Lifestyle Sublime: David Rosetzky
Robert Cook

Over the last decade, David Rosetzky has quickly and quietly produced one of the most coherent, nuanced, and interpretatively resonant bodies of work in Australia.1 Single-minded and singular, his practice enlists video, drawing, sculptural installation, and still photography, propelling an intensely self-aware and contemporary emotional mannerism into an inquiry of the human as an irredeemably social, yet irredeemably isolated, animal. A strange mixture of Eric Rohmer and Dawson’s Creek, his work explores the gap produced when the style, poetics, and latent intellectualism of the popular media sphere are pitched against the most intense of existential longings. In doing so, the work unleashes questions about the intermingling of personal and social identity, first-world malaise, the slippery function of language, and, finally, the surprisingly redemptive role of tragic romanticism. To these ends, he mobilizes a cool, ordered, and reservedly gorgeous look. His aesthetic is deliberately crafted; each work is heavily authored as Rosetzky’s directorship is felt everywhere-styling, choreographing, inflecting the voice, and guiding the camera’s flow.

The look, feel, and focus of Rosetzky’s work was already fully developed in Justine (2000), the first of his major video projects. Essentially a video portrait, it follows Justine, a strikingly thin, loosely freckled figure, feline and equine in equal parts, with a sharp bob of red hair. We observe her as she decorously lounges in her tastefully-appointed apartment, flips through a magazine, listens to music, goes out with friends for a meal, and strokes her tattooed boyfriend. On the surface, life seems to be the very picture of chilled modern living: all her needs are catered for. Nevertheless, a range of oh-so-human dilemmas undercuts this rosy scene,2 revealed in the monologue that twitches just above the synthetic background music.3 In it, Justine ponders her life and relationships, revealing that she is never happy alone. Accordingly, she wonders who she is and exactly what constitutes her very self. Beneath the fashion magazine clichés she seems to embody, Justine has a quivering heart and a deep, existential restlessness. While the voiceover is neatly poised, it actually speaks of the inability to define oneself for oneself, and the myriad of problems that arise when we begin to look into this inability in even the idlest of ways. To step outside the flow of the good life, even momentarily, risks its breakdown. In a very real way, therefore, Rosetzky is staging a re-birth of post-Enlightenment critical consciousness – whose fundamental consequence, as articulated by thinkers from Nietzsche to Freud, Sartre, and beyond, is to show that to be aware is to be unhappy – within popular lifestyle, of all places.

The video Weekender (2001) develops and complicates this dynamic. Good-looking youths – close friends and new couples – have gone to the beach together for a weekend away. Like Justine it is, superficially, a commercial for good living, an advertorial come to life. As with Justine too, the monologues reveal a darker register of meaning under the surface of politeness, smiles, and longing gazes. While there are tales of hopeful beginnings, more prevalent are fears about the actual status of relationships. For one reason or another, all seem to be on shaky, uncertain ground. No one is really confident about anything. What’s more, queries abound about the suitability of individuals. Is this or that lover up to scratch? The work is basically about people’s failure to fit into schemas and schemes – their own and those of others. As this failure clashes with the cheery visuals, every scene becomes entirely provisional – everything is playacting. As such, we know that the couplings will not work out and that friendships will be eaten away by envy and misguided egotism. As the film loops, we greet the introductory scene with a little more wisdom, and with the knowledge of what has passed. Now suitably armed, we do not trust anyone. Nor do we trust any action, affection, or regard – aside from self-regard. The cultivation of cynicism is the work’s inevitable consequence: appearances are inherently deceptive.

Such cynicism is obviously corrosive, both personally and socially. Thus, a beautifully arch, though beautifully bleak, unhappiness hangs over many of Rosetzky’s works. In Untouchable (2003), the characters’ unutterable aloneness emphasizes their unhappiness. While they are seemingly suited to the life of the modern world, some invisible thing separates them from the pleasures of their fellows. Something makes them untouchable – the caste below all others. Their monologues have, it seems, finally forced them to drift free from the world of social recognition and warmth. Their self-talk has created a wall around them; acute self-consciousness has isolated them from the social body. They inhabit crisp interiors that imply that they are also victims of the modernizing, separating impulses of a world that pressures all relations to conform to commodity culture. Maniac de Luxe (2004) is an even more focused meditation on this trope of commodity conformism. Neither the perky Eames chair in which the subjects sit to face the camera nor the modern clutter around them succeed in doing anything to settle our minds. The worrying, the troubling, continues – an apparent by-product of our civilization.

