Essay 3: Take something, do something with it...
Tom Dale’s Ball with Wheel (2005) is comprised of a plastic sphere 25cm in diameter, to which is fixed a small wheel, of the kind you’d find on a suitcase or shopping trolley. The mathematician, scientist and philosopher Archimedes of Syracuse once boasted that ‘Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world’, but were he to try to perform this operation on the smaller orb of Dale’s sculpture, he would be compelled to adopt a bandy-legged, decidedly un-heroic crouch, constantly supporting its smooth sides with his palms while its wheel rattled across the floor. Let it slip for even a moment, and it would teeter, fall, and skid, until finally braking on its own awkward form – not the kind of outcome that might prompt an elated ‘Eureka’!. Ball with Wheel is a dysfunctional object not through technological lack but rather through technological excess – why attach a further propulsion device to a form that is already the ne plus ultra of propulsion? Why reinvent the wheel?
Perhaps, though, tautology is the point, here. In speech or writing, the unnecessary repetition of a term is often regarded as a fault of style – examples might include such tired, ungainly constructions as ‘free gift’, ‘forward planning’, ‘suddenly, without warning’, and ‘I can see it with my own eyes’ - but there are times when this yields up aesthetic or intellectual surprise. Consider James Joyce’s humorous pile up of superfluities ‘Boys will be boys and our two twins were no exception to this golden rule’ from his Ulysses (1922), or Gertrude Stein’s ‘A rose is a rose is a rose is rose’ from her poem Sacred Emily (1913), of which she later said ‘I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years’. Somewhat similarly, Dale’s addition of a wheel to a ball awakes us to the ball’s ‘ball-ness’. It is not a symbol of an atom, or of a world, or of a cosmological unity, but rather something that rolls and bounces, the tiniest portion of its surface touching the earth, or would do but for its clumsy, vestigial limb. The piece plays a complex, witty game with form, function and the objet trouvé (it’s no accident that it calls to mind Marcel Duchamp’s stool-mounted Bicycle Wheel, 1913, in which two useful things become useless through their absurd combination), creating a negative analogue of Ralph Waldo Emmerson’s ‘better mousetrap’ – a worse wheel, the better to contemplate wheeling things.
Repetition is also important to Dale’s film 5 Interlocking Rings (2006) and his sculpture Western Negative (2007). The former is a compilation of found footage from the opening ceremonies of the Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens Olympic games, which took place between 1988 and 2004. What is striking about this mélange is the similarity of the motifs on offer from the different ceremonies. Fire, perhaps predictably, is a dominant presence, licking across the backs of speeding roller skaters and a statue of a bull, and issuing from what appears to be a vast, vaguely futuristic cigarette lighter, as well as from various iterations of the Olympic torch. Pyrotechnics and drums proliferate, as do dancers and tight formations of marching bodies. Technologically complex stage sets are populated with participants in ‘traditional’ dress, and everywhere giant images of the human face benevolently regard the proceedings, as though a mythic ancestor were smiling on the Modern world. The themes, here, are of past and future, continuity and change, the local and the global, energy kept in check and then dazzlingly discharged. Each of these, it should be noted, is articulated in such a fashion that one might map all but the most outlandish of ideologies on to them. What plays in Sydney plays in Seoul. As for Atlanta, so for Athens.
Recent Olympic opening ceremonies are by many magnitudes the most watched broadcasts in human history (the audience for the Beijing 2008 ceremony has been estimated at between 1,000,000,000 and 4,000,000,000 out of a total population of 6,700,000,000), and an alien anthropologist might be forgiven for mistaking them as our species’ ultimate cultural expression. They are, of course, quite the opposite. A genre to itself, the Olympic opening ceremony sticks to a tried, tested, and globally inoffensive formula, the better to catch on billions of heartstrings, while simultaneously forwarding the aims of corporate sponsors and political power. It is art by consensus (or a set of assumptions about what a consensus might produce) - art that in seeking to represent everybody represents nobody, or not with any nuance. However, I suspect Dale’s point is more complex than simply pointing towards the banality of his homogenous source material. 5 Intersecting Rings is a picture of what we might agree upon, if we don’t look to closely or think too hard. The Olympic ceremony is a cultural no man’s land, sure, but it is also a space of precious, very temporary peace. What is gained by this, and what is lost, is the subject of Dale’s work.
