Visual ArtCurrently Hanging: Gretchen Bennett, Cat Power, and an Orchid
by Jen Graves
on Thu, Mar 11, 2010 at 11:44 AM
I've said it before, but I'll say it again: One of the best things about the new Seattle Art Museum is the free-of-charge video gallery south of the admissions desk. Curator Michael Darling is always throwing up something completely worthwhile on that big black wall: Mary Simpson and Fionn Meade's haunting, wordless Big Chillshot at a former orphanage; Nicholas Provost's line of police cars zooming toward an unidentified emergency; the first-ever survey of contemporary Northwest video art. Go. To. This. Area. Every. Time. You. Visit.
A few days ago, a new work went up in the gallery: Gretchen Bennett's karaoke/puppetry version of Cat Powers's song I Don't Blame You, also called I Don't Blame You. It's a music video of sorts. What you hear is Bennett's sweet, slightly husky voice singing Power's lonesome, beautiful song, and what you see is Bennett's hand manipulating a delicate but durable, dusky pink and yellow orchid as if it were a fleshy finger puppet.
In the song, Power quietly addresses a bygone musician. She doesn't name Kurt Cobain, but the words could easily apply to him:
Last time I saw you, you were on stage Your hair was wild, your eyes were red You were in a rage You were swinging your guitar around. Cause they wanted to hear that sound That you didn’t want to play. I don’t blame you.
In a talk about karaoke and identity at On the Boards, Eric Fredericksen recently discussed Cobain's destruction in the context of the assumptions about and demands on identity in rock and roll. Cobain in many ways represented the anti-karaoke: the ultimate in "authenticity."
What a difference a couple of scare quotes makes. I haven't thought this all the way through yet, but even at a glance, Bennett's video captures the sorrow, longing, absurdity, and grotesqueness in the idea of a soulful, sui generis artist with mass appeal.
Orchids are such intensely strange plants, and here the orchid is a surrealistic, shape-shifty device. Bennett acts as ventriloquist, and the orchid is the dummy, which, as it moves, takes on the appearance of a fierce, horned bird and, alternately, an endearing, snub-nosed pig. The "normal" state of any orchid is masquerade, so the choice of the orchid suits the notion that voices move from one body to another—and that this kind of circulatory copying provides not only psychic relief and release from the pressures and imprisonments of being "original" but also sympathetic connection, rather than the alienation or disconnection often associated with the idea of copying or imitating.
I Don't Blame You will be up for the duration of Kurt, SAM's exhibition of Cobain-based contemporary art. A Kurt Cobain museum show is ballsy: It could be terrible or it could be great. But Bennett's video gives me hope. That show opens May 13.