The Pursuit of Happiness
Charlotte Day

Over a decade and a half, David Rosetzky has developed a particularly cohesive body of video-based works, which reflect upon the human condition and the demands of contemporary life by observing the shifts and nuances in social relations. Rosetzky started making art during an era of increasing individualism and at a time which saw the expansion of direct marketing, especially towards self-improvement. This was also the heyday of discourses around the construction, commodification and fragmentation of identity, via Feminism and Post Modernism.1 His work has continually examined the ethos of ‘just be yourself’, to interrogate whether identity is determined from within or through the eyes of others. He has done this by considering the contradictory pressure of buying into a lifestyle that will reflect the ‘real you’.

Rosetzky has examined the idea of the one ‘self’, by consistently and determinately emphasising the heterogeneity and fluidity of identity over a singular perspective that can be ‘dangerous and debilitating’.2 Although not overtly political, Rosetzky’s practice has political implications, reflecting upon the effect of the shift from collectivism to a self-centred culture.3

Rosetzky’s projects are resolutely contemporary in style and format, using video technologies and the language of media culture to examine our emotions, actions, responsibilities and thoughts. Over the years his practice has expanded to incorporate aspects of experimental filmmaking and the language of contemporary dance. American Independent and French New Wave Cinema by directors such as John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and Eric Rohmer, along with the work of younger directors including François Ozon are points of reference. Such influence can be seen in his preference for working with a small recurring cast, developing intense studies of human interactions, and a narrative construction involving elements of role-playing and re-playing scenes.

The understated intimacy in Rosetzky’s work distinguishes his practice from that of many of his Australian peers, who frequently pursue a more ironical or analytical approach.4 In contrast, Rosetzky strives to bring sincere emotions and feelings to the surface, focusing on the obstacles and distractions – insecurity, angst and apathy – that may stand in the way of pursuing personal happiness.

Rosetzky’s early installation of video and sculptural props in the 1996 exhibition, Lifestyle, resembles a designer gymnasium, themed retail display or waiting room. Complete with oversized steel rings hung from the ceiling, blue-vinyl padded gym mats, custom-made seats with steel legs and beige upholstery, a fish tank and video monitor – it is an ideal habitat or adult playpen, in which to work on one’s body while watching videos of uncultivated nature with footage of polar and grizzly bears, seen playing and wrestling in turn.5 The cool, minimalist environment – a consistent feature in his work – functions as a people enclosure, a space in which to study human nature while retaining a certain distance. It asserts the gallery as a place where such a study can be undertaken at a short throw from the reality of everyday life. I remember feeling a little uncomfortable in this installation: How should I behave surrounded by these vaguely erotic objects? And what would my behavioural response say about me?

Other early video works accentuate the impression of the body as an object and ‘plastic’ form; a work in progress to be sculpted, improved, and made fit for visual consumption. In Summer Blend (2000), we witness the endless application of body lotion and routines of compulsive grooming. The body is shown as a surface to be soothed and protected, and as an image, to be perfected, reflecting self-absorption and saturation in media culture.

Hothouse (2001) takes the idea of the objectified body to a further extreme, with its subjects captured in the shallowest of ‘viewing’ or ‘incubating’ spaces, clad only in undergarments, and petted by a number of disembodied hands in readiness for our gaze. While pushed as far as possible into the two-dimensional space of the image, the subjects speak about their most intimate relationships, and it is through the pull of their personal narratives that the limitations and restrictions of identity as image are highlighted.

Without You (2003) is an animation of photographic collages in which hundreds of images of one person gradually morph into another person. A process repeated a number of times between different pairings, shows subjects in a constant state of transformation. With the boundary between one person and the next becoming blurred, Rosetzky manifests the way we continually redefine ourselves in relation to each other, and how such influences may leave their imprint on us.

In addition to these more abstracted studies of human behaviour, Rosetzky had been making video portraits of individuals, mostly friends and colleagues, who share with the audience their sense of self.6 These works define the commencement of his incorporation of both authentic and fictitious material into the construction of an identity, a methodology that becomes central to the way he developed later works. He started interviewing his subjects, and began including in his final scripts material garnered from both the interviews and stories of other people’s experiences. In these video portraits, an element of truth and ordinariness is put into play with the persuasiveness of an advertising aesthetic, with the result that it becomes difficult to discern where autobiography finishes and self-conscious, promotional performance commences, indicating the inextricable interconnection of the two.

