Mining for Gold in the Mundane: Phil Collins’ They Shoot Horses

Phil Collins, They Shoot Horses (2004), 2 channel digital video installation, 420:00 minutes. NGC. Courtesy Shady Lane Productions and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

Phil Collins’ video, They Shoot Horses, is a seven-hour emotional rollercoaster of euphoric highs and epic lows. “Although it’s also kind of a fun video,” says David Liss, Artistic Director and Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) in Toronto, where the video is being shown until 24 March. 

This mesmerizing, two-screen video installation depicts a disco dance marathon in Ramallah, Palestine in 2004. Two groups of young adults were auditioned by Collins to be filmed dancing throughout the course of an eight-hour working day, without any breaks. He was inspired by the Depression-era craze of dance marathons portrayed in both Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel and Sydney Pollack’s 1969 film adaptation, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?.

“It’s interesting how the dance marathon craze was hot during the Depression, when life was both depressed and oppressed,” Liss says. “But it was something to balance the depression and oppression. It’s also interesting to note that this video was shot in Ramallah—not a nightclub in London or New York, but in a part of the world that is very depressed and oppressed.”

The soundtrack features pop artists such as Diana Ross, Beyoncé, Joy Division and Olivia Newton John to create a nightclub atmosphere. The audience can watch, and maybe even dance along with, the participants as they pass through stages of enthusiasm, exhilaration, exhaustion and stubborn determination. Indeed, Liss says the video had gallery-goers on their feet and dancing when it opened on 1 February at MOCCA.

“I think people see themselves in it, reflecting everyday experiences,” says Liss. “Over the course of the video, there are no jarring moments. But what stands out to me are the cycles—the highs and lows that reflect our lifecycles. A lot of Collins’s work is about mining everyday experiences: reflecting everyday experiences to find something within the ordinary, something undiscovered or mysterious within the mundane.”

Collins was nominated for the 2006 Turner Prize for visual arts, awarded by the Tate Gallery in London, England. The Tate describes Collins as using "engaging photographic and video installations involving diverse social groups. Acting as a catalyst, he encourages people to reveal their individuality, making the personal public with sensitivity and generosity."

David Liss says Collins’ work also appeals on a more fundamental level. “There’s magic in the ordinary aspects of everyday life,” he says.

They Shoot Horses is being shown at MOCCA as part of a three-year initiative with the National Gallery of Canada, through which the two institutions are co-organizing a series of exclusive exhibitions drawn from the NGC’s extensive collection of Contemporary art.

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