Choice is, more specifically, the crux of this ubiquitous troubled anxiety. The very idea that the first-world modern citizen is, or is expected to be, self-determining hangs over Rosetzky’s subjects as an awful pressure. Which partner? Which friend? Which hairstyle? These questions are no mere mental ephemera of the lifestyle and fashion pages but the grain of a more fundamental crisis; they become unbearable weights that tear at our beings. As numerous contemporary social theorists and psychologists have asserted, too much choice makes us unhappy, since we concern ourselves not with being content with the results of the choices we have made, but with the unhappiness of not having the things we didn’t choose.4 The endlessly self-reflective subjectivities vehiculated in contemporary media dispense these feelings to all of us, to varying degrees. As such, Rosetzky’s works present the dismal flipside of Sartre’s heroic existential quest to be fully, authentically, oneself (or one self): the postmodern freewheel turned into a kind of Moravian hell because contemporary life provides no traction for the relational construction of this one self.5 There are just choices – choices and more choices – with no external contingency narrowing things down for us.

To exacerbate matters, it is also the case that unguided self-reflection makes us fundamentally unhappy.5 Interestingly, one of the key characteristics of Rosetzky’s works is their use of meandering speech and thought, which further dooms his subjects. This speech is fundamentally airy, floating across person to person, without regard for gender as phrases are repeated by different voices. The very idea of speech being pinned down to a body or backed up by an action is rendered suspect or maybe even impossible; mute physical existence and floating speech occupy two entirely distinct registers of being. However, despite the monologues’ mobility, their anxieties transform them into stationary speech. This may be because anxiety is a holding pattern. It is not action, nor is it frenzied delusional paranoia: it is simply the internal soundscape of waiting. Thus, while he uses the moving image, Rosetzky’s anxious monologues pull against movement, resisting any simple resolution through interpersonal interaction or outside events. What’s more, this lack of narrative movement prevents us, as viewers, from ever feeling compelled to step in. As we watch and listen, the actors’ problems never become issues that require any resolution from us. They are, instead, a form of abstracted, ungrounded spectacle. This realization is, unfortunately, a recognition that we are the very characters in the films, caring – but not really – about those around us, focused on our own concerns at all times. The bleating of others is just an irritating noise impinging on our own.

Still, Rosetzky’s works are not dependent on the monologue/action binary. The early work Summer Blend (2000) for instance, is monologue-less. In this silent video, actors and actresses smear themselves with sunscreen lotion. This common self-protection against skin cancer (especially in sun-kissed Australia) is transformed into onanism; the act of self-protection becomes a performance of self-regard, self-love. This self-stroking recalls the self-talk in Justine and later works. Both activities come off as forms of narcissistic self-regard. Yet, both are necessary soothing gestures that partially define the singularity of the subject, a definition that needs endless renewal and restatement in order to hold against the surrounding abyss.

Hothouse (2001) takes touch and regard in another direction. Here, individuals in nondescript, sage-green underwear sit in a small enclave. Unseen young men and women stroke and touch them through glory holes. Unfazed, the figures simply look at us. If they are both touched and looked at, they do not respond. They are still and relaxed – to be touched and caressed is perfectly natural to them. Of course, the work also implies that looking is a form of touch. Our looking is one more touch, one more caress. The natural, easy, and grounded narcissism of the sitter locks all this in place. Accordingly, the unseen people are our proxies, as viewers. We are complicit in the work’s relational set-up. What’s more, Rosetzky connects the act of our listening to the monologues to the act of touching, and, above all, he is implicating us in the creation of the subjects. The viewer is, to some degree, making the work – as the priest makes the confession and the analyst makes the analysand.

