Kate Murphy: truth and contingency

Fiona Trigg

Kate Murphy, PonySkate, 2004

Kate Murphy, PonySkate, 2004

PonySkate, the latest work from Sydney-based artist Kate Murphy, investigates the world of the child and the video camera. A 7-year old boy and girl from different families is each given a camera to record their lives from Friday afternoon through to Saturday. As they go about their normal routines after school, play, dinner, and Saturday morning fun at the pony club and skate park, a second camera, set and left on a tripod, is also running. Extracts from the resulting 4 video threads have been synchronised and shown on separate monitors in the final installation.

As Murphy observes; “The home video has now replaced the stills camera as the favoured instrument to record childhood occasions and history. From the youngest age, children now grow up understanding and at ease with performing/living in front of the camera.”

Video conventions are also replacing the traditional grammar of film. Big Brother contestants exist in a seamless video force field. Video is spontaneous, like everyday life, and unobtrusive, like surveillance. PonySkate explores not only the effect of the ubiquitous camera on the child’s evolving sense of self, but also points to a generation who will have a greater familiarity with the moving image as a means of communication than any before them.

Since graduating from the ANU in 1999, where she received the University Medal in Visual Art, Murphy has been exploring the documentary impulse, working with multi-screen installations to develop a space where the need to organise a beginning, middle and end from the messy stuff of real life is less pressing than in the linear form. Murphy reveals her subjects through the careful establishment of formal limits, both during shooting and in the installation design. Despite the absence of narrative, her works are compellingly intimate and thoroughly engaging.

PonySkate uses multiple sets of opposites to examine the lives of the 2 children: male and female, portrait and self-portrait, mindful and oblivious. A humming tension is established within and between these pairs, but it’s difficult to concentrate on all 4 screens at once, so the viewer becomes an editor, drawn to certain images, making selections and assigning hierarchies.

The central device of synchronised cameras, one operated by the child and one by the artist, is at the heart of the work. A real conversation builds between the 2 viewpoints, which are sometimes almost identical and sometimes completely divergent. You can almost apply the literary terms of first and third person voice, with the child’s camera as an ‘I’ and the adult’s as a more distanced ‘He/She.’ The technical consistency of the cameras, with their automatic iris and focus, only serves to emphasise the delicate, floating sensibilities of the children, who shift mercurially between different levels of performance for the camera and complete forgetfulness of its presence. As the kids carry the cameras from place to place, the wildly swinging images create a kind of visual imprint of their individual physical presences. As Murphy says: “The process of empowering the children to be the directors in the process that normally records them is an important aspect of the work, especially to make them comfortable in sharing their world.”

While still a student, Murphy made the stunning Prayers of a Mother (1999), a 5 screen piece featuring a woman discussing her life of prayer. The central screen shows her hands holding a cross and rosary. In a voice brimming with longing she talks about her 8 children, her desire that they will all come back to the faith, and the saints she invokes on their behalf. On the surrounding 4 screens, images of her children’s faces, listening intently, fade in and out. The stable central image, flanked by the extraordinary range of emotions and responses recorded on the children’s faces, suggests both an altar and a family tree. This structure economically emphasises the religious and family influences underlying the children’s spontaneous reactions. Prayers of a Mother was acquired by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, and exhibited in 2003 as part of Remembrance + the Moving Image (RT55, p22).

After graduating, Kate Murphy spent some months living and working in Glasgow, where she befriended Brittaney Love, an 11 year old girl. Their shared fascination with pop star Britney Spears resulted in Britney Love, a solo show held at the Canberra Contemporary Arts Space in 2000. This work comprises floor to ceiling video projection and 6 monitors arranged in a V-shape on the floor, just like a pop video or catwalk. The screens all show the young Brittaney in her lounge room, singing and dancing to a Spears song, radically fusing the private daydream space of early adolescence with that of the public and highly sexualised role model. It’s a slightly uncomfortable fit for the audience, mediated by Brittaney’s voice on the soundtrack talking about her hopes and plans for the future.

Murphy began to experiment with synchronised cameras only recently, influenced in part by the Mike Figgis film Timecode (2000). Joe Hill (2003) was her first work to explore this territory. Video testimony conveys his wish that the song Joe Hill be sung at his funeral, paired with footage from a second camera observing the man alone in the middle of the night, setting up and recording his message.

Anyone working in the documentary genre, which claims to have truth on its side, will inevitably face galvanising ethical and formal dilemmas when it comes to translating raw footage into a final work. For the time being, Kate Murphy plans to continue exploring the potential of multiple cameras to address this issue. Speaking about Joe Hill she comments: “Both (videos) document the same sequence of events. But the subtly different points of observation illustrate the contingency of truth… They also make it clear that the truth presented to the viewer is always one that has been framed for the audience.”

PonySkate shows as part of Interlace, artists Shaun Gladwell, Emil Goh and Kate Murphy; Performance Space, Sydney, May 28-July 3

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 37

© Fiona Trigg; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2004
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