Kelly Mark, REM, 2007. 4-channel digital video installation (136:33 minutes) and furnishings, 640 x 640 x 244 cm. Installation view in 2019–20, permanent collection. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, January 2020 © Kelly Mark Photo: NGC

Kelly Mark sets the Notion of Time against Shared and Isolated Experience

Kelly Mark’s work has always been about time, and mostly how we don’t make the most of it. Her 2002 audio piece I really should … has the artist reciting a to-do list of 1,000 unachieved tasks (“I really should eat more bran” is one, intoned flatly through headphones; “I really should become a spokesperson for my generation” is another.) It is wildly seductive and irresistibly wry, but laced with a resonant melancholy to which all of us can relate. To-do lists are long, time is short. In the wisdom of Homer Simpson: "Kids, you tried your best, and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try."

Mark's 2007 video installation REM, part of the National Gallery of Canada's collection, isn't specifically about that same kind of futility, but its couch-potato frame surely implies it. A television sits in each of the four propped-out living rooms – from flea-market to IKEA furniture – delivering a summer’s worth of marathon TV viewing in a little more than two hours. To make this feature-length work, Mark set some rules: She couldn’t look up the TV listings, so channel-surfing ruled; her opening and closing scenes had to be plucked from her first 24 hours; and she would watch from 8 pm until 4 or 5 am, three or four days in a row. The hours she kept make REM a literal reference as much as a poetic one. A night owl by nature, even Mark would have had her moments of nodding off. The end result comprises over 674 clips from 170 movies and television programs.

Kelly Mark, REM (detail), 2007. Installation view in 2019–20, permanent collection. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, January 2020 © Kelly Mark Photo: NGC

All that being the case, REM is neither amorphous nor a stream-of-consciousness visual soup. Time, when it appears on screen, is in sequence. In each room, a clock on the wall is frozen at 4:05, a reference to the time on actor Steve Buscemi’s alarm clock when he abruptly awakes in the 1995 independent dark comedy Living in Oblivion, directed by Tom DiCillo.

The film and TV clips knit together in a loose narrative, mimicking the unconscious mind’s impulse to string chaos into some kind of linear order. One sequence ties scenes of men running up stairs and down ramps, across public squares and through cramped apartments. Another strings pronouncements of pending doom – atomic bombs, spreading pandemics – together with shots of explosions and hackneyed death scenes. Think of the notion of pareidolia, the brain’s involuntary urge to divine order from chaos and to see things that aren’t really there — the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast, creatures in the clouds. Applied to REM's churn through an all-night TV marathon, it works. ​

Kelly Mark, REM (detail), 2007. Installation view in 2019–20, permanent collection. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, January 2020 © Kelly Mark Photo: NGC

There is a temptation, I suppose, to see REM as a monument to boredom at its most extreme, to sedentary lifestyle as a leg-hold trap, to passivity pushed to its limits. And it does surely mirror the unconscious brain, lazily adrift in the flotsam of the information age, sorting through and making sense, with order being the curse of the rational mind.

This is undoubtedly part of the piece’s charm. Who hasn’t had one of those days (or three, or four) where the remote control and a couch are the only things you want to see – but that's not its point. Mark’s work embraces sloth (I’M SO LAZY I CAN’T EVEN BE BOTHERED TO GO TO MY HAPPY PLACE reads a 2016 work, cross-stitched in red, on linen), but it doesn’t advocate for it. Just the opposite: Over a career’s worth of art, the hallmark of Mark’s work is its labour intensity, each work being the product of hours upon hours of focused activity. My Happy Place has the air of a bumper-sticker ode to laziness, but its very existence is anything but: cross-stitching the text – and several others like it – is laborious, fussy work. Her letraset drawings come in dense, carpal tunnel inducing tangles.

Kelly Mark, International 55, 2009. Letraset on mat board, 76 x 76 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Kelly Mark Photo: NGC

REM culled several days’ worth of watching and then pared it down, virtuosically, into a string of gleefully identifiable teases (look out for the segment of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix squaring off against Bruce Lee). This is no paean to sloth, this is a view into the resting brain, at work. I’m reminded of Mark's 2003 performance Staff, where she donned a cap and windbreaker (marked “STAFF” on the back) and proceeded to laze unrepentantly in various locales. “I tend to show up late, I leave early,” she says, in the video documentation. “I take long breaks, I have issues with authority … but I’m always working.”

Mark, no doubt, still has a great many things she really should do, but as far as making art goes, she's got that covered. She is, as always, working it out.


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