounded in the image, available for all to see and read. These images—the marooned sailor of Vexation Island (1997) or the ersatz Cary Grant of Fishing on a Jetty (2000)—were now drawn from “collective visual memory.” [13] Collective visual memory could be complex enough, but whatever Graham drew from, he made into comedy. Drawing from popular culture meant playing for laughs. At the beginning of his new direction, though, it was not all for fun. When later asked to identify “where the desire to become a performer again might have originated,” Graham replied, his 1994 work Halcion Sleep. “That was a piece I made when I was completely depressed. It was made out of desperation. … In any case that was the first performance where I used myself, and was ultimately about myself. It was an experiment and it was successful in the sense that it opened up subsequent avenues for performances using myself.” [14]

The Re-Interpretation of Dreams

Depression, desperation: this was no laughing matter. And neither was Halcion Sleep. One has to ask what was happening in Graham’s life in 1994 that would make him so miserable? He had everything to look forward to: an international travelling exhibition going on for the next two years, accompanied by an elegant publication that included a catalogue raisonné of his work. [15] But perhaps this fort-da return of the work on itself, time and time again, in installations and exhibition openings was repressive. After all, this was work he was in the process of rejecting, but he would be called upon repeatedly to reply like Lenz to Pastor Oberlin’s question of his name, “Haven’t I seen it in print?” with, “Yes, but you mustn’t judge me by that.” Then, too, there was the return of that text, Jeff Wall’s “Into the Forest,” reprinted as the publication’s honoured lead essay. He was captured and constrained: by the repetitive structure of his work and the repressive nature of Wall’s imprisoning discussion of it. Here he was, reeled in again by a discourse that had nothing to do with him but everything to do with one Wall was constructing of the melancholy modernism of avant-garde negativity.

For Wall, the book in general and Graham’s Lenz in particular—the first as literary commodity and the second as its parody—“can therefore be experienced not as literature at all, but as the external form of its negation, an exoskeletal clamp into which machinery has driven speech.” [16] And Rodney’s speech? Would Wall allow its possibility? Had Graham anything to say in what after all his work made him complicit? Yet, hadn’t he gone through this before with the essay’s original publication for his 1988 Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition? Wall wrote there of Lenz that “The possibility of meaning … is thus expelled from the space between the covers.” [17] But hadn’t Graham then just spent two years, to the exclusion of art making, exorbitantly hunting meaning in a single dream analysis by Freud, a figure Wall rejected moreover, and to whom Graham would turn again during his crisis in the mid-1990s? He would return to Freud to settle his debts, Freud’s debts; but to whom would Graham himself work off his own debts?

Halcion Sleep was a psychoanalyst’s couch. The recumbent artist was laconic, though. He couldn’t say much in that he was unconscious, knocked out by the drug of the title and driven through the rainy streets of Vancouver, supposedly repeating his earliest memory in a regression to his family romance, though played out in terms of film noir. This tired act was a performance all the same—a dramatization you could say. Though laconic, it was telling. What was disguised in its dramatization?

Supine, Graham was performing one of Lenz’s periodic falls. Which meant, as well, that he was returning to the strong reading Jeff Wall offered his work, once more escaping and returning to the law of this dual paternal draw: his own paternal situation and that of his artistic relation to Wall. Is recumbency (for the first time making it so personally obvious) enough of a motif to suggest an underlying symptom? All the same, it is not an unconscious repetition. Rather, it is a passive resistance to Wall’s reading. Displayed as such without making itself too emphatic, a recumbent resistance. Graham’s turn to performance was in part strategic; its first images were in disguise, even if they seemed open and straightforward in employing the uncomplicated guise of the artist. In spite of Graham’s stated desire to henceforth foreground the backstory in his images, Halcion Sleep is deceptively opaque.

In this first performance where he used himself, was ultimately about himself, and which opened subsequent avenues for performances using himself, what did Halcion Sleep open up? Moreover, what did Graham open up to? The admission of film noir is enough to confess a fundamental guilt that this genre insinuates in any reference to it. What was Graham confessing here? What did he both hide and reveal in this image?

In the video Halcion Sleep, a grown man, costumed in fancy pajamas, having been carried to a car like a child, was driven home in an uneventful trip, all the while asleep. Although partially referencing film noir, there was no typical genre voiceover here. For half-an-hour we see Graham sleeping with nothing but the coruscating city lights on the wet rear-window behind him. Like a “dream projection or thought balloon,” Graham said. [18] What were his thoughts or dreams? Perhaps they circulated uncomfortably around the question of debt. Taking our cue from Graham, as he took his from Freud, we can supplement Halcion Sleep in the manner of Graham supplementing Freud in his Freud Supplement (170a – 170d) (1988). We can fill in the thought balloons with Freud’s dream thoughts that Graham himself provided for his extension of Freud’s own analysis of his “Dream of the Botanical Monograph.” This was no fiction on Graham’s part; he did not deviate at all from Freud. Rather, he interpolates material taken from two letters, one to Freud’s old colleague Josef Breuer (January 7, 1898) and the other to his Berlin friend Wilhelm Fleiss a week later (January 16, 1898). Both touch upon the matter of Freud’s monetary debt to Breuer, a debt that was emblematic of his alienation from his former colleague. I suggest that my own meta-exercise is no fiction on my part either. It only mirrors the deviation Graham himself decided to take. Insofar as Freud’s dream, Graham said, “had played an important part in my work as an artist, and which I had in a way taken over as my own,” [19] we wonder whether he himself had an investment in what he interpolates into Freud’s analysis, having written it himself.

