Walker Art Center

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Backyard Anthropology
Curator Ralph Rugoff on Cameron Jamie’s “amateur ethnography”

By Ralph Rugoff

Like the work of a growing number of contemporary artists, Cameron Jamie’s art at times seems to overlap with the concerns and methodologies of visual anthropology. A number of his major projects, after all, have documented the rites, rituals, and artifacts of specific subcultures in Europe as well as in North America. In at least some of these works, Jamie appears to assume the role of an amateur ethnographer who presents the results of his “fieldwork” as a “participant-observer” in visual form, and who is willing to examine areas that are deemed unworthy or inexplicably ignored by more expert practitioners. His work indirectly addresses the crisis haunting contemporary anthropology: namely, whether we can adequately represent social reality or if, as the case may well be, our constructions of the world merely reflect the conceptual frameworks with which they are forged.

Jamie explored [an] iteration of wrestling in his black-and-white film BB (2000), a darkly lyrical depiction of backyard wrestling—a home-grown spectacle in which (mostly) male suburban teenagers reinterpret the antics of World Wrestling Federation performers in jerry-rigged wrestling rings. Wearing crude homemade costumes, teenage participants enact dangerous stunts, jumping off the roofs of buildings to land in asphalt rings. The ersatz sadism of professional wrestling is transformed here into a free-form reenactment that blurs the boundary between mock violence and real bloodshed.

Like an ethnographic portrait of teenage subculture, BB chronicles a form of ritual theater in which male fantasies are articulated and acted out without virtue of a safety net. Yet in contrast to traditional visual anthropology, BB is relentlessly disorienting: bereft of dramatic structure and without an overriding theoretical viewpoint, it immerses the viewer in a repetitive and hellish landscape of disorder and destruction.

The conceptual distance maintained by anthropology’s traditional “participant-observer” (a misleading, and ultimately patronizing term) is at least partially collapsed in his approach to social documentary. Nor does his work bear any significant trace of an aestheticizing attitude; it makes no attempt to impose conspicuous formalist or expressionistic conceits on the material it engages. This sympathetic alignment problematizes our reception of Jamie’s work in ways that reflect on larger questions about the limits or failures of representation. It is perhaps most evident in the artist’s ongoing photographic series of suburban “spook houses,” amateur haunted houses created in private homes around the time of Halloween.

As with the case of backyard wrestling, the aesthetic aspect of these spook houses is highly amateurish. Unkempt front yards have been transformed into cemeteries for the undead, while bare-looking kitchens have been made over into macabre theaters of death. Special effects—headless corpses spouting blood or flying ghosts—are ingenious yet distinctly primitive; created with ad-hoc workmanship and makeshift materials, they are blatantly fake, absurdly theatrical. Yet despite being almost laughably elementary, the spook houses that Jamie portrays are insistently disturbing. In fact, their rudimentary appearance seems to heighten, rather than mitigate, their atmosphere of impoverished horror and grisly banality. Like his film on backyard wrestling, Jamie’s spook house photographs chronicle a bleak suburban surrealism in which an outlandish and amateurishly produced spectacle is set against a mundane domestic background. And besides featuring the usual cast of Halloween characters, some of the spook houses that Jamie has photographed also include effigies representing figures from the stage of contemporary world history, such as Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, or George Bush. Combining allusions to the macabre, family life, international politics, class relations, and the sociology of the everyday, these contemporary folk installations defy our attempts to definitively categorize them.

To some extent, the spook house works—along with many of Jamie’s other projects—comprise a general ethnography of amateur culture. In these works, Jamie repeatedly focuses on the amateur’s accidental or “inappropriate” mixing and mangling of different genres, aesthetics, and symbolic tropes. In the process his work also draws on amateur culture as a critical tool for questioning our ideas about authorship and representation. By recording, and re-coding, subcultural practices that fail to accurately mimic or translate established conventions, and instead end up transforming or opening up their meanings, Jamie directs our attention to the contingent and arbitrary nature of all our aesthetic and social codes.

These concerns converge in the films Kranky Klaus (2002–2003) and JO (2004), both of which document disconcerting encounters between the contemporary and the pre-modern. Kranky Klaus follows the December Krampus ritual in Bad Gastein, Austria, during which a group of young men don primitive- looking masks and antlers and maraud through the town at night, harassing, terrorizing, and sometimes assaulting its residents as they visit hotels, gas stations, clubs, and restaurants. JO, meanwhile, probes the construction of mythological martyrdom and consumer excess to evoke the specter of social self-destruction. After documenting a surreal Joan of Arc pageant in Orleans, France, Jamie’s film moves on to record a rally by the extreme right-wing nationalist party in Paris that takes place around a golden Joan of Arc statue, and then concludes with footage, played in reverse, of a hot-dog eating contest on New York’s Coney Island.

Rather than presenting us with finite narratives, [Jamie’s work] enlists us as viewers in an ongoing chain of translations and interpretations, an openended process whose parameters are perpetually in motion. In other words, his art implicates us in the very cultural procedures it investigates, and so dissolves our illusory perspective of distanced certitude. Jamie’s multi-layered work simultaneously draws attention to the provisional character of its own artifice. It thus leads us not to comforting conclusions, but to wonder, finally, at the artifice of our own constructed selves—at which point our familiar conventions and indisputable truths begin to dissolve before our eyes, and we find ourselves wrestling with the unknown values of a new kind of anthropology.

—Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery, London

Excerpted with permission from the catalogue Cameron Jamie (Hatje Cantz Verlag: Ostfildern, Germany, 2006)

Installation view of the exhibition Cameron Jamie

Photo: Gene Pittman