Beautiful Gamble
 – Sara Arrhenius


by Sara Arrhenius

Some notes on theatricality and performativity in Gabriel Lester’s art

The technologies used in bygone ages to create illusions of reality frequently strike us as strange and somewhat comical. We peer through peculiar old stereoscopes and wonder how anyone could have been taken in. We laugh indulgently at the visible tricks that early horror films used to engender fear. Time has now made these illusions impossible and new technical effects have taken their place. Presumably precisely for this reason, it is pointless to seek to recreate the way that people of former times experienced the devices used in their day to create illusions. We are incapable of imagining what it was like to walk through 19th century’s dioramas, how terrifying the fear-inducing effects of vaudeville theatre were, or how uncanny waxworks monstrosities appeared to be. What we do know is that time has an ability to shatter the power of illusion: the lights in the ceiling are turned on and we can see that the world we believed in a moment ago is no more than painted scenery.

Gabriel Lester’s art frequently takes us back to these outmoded techniques for creating illusions. Such as, for example, in the audio pieces in which he works with old silent-film music. In the performance piece Piano Pay Off (2005) he collected music that used to be played during showings of silent films to create various moods – suspense, romance, sorrow – and had three musicians perform the music as a kind of background sound during an exhibition opening. We could describe his art as a study of the available techniques for creating an experience of reality. An investigation that also encompasses our own culture’s conceptions of seeing – how we create images, how we look at pictures, and why we permit ourselves to be convinced by images. Like all other technologies, the technology that we use to create illusions is intimately bound up with its time – with our way of thinking about and visualising the world and its possibilities. Right in the middle of its own time, it seems self-evident, we do not see it, it is rendered invisible and we believe it. It comes across as the only, self-evident way of seeing and describing the world. Then, as soon as it has played out its role, it becomes obvious. The trick is revealed and all we see is the machinery. This distance in time is one of the preconditions for Lester’s work. Distance in time makes it possible to view and understand how the illusion comes about and what makes us believe it. 

The Beautiful Gamble, which was shown in the IASPIS gallery in Stockholm, is a marvellous example of this method. The work, which came about during an intense month in the winter of 2003, was a site-specific installation consisting of old theatre backdrops. These came from the Drottningholmsteatern, a theatre with traditions dating back to the 18th century housed in the royal palace of Drottningholm outside of Stockholm, which was built for the Swedish King Gustav III. He was one of the theatre’s patrons, infatuated with the power of acting, and was himself murdered dramatically at a masked ball. As is often the case with Lester’s art, the story of how the installation came about is an important, but non-manifest, part of the work. From the beginning, the idea was to find theatre or film sets showing various typical Nordic landscapes. The search for various prop storerooms and film companies took us to the Drottningholmsteatern’s unique collection of theatre backdrops, where the chief curator of the collection surprisingly allowed himself to get involved and declared himself willing to let us borrow them. This was perhaps a smaller step than it seems. The IASPIS gallery was then located in the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Art building, whose patron at one time was the Gustav III just mentioned. His death mask is in the academy’s collections and is on display in the building’s magnificent conference room.  

If the mould-scented, heavy theatre backdrops were distinctive in some respect, it was for their atmosphere of time past. They got to totally cover the high walls of the classical exhibition gallery, and those that were not used were left lying in piles on the red-painted floor. A technical error – the backdrops blocked the heating elements in the walls – making the room cold. This further added a museum-like atmosphere of old archives or forgotten repositories. The hanging backdrops showed various landscapes intended to suit a number of different plays, so that they could be used repeatedly. Shown together they transformed the gallery into a remarkable staging of resurrected atmospheres from long-ended performances. But the installation also involved revealing old-fashioned theatre machinery, here hung up for all to see as museum objects to be studied and comprehended. 

Following the genesis of an artwork from close to always creates a special relationship. But, despite the danger of myopia, I would dare to claim that Beautiful Gamble is a key work in Lester’s production. Here we have the site-specificity typical of his art, a site-specificity that has evident links with the theatrical. This theatricality has here, too, been given explicit expression in the work’s motif. Despite its materiality, the piece provides an experience that is played out in a specific moment and which is accessible only to those who visit the gallery during the exhibition period. An experience that cannot be reproduced in photographs or repeated elsewhere. The site-specific aspect here is not just a matter of an arrangement of materials in a given space, but also a reading and re-reading of a historical context. A historical context that once hovered mutely in the present day now acquires life and is reinterpreted. The transplantation of the theatre backdrops to the art-space of the gallery also simultaneously involves a brusque ‘Duchampian’ gesture. But, beyond proclaiming that an object belongs to the realm of art, I see it as an expression of an analytical feature that is always present as a more or less explicit thread running through Lester’s work. The showing of the theatre backdrops in the gallery space specifically exposes the illusion of the theatre as being created by technical theatre machinery. We get close to them and see them as paintings in which the details and brushwork become clear in a way that was never intended. But the possibility of getting close does not totally shatter the fascination of the object, it simply displaces it a little. The presence of the backdrops – their weight, smell and history – leave room for a strange physicality. We know that they have been part of the creation of theatre performances filled with immediate experiences: desire, beauty, horror and grief. In his installation Lester reinforces rather than unveils this patina. This conscious duality – playing with the aura of illusion and the seduction of the theatre, while at the same time showing the viewer how the illusion is created – is a characteristic feature of Gabriel Lester’s art. A beautiful game that examines and exposes the illusion and techniques of illusion-creation at the same time as it baffles the viewer and allows us to be charmed and seduced. 