Graham had already taken Freud’s “Dream of the Botanical Monograph” as the subject of his participation in the 1987 Münster Skulptur Projekte. But he concentrated there on the insignificant day material of the dream set off by a glance Graham identifies as “Freud’s Clinamen” on the doctor’s daily walk. The insignificant monograph Freud idly saw in a bookstore window recurred in his dream that night. Graham’s aim was to locate the time and place of this encounter, “the historical moment and the site of Freud’s swerve.” [20] Doing so, however, he misidentifies “the dream’s ultimate meaning” taking it to be Freud’s incompletion of his book The Interpretation of Dreams. Returning to this dream a year later in Freud Supplement (170a – 170d), Graham correctly focuses on Freud’s own interpretation of the dream’s ultimate meaning, which “turns out to have been in the nature of a self-justification, a plea on behalf of my own rights.” Freud’s dream was a defensive response to his colleague’s persistent criticism of his activities: “for being too much absorbed in [his] favourite hobbies” and his “neglect of certain branches of science such as botany.” [21]

In his interpolation into Freud’s dream analysis (his four-page insert typeset to match the Standard Edition), Graham probes Freud on his sore points: the intertwined issues of debt and recognition. Graham takes Freud a step beyond where Freud himself was willing to go. [22] Taking up Freud’s pen, he insists, on the “‘question of the fee”’ and the “‘complications of payment’ attending to professional fees” by implicating Freud’s monetary debt to Breuer, which Freud nowhere mentions, as partial stimulus for his daydream of the Berlin eye operation. For more than one reason, this debt was a persistent aggravation: “I now realized that the settlement of my own debt, tied as it was with deep-rooted feelings concerning my personal and intellectual independence, was to be a practical impossibility…” In effect, Graham weights the analysis differently by adding more “supports” to the dream-thoughts in his supplement. [23] His insistence, though, leads to plausible conclusions; Graham writes, still in the voice of Freud, “Thus it was clear that behind the operating surgeon lay the figure of Dr. A. [that is, Breuer], and that the daydream in part served the wish that I should settle my symbolic and emotion-laden account with him.” Graham piles on the debt load; not just Breuer, he adds Freud’s Berlin friend, Fleiss, to the list of creditors. “Here too was a debt I was unable to pay,” Graham has Freud write of Fleiss, a professional responsibility that touched upon the question of Freud’s very “effectiveness as a doctor.”

Coincidentally, if there is such a thing, Graham’s elaborating intervention insinuates itself precisely at the page break between Freud’s daydream of undergoing an eye operation and his later recollection of its basis in his own father’s glaucoma procedure. In the daydream, Freud assumes the supine position of his father as both substitute and replacement, wishing his father dead in the process. Not for the first time. And it was not the first time Freud was in this fainting position, actually.

Graham, who would assume a supine position himself in Halcion Sleep and subsequent works, undoubtedly knew of Freud’s fainting—the number of times, situations, and causes, what Freud had to say, and others’ interpretations of it. Freud attributed two of his fainting attacks (in 1909 and 1912) to Jung’s death wish toward him. [24] But later in 1927, he wrote of Dostoevsky’s seizures that “They signify an identification with a dead person, either with someone who is really dead or with someone who is still alive and whom the subject wishes dead. The latter case is the more significant. The attack then has the value of a punishment. One has wished another dead, and now one is this other person and is dead oneself.” [25] I have to ask, what exactly was the supine figure for Graham? Why has he succumbed to it so often as if to the death instinct? Whom did he wish dead? And why now in 1994 did Graham make recumbency, an unconscious dreaming figure, the silent focus of a transitional work?

We would think nothing of Lenz’s physical dispositions were it not for his supine return in Halcion Sleep. And then again in Vexation Island … and on and on. Recumbency was a trope that would radically turn Graham’s work towards performance—and, supposedly, autobiography. But this transition was not without its deviations or returns, its depressions and its pleas on behalf of Graham’s own rights. Moreover, the transitional reclining figure between Lenz and Halcion Sleep has remained unnoticed, perhaps because it was virtual—a mise-en-abyme of superimposed supine bodies, one behind another: a daydreaming Freud on an operating table and, resting beneath him his father, Jakob Freud the actual patient. Yet, it is not so much what this supine body in Graham represents … as what it “dreams.”