The hyper taut, controlled zone of human-to-human relation that is the hallmark of Rosetzky’s work is starting to leaven in his recent output, and most specifically in Nothing like this (2007). In a way, this is a remake of Weekender as another group of good-looking twenty-somethings are at play, on holiday for a weekend. But it is more open and more oblique as elements of the landscape nudge things along in other ways. The work opens with a gentle sunburst as a group of young friends walk down a hill. We are close to them, almost breathing down their necks. From there, we find a couple complaining, separately, about a holiday one had surprised the other with: it felt too much for one, and for the other it was a wasted, hopeless gesture. The group plays in the still waters of a bay. They journey up and down a coastal road, and enjoy some downtime in a room with a record player. Their monologues range from romantic discomfort to alienation from friends. For one couple at least, there is a sense of darker futures where anxieties turn into something more serious, like ongoing depression. Moving beyond anxiety as a sign or symptom of a fluid existential restlessness, the feeling is knotting, getting harder, maybe more permanent.

At the same time, the work embraces a more overt romanticism. Take, for instance, the closing pool scene. A male floats in the waters of a country-house pool, set in a beautifully manicured, old-world garden. A woman approaches. A dark chill moves across the space, or is suddenly very present. Something bigger than these figures is eclipsing them. They also occupy slightly less space in the frame. They are smaller, more contingent; their voices and musings bleed into something larger – nature and the turn of seasons. As if to reinforce this, Rosetzky recently presented Nothing like this alongside Nothing like this (Autumn) (2007), a shorter, silent and looped film of a male body lolling in the pool. Reduced to a body and a body of water, this work showcases Autumn coming and changing, swamping, drowning everything in the human realm.

Such romanticism, glimmering in its seasonal way, is very surprising, precisely because the mark of Rosetzky’s oeuvre is its deliberateness. In his work – as in that of Jeff Wall, Thomas Demand or Darren Sylvester – every element seems totally planned and foreseen. Against this, the introduction of light and its accidental ambiance as a major player in the work brings the romantic gust of an indefinable, un-mapped future. Nonetheless, the knowledge of Rosetzky’s previous works nudges the tenor of this romance into something of a brooding F. Scott Fitzgerald view of lives ending badly, in loss, loneliness, and penury. So it is as if Rosetzky, in these most recent works, has come to the end of the lifestyle dream and entered a different, still indistinct, place. Tellingly, he has arrived here without recourse to the usual narrative filmic tropes – graduation, work, marriage, and so on – but through a tonal shift, by allowing the environment, nature itself, to open up his subjects to their uncertain futures. Finally, it appears that this is the traction against which things will change, in which anxiety will become something different, maybe something more terrifying. As such, the modern crisis of consciousness that fuels his works is now starting to take an even more troubling shape – it is no longer a plaything. In fact, Nothing like this reveals that it has never been a plaything, that the anxieties of the earlier work were the binding of selves against a much bigger, much darker, outside. They have indeed been a deliberate attempt to ward off the world outside, mediocrity, mortality, and all that. It seems that Rosetzky is perched right against the abyss now. The modern manners, refined bangs, and articulate self-justifications won’t hold much longer. What lies beyond is bound to be completely mesmerizing.


Robert Cook is Curator of Contemporary Art and Photography at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.


This article was originally published in Art Papers, issue 32, Oct/Nov 2009. Reproduced with permission.

1. David Rosetzky is one of Australia’s most important young artists, along with Darren Sylvester, Shaun Gladwell, Daniel von Sturmer, and Ricky Swallow.

2. As I wrote this I couldn’t help but hear John Mayer’s song Something’s Missing in my mind. The song, as is maybe well-known, has young John feeling frustrated since all his material, social, and personal needs are adequately met, yet still … something’s missing … and he don’t know what it is …

3. The voiceover monologues waft as the actors go about their business. They are not actually spoken by any one character, but are part of the soundtrack. It is never clear which voice belongs to which character.

4. Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More, New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

5. I am thinking of Alberto Moravia’s Boredom.

6. Timothy Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002.