In an effort to harness one of the few brand-name cultural products of Seattle to draw tourists, the Seattle Art Museum is putting on a show called Kurt (opening May 13) thematically centered around Kurt Cobain. Preceding the exhibition by two months is Gretchen Bennett’s video I Don't Blame You , 2009, which either is about fame or Kurt Cobain and uses the Cat Power song of the same title (which either is or is not about Kurt Cobain) as a point of departure. Featuring Bennett singing Cat Power's tune while she manipulates a small orchid as if it were lip-syncing or dancing along, the piece has been touted in a variety of outlets (SAM’s official materials, blogs, local weeklies) as a soulful and touching personal elegy to the king of grunge. While the inspiration and intention behind the piece is cloudy, Bennett's I Don't Blame You does touch on (among others) two important themes: manipulation and repetition.
When Bennett's hand moves the flower, or when a cover artist presses the keys on a piano, or strums the guitar, or really, when her voice howls with rage and loss, these are all acts of manipulation. Unfortunately manipulation is often hidden behind the results or phenomena it produces, even if it is totally inseparable from the generative art-act in the first place. The tiresome question of “what is art?” asked by bemused philistines and scholars alike might actually make some headway if the discussion started with a rumination on repetition and manipulation.
Repetition is something that functions perceptually as a recognizable concept, and operates unconsciously as a principle of existence. We could get into Freud or something, but that seems a little heavy. Really, we need to be asking different questions: ‘Does a repeated act in a new context equate to the original act? Was there an original at all? Why is base position in time given preference over other manners of notation or sequencing?’
These types of simple manipulations of the artist’s position (or of the position of the art object or art act itself) critically mimics the move that is performed when Bennett sings us a song she didn’t write and makes this delicate little flower dance for the camera. But they also point to the constancy of repetition and manipulation in art as a whole, no matter the medium. Take the flower: rudely engineered by man into a current state of beauty and cultivated generation after generation to be identical to the original, beautiful mutation. Or music: a hodgepodge of borrowing and repeating with slight tweaks, but the same chords, the same notes, the same instruments, the same themes. We’re simply doomed. Not melodramatically of course. But instead, the inevitable repetitions we desire are cravings for this or that feeling or person or thing not to die now. We want it to live on through something else, to never die, but to continue onward past mortality and be beautiful again.
Image: Gretchen Bennett, I Don't Blame You, 2009, Still from Video Projection, 3 minutes, 33 seconds,
Courtesy of the artist and Howard House, Seattle