The writing of The Interpretation of Dreams was coincident with Freud’s own self-analysis. Did Graham undertake one, too, when he spent two years in the 1980s exclusively studying Freud? Lynne Cooke thinks so when she says of his Freud texts, “These articulate apologia may be read as a kind of auto-analysis, albeit one that is more circumstantial, allusive, and anecdotal than rigorously psychoanalytical.” [26] Allusive? Anecdotal? Less than rigorous? That is, professionally ineffective, both as psychoanalysis and art? Hardly worth delving into, then? Obviously, these interpretative investigations were mere pretentious intellectual gambits of a type Graham himself later condemned. Moreover, he had moved on. Why then, after a hiatus, did Graham return to Freud, particularly after Halcion Sleep—or was he thinking again about Freud around the same time, there too? Why reopen this old wound with his 1996 Schema: Complications of Payment, especially since Schema retreads the same territory as Freud Supplement of Freud’s perceived debt to Breuer? Why was this question of debt again so pressing? A debt so pressing. Perhaps the question we should rather ask is, what actual debt was Graham so fixated on? Can we finally answer, as Graham had, ventriloquizing Freud, his “own debt, tied as it was with deep-rooted feelings concerning [his] personal and intellectual independence”? Hmmm. On the analogy of Breuer standing behind the operating surgeon of Freud’s daydream, to whom would Graham feel an obligation of debt if not to Jeff Wall? And if Wall is Breuer, then Ian Wallace analogously is Fleiss. [27] Here would be Graham’s two debts: to his elder peers in the Vancouver art scene, mentors, too.

A fresh reading of Wall’s “Into the Forest” discloses that Graham did not measure up to Wall’s demands for what a work of art, and one coming from Vancouver, moreover, should be. Graham took this sly critique lying down, at least for a while, until that lying down was turned into a subtle strategy—and dissembling return critique of Wall. The return of the supine figure in Halcion Sleep already was a latent critique—using Lenz’s physical disposition indolently to strike back. Graham now employed the disguise of Freud’s dream to openly work out his debt … and repay it in kind. “By virtue of the success of my disguise as a patient … in passing unrecognized by my colleague, I need no longer recognize him by any future considerations.” [28] He would answer back to Wall by the very form he was critiqued in the figure of Lenz since the question of debt (as revealed in his Freud Supplement) was disguised in recumbency. Graham’s answer back would require a disguise, the guise of the artist performing, while not doing anything at all: such as fishing.

Fishing with Rodney Graham

I would not make an issue of these analogical speculations (Wall/Breuer, Wallace/Fleiss) were it not for Fishing on a Jetty; were it not for the fact that Graham chose to initiate his “autobiographical” works in 2000—subsequently mainly as light boxes—with a parody of his colleague Jeff Wall. If ever there was a coded image, here is one.

Fishing on a Jetty was all disguise. It openly admits so. Graham disguised as Cary Grant; Vancouver disguised as Nice. Of Graham, disguised in the character in the image, taking a pose from Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, Lynne Cooke writes, “He begs to be caught, to be unmasked. Full of innuendo, this cavalier parody carries among its many allusions an arch reference to his fellow Vancouver artist Jeff Wall.”[29] Well, yes, this is what is obvious about the image. However, it is cavalier Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief who begs to be caught by the viewer, unmasked in his parody of a fisherman; Graham only exposes the disguise, not himself, only exposes himself in Cary Grant exhibiting himself as John Robie disguised as a fisherman. In such a disguise how could he hope to pass unrecognized by his colleagues? Graham begs to be caught for what: for his flimsy disguise, for his undisguised appropriation of Hitchcock, or for his parodic reference to Jeff Wall? The image says, “Look at me, I’m a thief”; but it also says, “Look at me, I’m not a thief.” How do we adjudicate this ambiguity?

Perhaps the artist can clarify. “This work shows me fishing on an imaginary jetty in the port of Vancouver, my home. The scenario is taken from Alfred Hitchcock’s less than illustrious non-masterpiece To Catch a Thief in which Cary Grant plays the reformed cat burglar and hero of the French resistance, John Robie, who, while living in quiet seclusion in this villa in Nice, finds himself accused of a series of jewel robberies of which he is innocent, yet which bear his unmistakable signature. This role spoke uncannily to me of my own life.” [30] Graham’s explanation only complicates matters more. Fishing on a Jetty is not seemingly about Hitchcock or Jeff Wall but, rather, the artist himself. Is this in-joke solely for Graham’s amusement alone? Shep Steiner confirms the uncanny status of the joke in Graham’s work when he writes, the “joke whose nature is in the main autobiographical is transformed to the work through a kind of ventriloquism.” [31] In Fishing on a Jetty, though, Graham ventriloquizes through the “unmistakable signature” of another, that of Jeff Wall. Autobiographically then, the joke is a forgery and Graham’s ventriloquism actually is theft. Yet, the artist maintains his innocence. While the form (look) of the work says, “I am a thief,” the content maintains, “I’m not a thief.” The appropriation of Wall says yes; the inhabitation of Hitchcock says no.