Western Negative (2007) is comprised of a black Sony monitor, which for 18 months has continually played a frieze-frame from a cowboy movie, causing a ghostly negative image of three men in Stetsons viewed through a telescope to be burned indelibly onto its screen. Dale displays the monitor unplugged, emphasizing its exhaustion, the frazzling of its phosphor particles in the pursuit of figuration. This is a TV that has been sacrificed in the pursuit of the thing that TV supposedly super-ceded: the still image. An atavism proves to be a technology’s undoing (shades, here, of the vestigial wheel of Ball with Wheel), and we get to thinking about the purpose of repetition in this work. Is Dale attempting to point to how certain well-worn tropes from television and movies become imprinted onto our cultural retina, imperiling, through their constant re-iteration, our ability to see the world, and to understand what we see? Perhaps, but the ghostly image in Western Negative also speaks of the phantoms that haunt American cinema. As a genre, cowboy movies owe much to Japanese samurai movies – indeed, John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) are direct remakes of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961) – a fact that gives the title Western Negative a significance beyond the merely descriptive. What Dale suggests is not only a cross-cultural migration of narratives (the gathering of a group of heroes, the lone avenger), but also perhaps their erosion in transit. While the ‘Negative’ of his title describes the tonal inversion of an image, it might also describe a social or even moral inversion, in which the flipside of Edo Japan and the Bushido code are the Wild West and frontier justice. It’s worth recalling that it was American gunboat diplomacy that ended Japan’s self-imposed 200-year period of isolation in 1853, signaling the end of the Samurai era, and the beginning of cowboy logic’s global dominance. If the dark monolith of Dale’s monitor echoes the ‘black ships’ of Commodore Perry looming into Uraga Harbour, there’s a chance that it is more than mere formal co-incidence.
If Western Negative chronicles the slow destruction of an instrument of communication, Dale’s recent film Shot Through(2007) speaks of a speedier end. The piece opens with a shot of a pristine, deep red drum kit, standing in a lush glade. The lens plays over its surface with almost fetishistic intensity, when, without warning, a shotgun begins to fire off camera, and the high-hat, bass, toms and cymbals are riddled with pellets. Each boom of the gun is answered by a drumbeat, as though the drums were accompanying the music of their own death. Finally, the firing stops, and we’re left with an image of the ravaged kit, slumped and tattered like an unlucky cowboy at a high noon shoot out. Shot Through is a film in which creation and destruction thread uneasily through each other – on the one hand, Dale’s riddling of the drums with pellets is an act against art, on the other, it is something that allows art to take place. Maybe this is what accounts for the muted atmosphere of guilt that wisps around the piece. Sparkling new, the drum kit looks like it has never been played – a virgin sacrifice, made for a gain that might only be measured in the editing suite, the gallery, the uncertain territory of the viewer’s mind.
"Dale’s art is an art of excess, carried out with formal restraint. In his Template (2006), an installation first shown at Union, London, the artist raised the gallery’s floorboards into a great, black tsunami, reminiscent of a skateboard ramp, Katsushika Hokusai’s The Wave (1831), and Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1971), a sloping gradient built into the floor of Sonnabend Gallery, New York, beneath which the artist masturbated while giving voice to his erotic fantasies about the visitors walking above him. Template prompts feelings of both fear and comfort (is its cresting form about to crash down upon us, or might it provide us with shelter?), and obstructs our further progress into the gallery space. As such, it echoes the breakdowns on which Ball with Wheel, Western Negative, Shot Through and Dale's recent series of Evel Knievel-referencing stunt ramps – the gallery dies so that Template may live, a functional floor becomes functionless art. Like all the artist's work, it makes a familiar thing strange, and meditates on the consequences of such transformation. This is a complex business, and one that - perhaps paradoxically - might be best summed up by Claes Oldenburg's plain-speaking description of the process of making art: 'take something, do something to it, and then do something else to it’."