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Tina Keane - Profile

By Guy Brett

1. Light-Beam and Illumination

A work by Tina Keane is a subtle intermingling of social issues, aesthetic pleasure, technical experimentation and structural organisation, or form.

Naming these elements separately or sequentially is just a convenience; in the event they can't easily be separated out and none exactly dominates. Rather, they 'echo' in one another. Her work can be both historically specific and universal or timeless, strongly identified with our technological and media-saturated environment, and immersed in nature. These qualities have been remarkably consistent throughout her body of work from the 1970s to today, as can be seen by comparing a recent work, appropriately titled Unbridled Echoes (2000), with one of her earliest, Shadow of a Journey (1980).

Everyone knows the urban nocturnal effect of a police car or refuse lorry that sends a garish blue or orange light glancing with hypnotic regularity against every wall and surface in its vicinity. Unbridled Echoes could be seen as a refinement and imaginative transposition of this experience to a rural setting and a different socio-political reality: the New Forest in Hampshire. Having arrived at the rendezvous after dark, visitors set off into the forest along a barely-discernible path, soon becoming aware of a narrow green light-beam slowly circulating and penetrating through the trees, at first touching a few leaves, and then gradually revealing its full scope and intensity. The light (a laser) brought us to the central space of this outdoor event, a clearing illuminated by the title of the work in neon and a large movie screen. On the screen was projected the ghostly image of a running horse. The New Forest is a unique area, originally a royal hunting ground, which has evolved its own curious forms of administration and rights for inhabitants over the centuries. Its famous ponies, now sadly in decline, have always run free over its ancients woodlands and heaths. A parallel was suggested between 'unbridled' ponies and the way in which aesthetic, social and technical aspects can 'echo' one another in the work of art. In this impromptu open-air cinema we listened to the recorded voices of local people describing, and sometimes bemoaning, recent changes in the Forest.

2. Shadow of a Journey

Correspondingly, Shadow of a Journey, gave voice to local memories of traumatic events which otherwise would have no part of the sensuous experience of another place of great beauty: the Western Isles in Scotland.

Women, interviewed by the artist, recount stories handed down to them by their parents and grandparents, of the Clearances of the early 19th century, the forced removal of the local population of crofters to make way for sheep-farming. As well as the testimony to suffering, Tina Keane wanted to emphasise the positive strength of influences and links between generations. The means to do this came about through a chance discovery made on the boat trip from Skye to Harris: "To me it was a magical journey... I looked down and saw time moving in amongst the shadows. I got my camera out and just intuitively began to film these waves. One thing the film had - it had optimism. It had the universe and it had energy, constant energy... those shadows on the water could be you, they could be me, they could be anyone. People coming, or people who have been. It could be a hundred years ago - anywhere, anybody." The perception of an 'echo' between the watery flux of the waves, the shadows of people leaning over the rail, and the electronic flux of the video image, was to be highly fruitful for her later work.

3. Mise-en-scène

Describing Tina Keane as a 'video artist' alludes to the medium she has most consistently used but tells little about the nature of her practice.

In fact such categorisations impoverish not only the art work itself but its links with contemporary life and reality. Tina Keane's presentations range from images on a single screen to installations of monitors dispersed in space combined with other elements producing light, movement and sound. They represent, in one sense, the seizing of poetic possibilities in an information-laden environment where the 'screen' takes every kind of shape and form, from domestic TV to surveillance monitors, from hand-held gameboys to the great public screens in city centres, airports and sports arenas. In fact a single theme in Tina Keane's work can sometimes be traced across such a spectrum of formats. This is the case with the theme of the diver and the pool. It has appeared in the form of a single screen video (Neon Diver, 1990), as an installation (Diver, Stoke on Trent City Museum and Art Gallery, 1987), and as a giant hoarding on the Spectacolour screen at Piccadilly Circus (Circus Diver, 1989).

