If at first you don’t succeed. Stanya Kahn kicks off Abandon Normal Devices.
“When something doesn’t work out,” intones the heavily made-up woman on screen, “it’s not because it’s a bad idea. It’s just a bad idea for you.” So begins our encounter with Stanya Kahn, the artist whose exhibition It’s Cool, I’m Good premieres at Abandon Normal Devices this summer.
To be honest, it’s not a great start. The film being screened, Kahn’s Who Do You Think You Are (2012), is at once compelling and repulsive. We can’t help but sit and watch; mesmerized by this brittle American woman, one who trots out truisms as comfortably as a politician at a rally. Yet we can’t quite fight the urge to get up and leave, either.
This is familiar territory for Stanya Kahn, an LA-based artist whose back catalogue focuses on society’s winners and losers and who, often in collaboration with fellow performance and video artist Harry Dodge, appears determined to force us to review our our collective obsession with ‘success’.
Here, though, Kahn is flying solo. In fact, It’s Cool, I’m Good is Kahn’s first ever UK solo show, an exhibition that takes over all three floors of Manchester’s Cornerhouse gallery and features a new commission, films, recent drawings and a video/music collaboration with legendary art and music veteran, Llyn Foulkes. It is here as part of Abandon Normal Devices (AND), and forms a kind of companion piece to The Humble Market running simultaneously at FACT.
But back to the woman on screen, who turns out to be called Kellie and was recruited by Kahn via an advert placed on Craigslist. Edited down from an original two-hour interview, Kellie here spends eight minutes describing her life in excruciating detail, putting herself forward as nothing less than a highly capable businesswoman. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Kellie’s life isn’t such a resounding success. On the one hand, she tells us that “you can be positive but you don’t have to be delusional”; on the other, she argues that being a control freak is an essential part of being a “successful person”. She is relentlessly, tirelessly upbeat, but also hints at the failed relationships that litter her emotional landscape.
It is precisely this killer combination of delusion and vulnerability that makes watching Who Do You Think You Are a skin-crawling experience. It’s not the only film here that makes for uncomfortable viewing. In Kathy (2009), Kahn similarly interviews her best friend, who reveals her life with navel-gazing honesty. In Sandra (2009), Kahn’s mother gives a frank account of a life that is far from conventional. In turning the unblinking gaze of the camera on these three women (and giving them just enough tape to hang themselves), Kahn taps into a trend for ‘fictional reality’, that deliberate blurring of fact and fiction used by everyone from Gillian Wearing and the makers of indie flick, Cloverfield to Steve Coogan in semi-fictional comedy, The Trip.
As a technique, it works well enough. It makes us ask questions, not least of our own role in proceedings. Yet in choosing a technique used so well by an artist such as Wearing, for example (who herself premiered a film featuring ‘ordinary’ people at AND in 2010), Kahn’s inevitably invites comparison. And the works on display here, particularly the more recent drawings and single-channel video works in the final room of the show, lack Wearing’s narrative pull. Think of Wearing’s now-infamous photos, Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992–93). In one, a slick young man in a business suit holds up a piece of paper that says “I’m desperate”. Even here, in Wearing’s earliest works, there is a sense that the characters are fully-formed, their lives contextualised in a way that Kahn hasn’t quite pulled off. With Wearing, there is empathy. With Kahn, it is harder to find.
But perhaps that’s to miss the point. The real skill in this exhibition lies in its timing. This is a summer when the national psyche is being stretched to its limits. Here we gather to toast her Majesty, floating by on her bedraggled boat. There we place our Olympian athletes on a pedestal, asking only that they meet our expectations of multiple medals. In Britain this summer we define success by achievement; yet at the same time ‘failure’ is writ large through our nation via spiralling unemployment, corrupt bankers and this sodding, sodden weather.
The unemployed, the exploited and the vulnerable: this is the flipside to Britain’s Olympic summer, then, just as it describes the women on screen. Kahn’s trio of films draws attention to both, and whether by accident or design, it’s nevertheless a rather neat trick. The irony is, of course, that in celebrating life’s losers so well, Kahn has turned an uncomfortable and at times disturbing exhibition into something of a success.
Susie Stubbs is Director at Creative Tourist
Image taken from Stanya Khan’s It’s Cool, I’m Good (2010) courtesy the artist