A recurring event: Graham claims he is innocent of an accusation. In fact, if we substitute the word “debt” for “joke” in Steiner’s expression, and see Fishing on a Jetty through the lens of Graham’s Freud Supplement as well as Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, we find that the common element is accusation. Once again, this makes Graham’s picture an argument for self-justification, with an emphatic twist. The joke is a justification (“I’m not a thief”), but it is also a counter-critique in that it insinuates his accuser in and as its image. Through passive mimicry Jeff Wall is not so much named as evoked by his own image typology. The joke really, after all, is on Jeff Wall.

Graham no longer accepted his “colleague’s criticism of [his] activities,” or “being blamed for being too much absorbed in [his] favourite hobbies,” or his “neglect of certain branches of science,” such as Marxist negative aesthetics. He no longer took these criticisms lying down, but sitting up fishing. Incognito (as in his supplement to Freud’s Berlin surgery daydream), yet he would not “turn a blind eye” behind his sunglasses, turn the other cheek. He had paid like anyone else (as Robie had paid his debt through time in prison and fighting in the French resistance). Graham would prove his innocence, quash any accusation … by indolently fishing.

And if it required a disguise, so be it. The truth was hard to take. Truth had consequences. By fishing, he would await the truth, let it bob along. “It’s sort of a hobby of mine—the truth,” Cary Grant/John Robie had protested after his accusation. Indeed, sitting fishing was a way of awaiting the truth, come what may. Sitting fishing was a substitute for supine dreaming, the difference being that truth was unconscious in the latter while disguised in the former. [32]

Graham might call his location change from Nice to Vancouver a discretionary falsification. The same could be said of his treatment of Wall and the poaching of his colleague’s image. More than one writer has pointed out the similarity of Fishing on a Jetty to Wall’s 1996 The Thinker. Poised on an elevation overlooking Vancouver, Wall’s pondering subject assumes the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker—but stabbed in the back by a knife. Seated on another mountaintop a world away during his holidays, Freud had improvised an impromptu analysis when approached by a young, troubled girl, but in reporting it had changed the name of the location and identity of the patient, “a ‘discretionary’ falsification” he later regretted. [33] As water finds its way to lower levels, Wall’s rendition of a profound thinker is brought down from mountaintop to sea level to be falsified in Graham’s parodic image of an indolent dreamer cum schemer. Behind his sunglasses perhaps this fisherman was daydreaming: “I thought of myself as a statue carved from a block of ice and this mad hallucination made me proud with an intense pleasure that is truly secret.” [34]

Graham’s pleasure would remain secret, the critique he was disguising, too. “By virtue of the success of my disguise … in passing unrecognized by my colleague, I need no longer recognize him by any future considerations.” Graham’s belated response to Wall was no payback stab in the back for the one he had received in the forest, through “In the Forest.” His passive mimicry was not just a critique of Wall, but a counterclaim. It was another way of being and another way of making art. It represented another value system altogether. [35]

Graham’s Clinamen

In a quest for “crowd-pleasing work,” Graham abandoned his elaborately articulated and recondite backstories for more readily referential material taken from popular culture. [36] Hence his appropriation in Fishing on a Jetty of Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, a translated scene of which is literally foregrounded in the shallow space of Graham’s picture. [37] Yet the foreground is still a good place to hide an image. Purloined there, Wall’s The Thinker masks an ambiguous homage: Graham’s motivation to answer back to Wall’s critique.

The disguised critique brought forward in Fishing on a Jetty marks a division in Graham’s work. Indeed, Graham’s transition to performance is not as obvious as it looks. Rather, it was a result of his dramatization of an “unconscious” debt, a debt that had already been covertly disguised in his Freud Supplement but worked out more directly in between. His transition to performance was something more than an autobiographical turn, if by this we solely mean the image of Graham performing. Yes, Fishing on a Jetty offers an image of the artist himself in his hometown Vancouver, but biographical analysis goes beyond simple iconographic reading of its image. [38] The double appropriation of Fishing on a Jetty disguises what is deeper in the work. For it was Graham’s analysis of debt that produced the break between the two periods of his work, not his decision—not a rational decision, moreover—to employ more popularly based imagery in which he was the performer. For what had happened to Graham was a clinamen, Graham’s clinamen. We cannot situate it as accurately as Graham had Freud’s clinamen; but sometime in the period of Halcion Sleep, during his depression and desperation, I speculate that Graham experienced his clinamen. It was consistent with his self-analysis, to the knock on the head whose aftereffects he depicted in Halcion Sleep (and thereafter in Coruscating Cinnamon Granules and Vexation Island). [39] He already knew of the notion, indeed had paraphrased Lucretius in 1987. The very first line of “Freud’s Clinamen” reads, “The window-shopper’s idle glance constitutes a kind of clinamen.” [40] But he himself then unintentionally misled us, encouraging us to follow his dérive as a flâneur à la Baudelaire and Benjamin (it was Benjamin’s moment), so much so that we have lost sight of the Lucretian declination, already in operation here, that explains so much of his work in general.