Another decisive ingredient in Gabriel Lester’s art is humour. In his use of childishness, humour and the rhetoric of playfulness he is just as considered and meticulous as he is in all his other working methods. Here, too, there is a clear analytical dimension. He is interested in the capacity of the joke to bear and reveal truths about ourselves that we would prefer not to admit. But this playfulness is also an opportunity to make the impossible a reality, to test out the hypothesis contained in the idea – to rethink – in reality. But I also believe that the playfulness and humour in Lester’s work are about the possibility of a conscious regression. A return to a point at which seeing and the gestalt first acquired form and definition. A controlled return visit to a vanished world to try to reconstitute and understand the basis and elements of seeing. Just as Lester applies and twists various techniques so as to create illusions in theatre and film, the same function is performed by the use of a conscious playfulness as a method for understanding how visuality is constructed. 

The artwork FISH, BIRD, DEER, BEAR This would be a perfect food chain if only deer would catch birds and bears would hunt deer is one example of how Lester uses a childish playfulness as an artistic method for investigating visuality. This work, which was made for the Goteborg International Art Biennial 2003, is a large-scale installation in wood and self-adhesive reflective material. The starting point is those children’s books in which cut-out shapes pop up as you turn the page. Lester has had a picture book constructed in giant format in the exhibition space, so that the viewer can look through cut-out shapes of various animals – a fish becomes a bird, which becomes a deer, which is transformed into a bear. The viewer has the possibility to both see into the series of rooms, which then function as an old-fashioned peepshows, and personally to wander through those rooms. As the viewer passes through the rooms, he himself becomes a part of the picture, at the same time as he is able to understand how the optical experience is constructed. What we have here is precisely the conscious, playful lightness that I see as underpinning several of Lester’s works. In a time of increasingly sophisticated visual experiences, the work entraps us with its shifts of scale into an experience that we would normally code and reject as childish. Here the work traps us into a visual game that leads us to a re-visiting and a re-experiencing of a way of seeing that we think we have left behind. Scale plays an important role in Lester’s works and, just as in this work, he frequently goes against the gigantic and the large-scale. I see this as a way of setting up visual experiences that are related to the unreal and the fantastic. He creates immediate experiences that are played out on the same level as those of the child who for the first time visits a chamber of horrors at a funfair, or like when we for the first time experience the gigantic figures on the film screen who exhibit their unreal real lives on a flickering cloth before us, who sit spellbound and captivated in the darkness.

Right after the biennial in Goteborg, Lester showed a new work at the gallery he collaborates with in Stockholm. This was a series of blackmail letters addressed to himself, written by Swedish authors. The search for the authors, their literary backgrounds and starting points, and the form their participation ultimately took was linked to a literary scene in Stockholm, which Gabriel Lester could not actually grasp in its entirety, but which he now came to participate in. Each blackmail letter also embodied a potential situation over whose actual fictitious or non-fictitious background Lester had almost no control. Here, as in many of Lester’s works, we have a story of how something comes into existence that has a sort of performative character. A form of performativity that, despite the fact that it is not shown in the work, has a specific significance. Through the way that the process is rarely revealed in the work, these accounts of coming into existence take on more the character of footnotes laden with hidden stories and meanings that have sprung from the artist’s presence, his work, and the relationships they create. In the same way as Lester’s explicitly performative works, these stories of origination have a powerful theatrical streak that I would maintain is a pervasive feature of his art. On both an explicit and a tacit level, his works are a series of stagings of situations that ultimately constitute a work. If a powerful tendency in contemporary art has been to work with a performative method that comes close to the everyday, and a crossing and obliteration of the boundary between life and art, then Lester’s works predominantly move in the opposite direction. His works rather accentuate the theatrical and the staged, even in the very process of their coming into existence. I believe this is largely a question of testing out the power of staging, which to a large extent is about being convinced. When and why we believe a picture or a narrative is a question that recurs constantly in Lester’s works.

Photography and the filmic are a recurrent reference and working material in Lester’s works. This is quite concretely a matter of operating within film and photography, but more comprehensively about seeking out the essence of the filmic and the photographic: the way that various technologies, such as lighting, sound or editing, create meanings and moods. The use of film images also alludes to the presence of film in our visual culture and to the way our seeing today is closely interwoven with images from films that together form a contemporary visual history of common references, gestures, appearances, accents and movements. Lester uses this common frame of reference as a treasure trove of stories that can be reused, reread and transformed into new works. Seen (2005), a large-scale film installation created for the glass facade of Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm, is specifically a recycling and reworking of the history of film. Seen revolves around the actual viewing as such and uses the Konsthall, a building for visual art, as a sounding board. The work, which consists of six different film scenes, is projected onto the facade of the Konsthall, paraphrasing a sequence from Jacques Tati’s classic film Playtime, in which people walking along a street peer into a modernist residential block and view the residents. In Lester’s contemporary version the glass facade is filled with various scenes that show highly contemporary people in elegant and somewhat anonymously fashionably furnished living rooms. One projection shows a group of people in a room that looks like a konsthall or gallery. In all the scenes the people are looking at something that we cannot see properly: a TV screen, an artwork, a film. The work is constructed as a complex chain of viewers and viewed. We who stand in the street view the actors on the glass facade, who in their turn view something else. A chain of gazes that is matched by the interplay between transparency and opacity, visible and invisible, that is created by the film projection on the glass of the Konsthall facade. As viewers we look into a space that actually blocks out the proper space of the building. The fact that the work could only be viewed in the evening, so that the projection could be seen, added yet another layer to the game with seeing and the gaze. The framework of the piece was to stretch beyond the boundaries of the projection, and even to encompass the viewer, who stood in the chilly Stockholm night and looked at the luminous scenes covering the facade of the building.