Graham, Rodney (Profile)

Rodney GRAHAM hunches over the desk in his modish Robson Street studio and taps compulsively on a calculator as if it were a musical keyboard. "I'm sorry I don't have any new work to show you," the Vancouver artist says politely. Graham, one of Canadian art's international stars, is playing hooky. He has decided - temporarily, at least - to devote himself to singing and writing songs. "Right now I am just doing my music," says Graham, a boyish 53, impeccable in dark denim jeans and a granny-print shirt. "It's a bit of an obsession with me, and it's not one that really helps my art career." Not that he hasn't used music in his art. In 1994, Graham created a sound work based on a Wagner opera. In 2000, he made a recording of his own songs for a sound installation titled The Bed-Bug, Love Buzz.

Music has been his hobby since high school in Vancouver. In the '70s, he performed in a punk band that included artist Jeff Wall. More recently, he merited a credit on a CD by Volumizer, a band in which he played with his wife Shannon Oksanen, from whom he's separated. But even his jamming buddies are surprised at this new all-consuming passion. "He's bought seven or eight guitars - quite fancy ones," says David Wisdom, a CBC Radio Two host and former bandmate, noting that Graham hangs out in the local music scene, where he's usually the oldest person in the room. So is this a crisis? "Oh yeah," Graham deadpans. "I am always in a crisis."

While Graham sits and strums his guitar on the West Coast, his work continues to make waves abroad. This month his critically acclaimed 1997 cinematic work, Vexation Island, will appear - along with pieces by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller of Alberta and Ontario's Kim Adams - in the Sydney Biennale, Australia's venerable showcase of the world's top artists. In the fall, he will be featured in galleries in London and Düsseldorf.

Graham first captured the art world's attention in the late '70s with his stunning, large-scale photos of inverted trees. They were taken with a shed-sized camera obscura (a darkened enclosure which admits light through a tiny hole, creating an inverted image) he built on family property. The visual joke - pictures that appear to be hanging upside-down - hides layers of significance. Reality, Graham suggests, is an optical illusion: images enter the retina wrong way up, and the human brain unconsciously "corrects" the perception.

The combination of the humourous and the cerebral characterizes the impressive range of conceptual photography, video, sound and sculpture installations he has produced to consistent accolades since then. Graham, who never went to art school but enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts program at the University of British Columbia, mines such diverse disciplines as literature, classical music, architecture and mathematics in his polished and, typically, witty artistic gems. "He's funny," says Catherine Crowston, senior curator at The Edmonton Art Gallery and coordinator of the Canadian delegation to Sydney. "But there's also an incredible intellectual rigour, as well as a wonderful material beauty, to his work. He makes very smart pieces."

In the mid-'90s, Graham began to shift away from strict conceptualism and to place himself in the centre of what he calls "extravagantly produced performance works." He also turned his attention to popular culture and began exploring his favourite Freudian themes of the unconscious and obsession in a series of Hollywood-style films. Graham uses all the familiar clichés, mimicking the movies but not ridiculing them. Instead, he uses humour to illustrate the power and hold of the popular medium.

In Vexation Island, the artist casts himself in the stock role of a 17th-century pirate stranded on a tropical island with the standard props - a parrot and a barrel. Shot on location in the British Virgin Islands, the 35-mm film, inspired by a scene from Robinson Crusoe, opens with the artist lying unconscious on the beach. He wakes up and shakes a palm tree; a coconut falls on his head and knocks him out. The viewer expects a climax, but the film goes into a continuous loop, repeating the silly scene over and over. "There is no escape, you are in this circular, repetitive thing," says curator Jessica Bradley, who is planning a show of Graham's work for the Art Gallery of Ontario. "The coconut snaps you into the realization you are completely seduced by the cinematic form."

In How I Became a Ramblin' Man (1999), a takeoff on Westerns, Graham rides down from the distant hills, climbs off his horse, pulls out his guitar, Roy Rogers-style, sings a song, climbs back on his horse and rides away. But just at the point where the lonesome cowboy would normally disappear into the sunset, he turns around and comes back. Here too the artist plays with viewers' familiarity with the genre. "At first you're taken in," says Bradley. "We know the scene - 'Oh yeah, the Marlboro Man.' Then he sings this absurd ballad under the tree. Everything is slightly not right, but right enough that you get it. That's part of where the joke comes in - you think you've got it, but he's disassembled everything you know."

Graham seems to know how to throw everyone off guard. "Conceptual art is dead - there is nothing more to add," the artist insists as he ponders the next phase of his career. "I think that's Rodney's new ironic humour," responds Bradley, adding that his work is "much less rarefied" than that of most artists whose works revolve around ideas. But Graham says he's serious about his plans for a pop-rock CD of his new songs, which he hopes to release this fall. "It's completely straight-ahead, not ironic at all," he says. "I decided to get into this singer-songwriter thing because it is completely non-conceptual - it is immediate, emotional expression."

Wisdom describes the artist's album-in-progress as "smart and soulful;" the lyrics, literate, with a "left-field kind of view reminiscent of classic Dylan." He says he'd admire the music "even if I didn't know and like Rodney." While Graham's shift may surprise some, Wisdom observes that the artist "has always been, in his art, quite perverse and puzzling." Maybe when Graham sings Ramblin' Man, he's really singing about himself, his tongue only half in cheek: "Ever like a little cloud on high,/I'll be a drifter 'til the day that I die."

Maclean's May 27, 2002