For Tina Keane, "the pool is a metaphor for Identity, Pleasure and Voyeurism". Growing out of the water/electronic energy symbiosis of early works like Shadow of a Journey, the diver theme, in the artist's words, portrays women's bodies as a source of "purposeful action and hedonism", and "an identity free from constraints". The pool further provides a scenario which combines perceptions above and below an "Illusory surface", which Tina Keane uses to challenge simplistic responses.

4. The Diver

The mise-en-scène of the Diver installation is one of expansion, the image making an almost unlimited interpenetration with its environment.

Materials included 30 TV monitors, blue flourescent tubes, videotape showing shots of water, divers, synchro-swimmers, the frolics of Esther Williams, sequences from Busby Berkeley films and the life-size neon figure of a woman diving. Jeremy Welsh, writing in Art Monthly, has given a fine description:

"The television sets are arranged on the floor with their screens facing upwards, in a spiral formation that is evocative of ripple patterns on water or the shape of a cockle shell. Scattered among the TV sets are the blue florescent tubes, and then suspended in the air about fifteen feet above the screens is the Neon Diver."

Welsh goes on to compare the blue striplights sticking up among the screens to "images from an electron microscope", and all around "the sculpture is reflected, extending itself out through the windows and glass walls".

By contrast the single-screen Neon Diver concentrates its images into a densely-wrought overlay. A very fine tension is established between above and underwater worlds, and between tight order and free-floating ease, as the synchro-swimmers maintain their patters by small gestures and shifts of the body in the fluid medium. At the same time the comforts of lyricism and a conventional beauty are repeatedly punctured by a punk violinist floating in an inflated polythene chair, and the artist herself in evening dress and dark glasses taking a final plunge and rising to the surface like a corpse.

Flashed on every four minutes over a period of a month, the Spectacolour Circus Diver high above Piccadilly Circus appeared to last no longer than a dive itself. You had to be quick to catch it. Rather than dragoon the pixels into a conventional representation of a solid body, Tina Keane exploited their abstract schematism to create monumental figures reminiscent of the smallest and cheapest game-screen, ciphers of a sort of electronic life.

5. Chain or Garland

Tina Keane's works are structured by formal devices, one at least of which appears so frequently that it can be said to define a deep tendency in her art.

This is the figure of the ladder, chain, ring or garland. The TV sets may form this figure, or it may occur in the films themselves, for example the ring of bodies revolving underwater in Neon Diver. The linking pattern has a paradoxical effect since it suggests both the unifying solidarity of a binding structure and its constraints. These ambiguities have been explored with great subtlety by Tina Keane in several works concerned with childhood. Like a number of other artists, such as Susan Hiller and Lea Lublin, who have worked with or included their children in their art work, Tina Keane in the late 1970s and early 1980s collaborated closely with her young daughter Emily in performances and films (Shadow Woman, 1977; Playpen, 1979; Clapping Songs, 1981; Hopscotch, 1986).

These explored , at several levels, a fine line between freedom and entrapment. Children's uninhibited play, a metaphor for artistic creation, can be seen as part of a continuum, the expression of a collectivity of children forming an unbroken chain through history. In the game of hopscotch, although the signs are hurriedly chalked on the pavement and soon abandoned, the ritual is a memory going back to Neolithic times. The video Hopscotch is a sort of visual essay: on the left of the black screen, in a Polaroid-like framed image, the scrawled figures of spiral, ladder and numbers on London pavements, and the occasional jumping feet, are jerkily scanned by the camera, while on the right a scrolling text describes the antiquity of hopscotch, its inscription on a pavement in the Roman Forum, its references to solar and astronomical symbolism. In Hopscotch Tina also aims to dissolve the divisions within aesthetics by relating the pavement chalkings with the artist's drawing and the scientist's diagram.