We could pile on the examples, like so many accidents waiting to happen, especially from 1996 on. Sometimes they appear only as anecdotes, here accompanying Graham’s Camera Obscura Mobile (1996): “that Blaise Pascal is commonly known to have had a sudden and shattering insight into the radical contingency of life when he was hurled from a runaway carriage… Flows can be regulated but the unpredictable always happens: the clinamen.” Other times they offer explanation of intent: “It is the clinomatic or catastrophic instant that I desire to place at the exact centre of Vexation Island.” [41]

A falling coconut, we know, caused the catastrophic instant there.

Knock knock. The question of a knock on the head is a question of the clinamen. And even though one could argue back in time the clinamen’s determinations on Graham’s earliest works, it was during the mid-1990s that the clinamen revealed its truth effects to Graham. This is something Graham had already more fully sensed, especially in his Freud Supplement, where his intervention befell Freud’s text as a perturbing swerve within it, a knock on the head that shakes free Freud’s actual unconscious motivations.

The clinamen is an event, each time, even though it repeats itself in Graham’s loops. This is because the clinamen actually deviates the loops. Here is proof that Graham’s work is not “essentially circular.” Such was the case in Lucretius’s The Nature of Things, where, according to Michel Serres, “The poem’s text is nature itself, that of Venus. The text loops back upon itself at the end of the martial events, but not in a perfect circle.” [42] After the intervention of “Graham’s clinamen,” we realize that the loop before and after the knock differs. That is, there is now a difference between the loop structure of his early works, those involving principally text and musical scores, and those of his image-in-time-based costume trilogy. What happens is consequential and demands a change of model from the crystal to fluid. Now “the chosen model is a fluid one. It is no longer a crystal…; it is flow. The nature of Mars, of martial physics, is one of hard, rigid, and rigorous bodies; the physics and nature of Venus are formed in flows.” [43] Earlier, the crystal ruled: from the crystalline architecture of Landor’s Cottage to the metrical structures of the repetitive loops of Graham’s rational reading machines. In contrast, fishing went with the flow.

Once a knock on the head happens, a choice, it seems, has to be made. “One must choose between two laws: the law of Eros or the law of Thanatos; springtime or the plague; birds or cadavers; and the wounds of love or rotting arms and legs.” [44] No longer a repetition compulsion reinforcing the death instinct, the clinamen’s inclining loops rather bring the new to life. Graham chose life.

What is the choice between “the wounds of love or rotting arms and legs” when it comes to works of art? For instance, is there a meaningful difference between the military subjects of Graham’s 2009 Artist’s Model Posing for “The Old Bugler, Among The Fallen, Battle of Beaune-la-Roland, 1870” in the Studio of An Unknown Military Painter, Paris, 1885 and Jeff Wall’s 1992 Dead Troops Talk? Yes, insofar as Graham’s image paradoxically has its source in the laying down of arms, not the taking up of History. Its model is the idly recumbent figures of Piero de Cosimo’s Venus, Mars, and Cupid or Botticelli’s Venus and Mars wherein Venus is victorious over a sleeping Mars. Serres admits, “The clinamen works like Venus’ couch.” [45] Graham chose to slumber there.

No matter his current circumstance, flat on the floor, the old bugler’s gaze is that of a philosopher. Speaking from below, Graham is a philosopher, too, and an Epicurean one at that. As Serres writes about the first book of Lucretius’s poem: “The hymn to Venus is a song to voluptuousness, to the original power, victorious—without having fought—over Mars and over the death instinct, a song to the pleasure of life, to guilt-free knowledge. The knowledge of the world is not guilty but peaceful and creative. It is generative and not destructive. But these words already drift toward morality—toward deeply felt emotions, toward ataraxia and toward the gaze, the theatrical gesture: to see everything serenely, in quiet contemplation; to be at last free from the gods.” [46] No elevated philosophical task here, like Wall’s ponderous thinker. What do Graham’s serenely seated figures seek in their contemplative gazes but ataraxia? The sous-chef on a smoke break: ataraxia (Betula Pendula ‘Fastigiata’ (Sous-Chef on Smoke-Break, 2011). The pipe-cleaner artist: ataraxia (Pipe Cleaner Artist, Amalfi, ’61, 2013). The lighthouse keeper: ataraxia (Lighthouse Keeper with Lighthouse Model, 1955, 2010). The potato thrower: ataraxia (Lobbing Potatoes at a Gong, 2006). John Robie: ataraxia. Even perhaps the odd couple readers of Sunday Sun, 1937 (2012). All these seated figures, including those facing backwards (Graham riding a horse or bicycle backwards in Allegory of Folly: Study for an Equestrian Monument in the Form of a Wind Vane, 2005, and Phonokinetoscope, 2001) [47] are of a type. They join the earlier fallen, unconscious, or sleeping figures of Lenz, Halcion Sleep, Vexation Island, Awakening (2006), and more recently Antiquarian Sleeping in his Shop (2017). The supine, sitting, and sleeping figures are of one in their allegiance to a republic of time wasters. Pace Jeff Wall, time wasting is a philosophical attitude.

What is Happy, Baby?

