In his installation at Lora Reynolds Gallery, British-born, Belfast-based artist Phil Collins continues a practice of immersing himself, culturally speaking, in regions engaged in political turmoil. Whether his city of choice is Baghdad, where in 2002 the artist invited aspiring local actors to sit for screen tests (Baghdad Screen Test), or Ramallah, where Collins documented the city’s youth partaking in a sixteen-hour disco dance-a-thon (They Shoot Horses), the artist bypasses associations propagated through mass media images of certain places, offering poignant glances into the personal lives of their inhabitants.
For the project presented at Lora Reynolds Gallery, El mundo no escucha/The world won’t listen, Collins took up temporary residence in Bogotá, Colombia. Borrowing his piece’s title from the seminal British cult band The Smiths’ 1987 album, Collins’ project began with an invitation. The artist wheatpasted large, silk-screened posters throughout the city of Bogotá, inviting “the shy, the dissatisfied, the narcissistic, the shower superstars and anyone who wants to be someone else for a night” to perform Karaoke de los Smiths. These same posters now paper a wall of the Lora Reynolds Gallery from floor to ceiling, providing a bit of context for the hour-long video that is the exhibition’s centerpiece.
Comprised of a series of stationary medium shots, Collins’ video captures each volunteer standing on stage in front of a backdrop, which alternates between a kitschy Hawaiian sunset and a treelined Tuscan lake. The piece plays on a small monitor, which forces the viewer to move in close to get a good look and listen. In nearly every sequence, performers begin timidly, but their initial bashfulness gives way to bravado as they become immersed in song. With mouths extended in the widest and sincerest of smiles, they seem to forsake all embarrassment or self-consciousness about their off-key performances and tender dancing. Some close their eyes while singing Morrissey’s perpetually maudlin lyrics, in some cases bilingually. A few performers sing in Spanish, indicating these songs were already committed to memory and translated before they ever arrived. (It is important to note that the artist did not provide Spanish translations of the Smiths’ lyrics). Others take the stage boldly, posturing from the start, striking poses and obviously ready for the spotlight—and, in some cases, equipped with Smith’s paraphernalia. I even caught myself—more than once—singing along with these on-screen wannabe Morrisseys.
For all its goofy sincerity, El mundo no escucha/The world won’t listen is not, as one might think, the mere exploration of the cultural manifestations of fandom in a foreign place. Rather than ignoring political unrest in Colombia, Collins’ video looks past thoughts and images of victimization and trauma and straight to the core of what makes us human—what moves us, what compels us, what touches an individual deeply. The Smiths obviously permeated the cultural consciousness of a generation most certainly raised in perpetual turmoil. As in all his work, Collins draws personal connections—through tenuous and seemingly superficial cultural commodities like pop music—as a means of constructing a community, however brief or ephemeral. Collins’ work clearly articulates this and reminds us that the personal is always political.
Collins will take his Karaoke project to the Istanbul Biennial this fall, where another community of Smiths’ fans will have the opportunity to gather together and revel in “the music that changed their lives.” Will the world listen? -- Risa Puleo