Custom Made (2000) marked a shift to a broader cross-section of subjects, in age and experience, who were less obviously influenced by fashion and advertising. It extrapolates on the confessional nature of previous works, and is presented in a therapeutically inspired setting, in which the viewer (cast as trusted confidant) is placed in direct relation to the subject, who shares with the viewer the difficult experiences of cross-generational conflict. Custom Made is more intimate, and confronts the real difficulty in social relations, of communicating with even those closest to you. Rosetzky built an elaborate wood-veneer set for the display of Custom Made. This arrangement created parity between the seated viewer and the people in the video, positioned opposite each other but sitting in relatively close proximity. An ambient soundtrack blocked the world outside the space of the viewer and video subject.

According to Rosetzky’s own assessment, the response to Custom Made was ‘very heartfelt and less critical (than he had anticipated)’.7 This comment is instructive of Rosetzky’s concern: not with creating a public platform for private revelations and melodrama (social media has monopolised this territory pretty much since that time), but with representing the ongoing process of constructing ourselves and relating to each other. The constructed aspect of Custom Made is obvious, with each video subject juxtaposed with another and repeated in different combinations, thus stressing the illusory nature of the possible narrative connections between them. Interestingly, however, once the viewer becomes immersed in the human stories, they are less compelled to reflect on any overarching theme or artifice in the work and are, in fact, more than likely to get caught up in their own identification with the stories. In this way Custom Made confronts the nature of confessional culture and problematises the presumed selflessness of our empathy towards others, by exposing each and everyone’s profound desire to feel understood.

‘It’s only shallow people who do not judge by appearances,’ noted Oscar Wilde, and Rosetzky’s Weekender (2001), based on the TV teen-drama genre, was intended to be more ‘deeply superficial’ (his words, my emphasis) than Custom Made.8 Weekender remains one of Rosetzky’s best-known and widely exhibited works, expertly juxtaposing subjects of advertorial perfection – friends hanging out at the beach, going for walks in the forest and sharing meals – with their darker private feelings, insecurities and experiences. The work encapsulates the chasm between appearances and emotional reality, in a similar way to Rosetzky’s early portraits, but more closely focusing on the complexities of relationships with others. Weekender is the first of his projects in which the video footage is combined, in each loop, with the voiceover of different characters’ perspectives of the same scene. The angst-ridden experience of one, who doubts her relationship, or that of another, or who feels left out of the group, is shown to be the common experience rather than the exception in this apparently idyllic scene of happily partnered, popular people.

The relative isolation of each subject in Custom Made and Weekender becomes endemic in Untouchable (2003). Three screens show three separate interior spaces, each occupied by a different couple who, despite their intimate relationships, appear estranged from each other. As in previous works, Untouchable questions stereotypical perceptions of age, gender and sexuality through interchanging the speakers, with each relationship sharing, at times unexpectedly, the same narrative. This is the first work in which Rosetzky incorporates dance, collaborating with choreographer Jo Lloyd who is also a performer in the work. Words give way to synchronised dance sequences in which subjects appear to be able to connect with one another and express themselves more freely.9 Again, Rosetzky built the video works into a set that required them to be viewed in a particular way, as coexisting but isolated from each other, re-emphasising each subject’s psychological confinement.

Think of Yourself as Plural (2008) sees Rosetzky’s subjects return to the outside world although not relieved of their introspection. The first of his recent and more elaborate video projects, Think of Yourself as Plural is set across a twenty-four hour period and in different interior and exterior locations, with increasing emphasis on the quotidian journey from one place to another. It opens on a film or photographic set, with a young woman performing an emotionally charged dance sequence, at one point involving tissues, watched by a support cast who appear more reserved and mostly distracted by their own thoughts and other concerns. Without the attention of those around her, the performance seems strange. It prompts us to think about how we usually perform to be noticed, and how integral an audience is to performance. And by logical extension how important other people are to our performed self. Think of Yourself as Plural goes on to explore the different ways we re-calibrate this performance of the self in relation to others. It shows this role-playing process, as often tentative and sometimes fraught, a continual negotiation between how we feel and how we may best integrate. At one point in the evening, a young man performs a slow striptease in a club – a moment of calculated exhibitionism or valiant attempt to break free of social constriction. By dawn, the subjects regroup, though their focus remains on themselves. No reprieve from their self-obsession in sight.