Seeing children's games as very ancient, linked to intellectual systems and eternally fresh, reminds adults of the springs of creativity and knowledge, a perception expressed in many epochs and cultures ("the playing child is master of the universe" - Heraclitus, Greece; "what the year will bring is found in the games of children" - Songay proverb, Africa). Yet the individual cannot return to childhood. The adult takes pleasure in rediscovering her own childhood through her daughter - Tina's collaboration with Emily is also with herself as a child - yet fears she may pass on to her daughter the constricting social view of women imposed on her. Multiple chains, comforting bonds and necessary breaks.

6. Faded Wallpaper

Although Tina Keane's works have never appeared with the fanfare which has accompanied some British artists' productions, they have steadily established their qualities.

Faded Wallpaper in particular, a work of 1988, can now be seen, I believe, as one of the outstanding achievements of video art in this country. It seems to be poised precisely at a watershed between traditional forms of representation and new electronic media.

There are allusions to painting in the working and reworking of a surface, yet this surface is continually decomposing and re-composing itself in a kind of electronic collage, fully exploiting the possibilities of mixing and layering, and the Chroma-key, which were new in the late 1980s. Near the beginning an upside-down fleshy face in black and white pushes against the inside surface of a glass box, intruding into the main sequence of hybrid, patched-together colour figments of face, body and wallpaper, which construct a sort of ever-changing mask. Faded Wallpaper achieves its effects, not through narrative, but through an intensification of the idea. Intensification of the visuals is powerfully matched by intensification of the sound, achieving a rare optical/aural density. "I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of conclusion", "Which is more real, thoughts or things: a false dichotomy", ruminates a female voice (Natasha Morgan's) in a challenging soliloquy drawn from writing by Marion Milner and Charlotte Perkins Gilmour. The reading voice enters against a whirl of insistent but hard-to-decipher sounds: chatter, cries, whispers and wails.

The whole piece is perhaps a metaphor of the mind, as outer perception is mingled with inner dream in the image of wallpaper, the domestic skin whose layers can alternately be plastered on and stripped away. Wallpaper, pattern, layer, face, mask, enclosing walls, languages of freedom: all the elements collide and separate, materialise and dissolve in a compelling vision of the anxieties and possibilities of self-definition.

7. Acting in Real and Virtual Worlds

If Faded Wallpaper worked at the leading edge of the imagistic technology of its day, Couch (1998-2001) does the same for the computer age, with an affectionate backward glance to an innovator of the 1960s.

Andy Warhol's Couch (1964), occupied by regulars and visitors to his Factory and shot on three-minute 16 mm reels, was a transformation of the proprieties of the sitting-room or the TV chat-show; Keane offers a further expansion. Her couch is set up in an empty space for one to three days for people to sit on and meet, or not, as they wish, and is linked up to the internet with a DV camera. Anyone accessing the website can see the couch and make contact with its occupants through sound or typed messages projected on the wall. Between 1998 and 2001 Couch was set up in five cities, New York, London, Wroclaw, Geneva and São Paulo, and subtle variations were made in the modes of interaction. A web user, for example, could have a live dialogue with a person's image, which had been picked up by a camera and placed on a projected virtual couch, next to the projected image of the host for that event!

"Technology deconstructs and reconstructs our identities in an almost metaphysical way", the artist has written. Artists have always been fascinated by the ambiguities between the solid and the transparent, the real and the illusory, truth and deception, especially by the fact that these pairs are not the absolutes or opposites they appear to be. Today we have entered a new period of uncertainty between real and virtual worlds, with implications that are both exciting and terrifying. Tina Keane has worked the technological media to explore a new understanding of identity.

Investigating the construct of a female self, she has moved from the 'Shadow Woman' of early work, through the 'strong woman' of works like Neon Diver, In Our Hands, Greenham (1984), or Circus Troupe (1990), which have a collective character, to the performed male-female fusions, hybrids and ambiguities of recent pieces like Deviant Beauty (1996) or The Making of Dandy Dust (2001). Throughout all this she has maintained her essentially playful approach to technology (implicit in the 'childhood' works), which continues to delight in the indescribable quality of light emitted by the cathode ray, neon tube, laser and projector.

Guy Brett is a writer and freelance curator based in London.

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