Now the clinamen’s swerve actually justifies the allotrion (the deviation from a main task), rather than sets off recriminations. Graham had already admitted in 1987 that “the clinamen bears on the idle physics of the flâneur,” [48] but time-wasting then had to be defended, like Freud, against colleagues’ reproaches, Graham, too, for his long deviation into Freud studies (was he even still an artist?). The second time round in the late 1990s, it was not a time-wasting excursion into psychoanalysis but the idiom of the pop song that led Graham astray from his “true vocation,” his professional obligation to make art. [49] Yet, the clinamen is a song. And a pop hit “is the tiniest angle necessary and sufficient to produce turbulence.” [50] The pop song is a world in itself, a turbulent three-minute universe. It appears, it comes to life; it fluctuates, and then disappears. Graham quotes Voltaire, “Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung.” [51] Maybe its lyrics are the place for some truth telling, too. No wonder Graham asks the philosophical question: “What is happy, baby?” And the answer in many of his songs, with a few recriminations thrown in about his hometown, sometimes is hard knocks, sometimes time wasting. Other times it’s the fact the “A little thought gone astray/Can leave your mind in disarray”—a chance happening that is not necessarily a bad thing. [52]

Forest and Garden

It took a song to lead us from the lure of the woods—a song to serenely set us sitting down, contemplative. Graham’s work was never about the terror of the woods, or being lost in the forest, but rather about the serenity of the garden, being at peace with nature: ataraxia. Even as far back as the fenced-off enclosure of the botanical monograph it was a question of the idyllic garden, not the forest wilds: “a symbolic ‘language of flowers’ which describes a landscape, a high prospect and a vista; Land of the Lotus Eaters, Land of Cockaigne, Empire of Dreams…. A brief perspective of Arcadia.” Many times over, repetitiously indeed, it was always the allotrion, “the other path that holds the promise of another vista,” [53] that led us there, victorious, in a song to the pleasure of life, to guilt-free knowledge.


1. Jeff Wall, “Into the Forest: Two sketches for studies of Rodney Graham’s work,” Rodney Graham (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1988). Reprinted in Rodney Graham: Works from 1976 to 1994 (Toronto: Art Gallery of York University; Brussels: Yves Gevaert; Chicago: The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 1994); and Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007).

2. Wall, “Into the Forest,” 10/13/ 88.

3. Wall, “Into the Forest,” 12/14,18/90-91.

4. Wall, “Into the Forest,” 13/19/93.

5. Mark Godfrey, “Graham’s Charm,” Rodney Graham (Vancouver: Rennie Museum at Wing Sang, 2014), 11.

6. In fact, rather than (rarely) the forest, it is the edge of the forest (At the Edge of the Forest, Illuminated Ravine) or the lone tree of the camera obscura works and the upside-down trees of Graham’s photographic series that predominate.

7. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, “The Upside Down and Inside Out World” Rodney Graham (London: Whitechapel, 2002), 13. Friedrich Meschede multiplies the framing devices of our reception when he writes, “the exhibition and its works … also appear as a thicket of references in which one could lose one’s way, which is why the title Through the Forest, taken from Lenz, was chosen for this exhibition.” Friedrich Meschede, “Pantomime Parlée and Magic Revived, or, the Mesmerizing Power of Art, as it May be Used to Edify and Entertain, by William Rodney Graham, Artist, Illustrated with Numerous Plates,” Rodney Graham: Through the Forest (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010), 36. Meschede immediately goes on to discuss Wall’s “Into the Forest” in the next sentence.

8. See Freud’s letter of August 6, 1899 to Fleiss describing the opening chapters of The Interpretation of Dreams: “The whole thing is planned on the model of an imaginary walk. First comes the dark wood of the authorities (who cannot see the trees), where there is no clear view and it is easy to go astray.” This sounds like a description of Lenz, especially when Freud continues, “Then there is a cavernous defile through which I lead my readers—my specimen dream with its peculiarities, its details, its indiscretions and its bad jokes—and then, all at once, the high ground and the open prospect and the question: ‘Which way do you want to go?’” Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 4), trans. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1953), 122, note 1.

9. “It is possible to typeset the first 1434 words of the text so they fall on precisely 5 justified pages, with the last word (the second occurrence of the word through) falling flush right at the end of the last line on page 5. It is further possible to set this same text so that the first occurrence of the word through (word 242) falls exactly at the end of the last line of page 1, flush right, and so that the forest (words 243 and 244) falls at the top of page 2.” Rodney Graham, “Reading Machine for Lenz, 1993,” Rodney Graham (London: Whitechapel, 2002), 70.

10. “Auseinanderfallen” means to fall asunder or to pieces; disintegrate. Here is its use in Hegel’s text as it appears in Wall: “If we let somewhat and another[, the elements of determinate Being,] fall asunder, the result is that some becomes other, and this other is itself a somewhat, which then as such changes likewise, and so on ad infinitum.” Hegel, The Logic of Hegel, trans. William Wallace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1892), §94, 174. [“Wenn wir die Momente des Daseins, Etwas und Anderes, auseinanderfallen lassen, so haben wir dieses: Etwas wird ein Anderes, und dieses Andere ist selbst ein Etwas, welches als solches sich dann gleichfalls verändert, und so fort ins Unendliche.” Hegel, Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundriss (1830) in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Werke 8 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), §94, 199.]

