Absurd, poignant and darkly comic, these are the words that Cornerhouse chooses to use to describe the latest work on show by artist Stanya Kahn. The Californian born artist is widely applauded in America and most critics state that her work is an amalgamation of idiosyncratic horror and absurd dark humour. An interesting description that left me excited to see her work in the UK. The exhibition is an extensive collection of Kahn’s work, inhabiting the three floors of the Cornerhouse in Manchester.
The first floor presents It’s Cool, I’m Good and Lookin’ Good, Feelin’ Good. It’s Cool, I’m Good presents Kahn in a state of detriment as she stands before the camera, her head, hands and lower leg and feet bandaged and at times bleeding. Her face shows evidence of personal trauma as her eyes are bruised and swollen and her lip debilitated with tape holding it aside in a peculiar and vulgar way. She struggles to speak and has to over emphasise certain words in order for the vowels to be heard with her lips being restrained, however this still comes across as mumbling and you are still pressed to listen hard as a viewer to understand what she is trying to communicate. The artist is seen undertaking a trip across America in her ‘unfit’ state, riding a motorbike, skateboarding, visiting corndog stands at unsociable hours and struggling in various settings, sometimes with the aid of crutches and sometimes seen slumped in a bed in a state of delirium.
This is a visually warped video that initially captures my attention as I am intrigued to discover the cause of her injuries, the climax of her ventures and messages she is trying to project. With a running length of 35 minutes and 20 seconds, this is no video short and does require you to adopt your attention carefully, which some may find difficult as her style of editing is clumsy, fragmented and extreme at times. The sharp transition of audio levels and style combined with the visuals does start to feel like it is too much, like the piece is trying too hard to shock and provoke. There are clear references to the artist making over exaggerated autobiographical statements as well as references to modern pop culture, whilst incorporating reactions from passersby and in some circumstances, exploiting their gullible and ignorant nature.
Her sense of humour may not project as clearly to the UK audience as well as those in the US as I found myself struggling and noticed that I wasn’t the only one as other viewers sat in silence, not even breaking a small smirk. Kahn’s work always feels like it is never quite finished and is still in the developmental stages, and her amateurish style emphasises this further. For me, I felt that there was too much work on show for this solo exhibition as her videos are lengthy and I calculated that if you sat and watched every video from start to end, you will spend 2 hours and 30 minutes studying her work and that’s before even taking her drawing work into consideration. The exhibition also seemed disjointed with some pieces standing out as the better quality work leaving others appearing far less important and like they were added merely to fill the space and ‘bulk’ the exhibition out. Putting negatives aside, two pieces of work stood out for me and feel they are worthy of spending the time to watch fully to appreciate them.
On the second floor Who Do You Think You Are presents a woman called Kellie who is an ambitious entrepreneur with a strong character, but her vulnerabilities are revealed as she expresses views and ethics that are contradictory of her goals and presents a more emotional and fragile individual. This is intense to watch as well as intriguing as Kellie is being interviewed and faces the camera allowing a more direct and intense interaction with the viewer and her shift in character adds to the complexity and interest.
Sandra is a 30 minute video of Kahn’s mother and was my favourite piece in the show. An intelligent, charismatic and anxious woman, this personal and intimate account made more prevalent through her daughter filming her, communicates Sandra’s beliefs, wisdom and unusual quirks in a loving and warm manner. Despite this, Sandra’s passion for politics, anger and frustration with society are strong and make way for an interesting contrast resulting in a piece of work that is both honest and humbling. Kahn was wise to choose her mother for this work due to her character and their relationship. Kahn’s mother’s presence was captured beautifully in one scene, where she is filmed performing tai chi whilst some young boys begin to mock her, but her engaging way sees her take charge of the situation and result in her briefly teaching one boy the moves that she is performing, whilst allowing him to experience her world and see another perspective.
Kahn’s presence in the UK will not be for everybody and some may struggle with her humour. Her solo show does feel cramped and some work underdeveloped and inappropriate, but it will be interesting to see how she develops as an artist and continues to make an impact in the UK.
Words by STACEY BOOTH.
Stanya Kahn’s It’s Cool, I’m Good is at Cornerhouse, Manchester until Sunday 16 Sep 2012. Free entry.