Hearsays / Reviewed by Rebecca Sykes / 28.11.18
Hearsays is the first gallery show of James N. Kienitz Wilkins, a filmmaker attuned to the mechanics of a good story, and will feel familiar to anyone who’s watched Making a Murderer, the Netflix documentary series that weighs the case of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin native serving life for the murder of Teresa Halback. The show invites viewers to consider whose version of events, Manitowoc County’s, or the show’s producers, are the most convincing. Likewise, the question of truth, and the role moving images can play in its determination, is Hearsays’ subject.
The title The Dynamic Range, 2018, one of three works showing at Gasworks, refers to the ratio between the darkest and brightest light intensities perceptible in an image. Originally produced for a planetarium but shown here in virtual-reality format, the work is awkward to experience. The essential ridiculousness of any encounter with a VR headset is confirmed by the sound of soaring pan flutes that introduce a professional Morgan Freeman impersonator who proceeds to tell a story about the men, “and it is mostly men”, who find a particular kind of calm in electronics megastores. Hollywood’s Voice of God describes the epiphany enjoyed by one man who left the lens cap on his camera and found freedom from representation as a result. The uneasy image that appears in the headset, specks of light skating across an alien landscape, was made using the same technique.
The idea that movies should offer stories of redemption is tested in Indefinite Pitch, 2016, a slideshow of luminous black and white photographs of the Androscoggin River – at one time the most polluted river in America owing to the preponderance of paper mills and slaughterhouses along its banks – that crosses the lines of Maine and New Hampshire. The images provide the backdrop for an audio recording of Kienitz Wilkins delivering a pitch for a movie he’d like to make in Berlin, New Hampshire. Except the story he’s telling, about a mystery fire at a local mill, has already been told, in 1927, in fact, by the silent movie The Masked Menace, also filmed in Berlin.
The piece is artful in more ways than one. Were the pictures taken in Berlin, as we’re told by the wise guy narrator? Or were they actually, as the voice over later lets on, shot in Lewiston, Maine, Kienitz Wilkins’s hometown? Does it matter? Just as the words keep on flowing, “no time to nit-pick the details”, the pitch of the narrator’s voice climbs and falls like the key change of a song. Listening in is the aural equivalent of flicking between tabs, jumping from commentary to commentary.
A siren sounds half-way through and marks a shift in the narrative. Socio-political commentary on small town America – “as New Hampshire goes, so goes the nation” – takes centre stage when we’re told that Berlin’s biggest employer is now a correctional facility, in keeping with the “heroin thing” going on in the region. New England’s deindustrialization has proven devastating for the men, “and it is mostly men”, unable to adapt, and their sorry state is described using the story of a one-time Little League pitcher called Todd who grew up and shook a baby to death. He was then stabbed inside prison by the Aryan Brotherhood for killing “one of his own”. A picture of a Bud Light Platinum lying on its side accompanies this tale of recidivism, drug abuse, and violence, and leaves the impression that Indefinite Pitch is as much a story about masculinity, and its demands, as it is conspiracy and truth.
Linking the two moving image works is The Second Person, 2018, a manipulated print of a photograph taken during the Apollo II mission in 1969. That Neil Armstrong’s reflection, camera in hand, can be glimpsed in Buzz Aldrin’s helmet, making the photograph a technical self-portrait, is, for some, a reminder that Stanley Kubrick, rather than NASA, was behind the shot. Just as the lives recorded in Making a Murderer appear at the mercy of forces beyond their control, Hearsays asks us to reckon with the path our technology, from nineteenth-century paper mills to today’s online rumour mills, is leading us down.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Rebecca Sykes
Below: an image from James N. Kienitz Wilkins, ‘Hearsays’, commissioned and produced by Gasworks. Photo: Andy Keate. The exhibition at Gasworks continues until 16 December 2018.
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