11. “The structure of Graham’s work is essentially circular.” “Introduction,” Rodney Graham (London: Whitechapel, 2002), 6. “If there is a single theme that runs through all his work, it is the presence of such circular patterns.” Russell Ferguson, «French Novelist», Ibid., 58.

12. The term is Graham’s. Speaking of Parsifal, he says, “In a way the piece is trivial. You have to locate yourself in both the concept and the original anecdote.” Matthew Higgs and Rodney Graham, “A Little Thought,” Rodney Graham (London: Whitechapel, 2002), 77.

13. Robert Enright and Rodney Graham, “Graham Cracklings: Rodney Graham’s Conceptual Energy,” Border Crossings 29:1 (February 2010), 26.

14. Matthew Higgs and Rodney Graham, “A Little Thought,” 77-78.

15. Rodney Graham: Works from 1976 to 1994.

16.Wall, “Into the Forest,” 13/18/91.

17. Wall, “Into the Forest,” 13/19/92.

18. Rodney Graham, “Halcion Sleep, 1994,” Rodney Graham (London: Whitechapel, 2002), 112.

19. “I thought about this dream of Freud’s which had played an important part in my work as an artist, and which I had in a way taken over as my own…” Rodney Graham, “A Path of Association Not Followed in Freud’s Analysis of his Own ‘Dream of the Botanical Monograph’,” Collapse 2 (December 1996), 68.

20. “Therefore it may be proposed that on or around the morning of March 9, 1898 and somewhere on the path between Bergasse 19 and the barbershop he visited everyday, Freud’s ‘clinamen’ occurred.” Rodney Graham, “Freud’s Clinamen,” Rodney Graham (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1988), 61.

21. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 173.

22. Freud declined to take the analysis further: “For reasons with which we are not concerned, I shall not pursue the interpretation of this dream any further…. There is, however, no need for me to carry the interpretation of the dream any further.” Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 173. All quotations in this paragraph are Graham’s textual interpolation. Rodney Graham, Freud Supplement (170a – 170d), Parachute 50 (March – May 1988), 30-31. Also published in a book edition in 1989.

23. “… a dream is constructed, rather, by the whole mass of dream-thoughts being submitted to a sort of manipulative process in which those elements which have the most numerous and strongest supports acquire the right of entry into the dream-content…” Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 284.

24. Paul Roazen, Freud and his Followers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), 246-248.

25. Roazen, Freud and his Followers, 250.

26. Lynne Cooke, “A Can of Worms,” Rodney Graham: A Little Thought (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario; Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art; Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 2004), 64.

27. Two Vancouver writers, thus well situated to speculate, write of this debt referenced by Schema as Graham’s own: “He in part works through his own debt crisis in Schema…” (Steiner); “It is unclear whether the work is related to Graham’s own financial crisis concerning a debt to Revenue Canada, the taxation arm of the Canadian government” (Grant). Shep Steiner, “Anomalies of the Phenomenal: A ‘Close’ Reading of Rodney Graham’s Joke Works”; Grant Arnold, “‘It Always Makes Me Nervous When Nature Has No Purpose’: An Annotated Chronology of the Life and Work of Rodney Graham,” Rodney Graham: A Little Thought, 124, 191.

28. Graham, Freud Supplement 170a – 170d, Parachute, 30 [170b].

29. Cooke, “A Can of Worms,” 66. Anthony Spira agrees, “The mannered style and pose of the subject offers a parody of narrative photography in general and fellow Vancouverite Jeff Wall’s carefully composed tableaux in particular.” Anthony Spira, “A Cycle-logical Journey,” Rodney Graham (London: Whitechapel, 2002), 95. Graham admits in his interview with Matthew Higgs that, “Aberdeen emerged from a desire to create a slightly humorous take on the photo-conceptualist traditions of the Vancouver art scene.” Matthew Higgs and Rodney Graham, “A Little Thought,” 79. And in his artist’s note, “Aberdeen, 2000,” in the same catalogue, Graham writes, “Cobain hated Aberdeen creatively, the way Freud hated Vienna,” 90.

30. Rodney Graham, “Fishing on a Jetty, 2000,” Rodney Graham (London: Whitechapel, 2002), 105.

31. Steiner, “Anomalies of the Phenomenal,” 112.

32. There is the curious scene, and happy coincidence, of Cary Grant on the lam floating on his back in the Mediterranean in borrowed bathing trunks, followed by a shot of him lying down lounging on a crowded beach to escape detection.

33. Graham writes of this report: “A footnote added to the case-study by Freud in 1924—which admits to a ‘discretionary’ falsification—is interesting in this regard: ‘…Distortions like the one which I introduced in the present instance should be altogether avoided in reporting a case history. From the pint of view of understanding the case, a distortion of this kind is not, of course, a matter of such indifference as would be shifting the scene from on mountain to another.’” Rodney Graham, Two Fictional Sources for a Possibly Fictional Element in Freud’s “Katharina” Case-Study, (Vancouver: OR Gallery Society, 1990), n.p.

34. Rodney Graham, CD liner notes to The Bed-Bug, Love Buzz (2000).

35. Lynne Cooke’s offhand remark about Can of Worms (2000), a pendant to Fishing on the Jetty, which separately depicts the paint can of worms resting on the jetty in both Hitchcock’s and Graham’s image, that it had the “sensuous mundane simplicity of … a bunch of asparagus by Edouard Manet” is a propos, that is, if we correct it to a single stalk of the vegetable in Manet’s 1880 painting Asparagus. Cooke, “A Can of Worms,” 63. You recall the story: Manet sold the first painting to Charles Ephrussi, who paid over the asking price. Manet then sent the painting of single stalk with a note saying one was missing from the bunch. In a witty way, this is a story about debt and an artist’s handling of it. So perhaps is a complementary light box from 2016, Artist in Artists’ Bar, 1950’s, of a middle-aged painter uneasily sitting in a booth of an artists’ bar, with traded canvases surrounding on the walls, waiting to trade his own small wrapped painting with a yet-to-arrive colleague.

36. Robert Enright and Rodney Graham, “Graham Cracklings: Rodney Graham’s Conceptual Energy,” 24.

37. William Hogarth anticipated a duel of crossed fishing lines, or poaching in another’s pond, in his 1754 print Satire on False Perspective, wherein we see Jeff Wall’s thinker in the mid-ground and Graham’s Robie in the foreground, the errors of perspective overlapping their fishing lines. Graham commented on the optical joke of his image: “The shot is a typical Hitchcock joke. Taken out of context it appears as if Robie is facing the wrong way, because the water is behind him. Of course the establishing shots tell us that he is sitting on a narrow jetty.” Rodney Graham, “Fishing on a Jetty, 2000,” 105.

38. For instance, see the reading offered by Friedrich Meschede of The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962 (2007) in “Pantomime Parlée.”

39. Graham describes Coruscating Cinnamon Granules as “… a glittering mini-spectacle that resembles a constellation of stars that appear before one’s eyes after a mild blow to the head.” Rodney Graham, “Coruscating Cinnamon Granules, 1996” Rodney Graham (London: Whitechapel, 2002), 104.

40. “The word is from Lucretius, for whom it signifies the sudden and unpredictable swerve of a single atom from its otherwise pre-ordained trajectory, and the minimum angle to laminar flow sufficient to initiate a turbulence: thus the first small eddies, and the first great vortices. It is the clinamen, according to the physicist, that breaks the endless chain of fate and yields the law of nature.” Graham, “Freud’s Clinamen,” 60.

41. Rodney Graham, “Siting Vexation Island,” Island Thought (Toronto: Art Gallery of York University, 1997), 14, 15. In this context Graham also references Freud’s swerve.

42. While there are more recent English translations of Serres’s 1977 La naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce from 2000 and 2018, I have chosen the translation possibly known to Graham: Michel Serres, “Lucretius: Science and Religion,” Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, chapter trans. Lawrence Schehr (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 99.

43. Serres, “Lucretius: Science and Religion,” 103.

44. Ibid., 98.

45. Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics, trans. Jack Hawkes (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2000), 139.

46. Serres, “Lucretius: Science and Religion,” 98. “Ataraxy” is the serenity of the contemplative attitude. In a statement a propos of any critique of Graham, Serres makes the point that “The laws of Venus-Mother Nature cannot be deciphered by the children of Mars.” Ibid., 99. Whereas Graham is a child of Venus, Wall is a child of Mars.

47. As Graham writes, “sometimes, as in a camera obscura room, it is necessary to turn one’s back on the thing one hopes to see.” Rodney Graham, “I’m a Noise Man,” Cinema Music Video (Brussels: Yves Gevaert, 1999), inside back-cover endpaper.

48. Graham, “Freud’s Clinamen,” 60.

49. “… and I find myself once again having turned my back on my true vocation. I say ‘again’ because I did it once before, in the early eighties, when I became utterly absorbed in a research project that took me far from my artistic practice but which helped me return to it in an interesting way: This was my research into Sigmund Freud’s so-called Dream of the Botanical Monograph, a dream intimately connected with his own self-analysis and which takes as its central subject paternally based reproaches against Freud bearing on what was perceived to be the abandonment of his vocation (medicine) in favour of what was perceived to be misdirected research (on human sexuality, on the psychology of the dream processes). In this connection Freud calls up the Greek word ‘allotrion’, or ‘other path’, a term of reproach used by Freud’s high school teachers when criticizing a student whose absorption in his hobbies takes him away from his proper studies.” Rodney Graham, “I’m A Noise Man.”

50. Serres, “Lucretius: Science and Religion,” 102.

51. Rodney Graham, The Rodney Graham Songbook (Zurich: JRP | Ringier, 2006), 83.

52. Graham, “Little Thought,” from the CD The Bed-Bug, Love Buzz, 2000.

53. Graham, “Freud’s Clinamen,” 61.