Rosetzky has become increasingly intrigued in the process of working with actors whose profession is about becoming different characters. His Portrait of Cate Blanchett (2008) continues this interest in the performed subject through focusing on the way Blanchett approaches her craft. Located in an empty set-building workshop, the video opens with a close-up of Blanchett trying out different hand movements and gestures perhaps in anticipation of a performance. The camera moves through a sequence of lens changes bringing its subject in and out of focus and making more transparent the role of the camera in constructing the image of her. Blanchett is shown in various states of physical preparation, habitation and action. She consciously locates herself at a particular distance from the camera. Throughout, Blanchett’s voiceover reflects on how she deals psychologically with performing: ‘There’s a constant pull between wanting to be seen and not wanting to be seen. I think it’s taken me a long time to accept or, take pleasure in, or work with the notion of being seen. I think for quite a long time I was hiding behind stuff; one assumes a character so therefore it’s a mask of a certain type, and I think it’s taken me a long time to make that mask transparent’. The soft, warm texture of the high-definition video is indicative of Rosetzky’s approach to his subject, which is purposefully more circumspect than the invasive scrutiny of most media, especially when it is directed on the famous and celebrated. Rosetzky’s portrait study is not an attempt to define a ‘real’ Cate Blanchett. Rather, it is an exploration of the art of performance – what we all do, to varying degrees, in the act of embodying ourselves.

There are undoubtedly drives that propel us to act in certain ways, and the desire for romantic attachment is surely one of the most profound of these.10 In Forever (2010) Rosetzky adapts the storyline of a couple’s romantic outing to the countryside: a trip in a rowboat, a meandering walk through an apple orchard and a kiss at sunset. The opening scene shows a young woman trying different colour gels over the bedside lamp, which shines on her still-sleeping lover’s face. Rosetzky is reminding us that the scene is a construct that can be viewed in a number of ways, perhaps depending on how we view the world. Within minutes, the scene turns to familiar romantic territory, with playful fighting and getting dressed, mixing up and putting on each other’s clothes in the process. Everything appears to be on track until the singularity of the narrative dissolves, as both the man and the woman are replaced by a succession of others across the day, erasing any sense of the uniqueness or particularity of their pairing. Even so, the beauty of this piece resides in the way it encourages the viewer to stay with the narrative ideal of the couple in love. As the sun sets, they carry a film spotlight to the top of a hill, and proceed to bask in the glow of both their artificial and the natural light, and perhaps too the fantasy that has bound them together. There is no voiceover, and none is required to explain one of the most powerful and enduring meta-narratives of life.11 As the title’s symbolic heart forecasts, love is a universal language and the perfect marketable commodification of our desires.

The inherent ambiguity in the title of Rosetzky’s commission for ACCA, How to Feel, also raises some doubts about a way of being that we think of as natural and unmediated. Loosely defined as a day-long workshop, three women and three men share their feelings and enact exercises to connect their minds and bodies. Again Rosetzky has chosen to work with professional actors and this group is made up of articulate and good-looking personality types, who we may find some identification with – the well-groomed and thoughtful woman, the young man who likes to workout, the gregarious younger woman, the sensitive responsible man etc.

How to Feel is more naturalistic in look and outlook, less concerned with artifice than with creating a space in which to explore its habitation. Although self-composed, subjects don’t look into mirrors, reapply makeup or appear to pose for the camera. They are more concerned with their inner selves and with connecting to each other through speech and movement and, importantly, through touch too – a very different sense of touch than the preening and petting of the earlier works. Whereas some of the video subjects discussed earlier were floundering in a sea of conflicting emotions and difficult interactions, and others were overcome by lifestyle choices and social aspirations, those in How to Feel appear better equipped to process their feelings and manage the situations they find themselves in. Many of the activities undertaken involve working in pairs and breaking down the invisible though powerful divide that normally separates one from the other. As in previous works, the monologue of one character is repeated in the first person by another, with every new loop bringing an equally convincing scenario, that functions to question our earlier assumptions and type-casting of them.

The video loop has always been an important element of Rosetzky’s compositions, analogous to the repetition and mimicking of behaviours, but also a way to draw the viewer into the rhythm of the piece. A coordinated palette of colours and distinct musical composition is similarly used to establish the mood, and a more contemplative state of mind. In How to Feel, these devices are utilised to take us into the creative space of other people, offering the opportunity to identify and reflect upon the kinds of fantasies, desires and experiences that make us who we are.

While pop-psychology is sprinkled throughout Rosetzky’s collected works, just as it has infiltrated daily life as the proverbs of our age, this work is anchored in the strategies of self-help culture more than ever before. But the subjects of How to Feel are not without humour or scepticism. One notes: ‘I had a friend who put blue dots all around the house and every time he saw one he had to have a positive thought. Well that just wouldn’t work for me. You’d be in the bathroom looking in the mirror and there’d be a blue dot there. I would just laugh when I saw the dot – thinking I’m meant to be thinking a positive thought … but I just can’t’. As night falls, they go back to their lives and we to ours, energised and restored a little, perhaps. At the very least, feeling a little closer than we were before.

Charlotte Day is an independent curator and Associate Curator at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.

The article was originally published in David Rosetzky: How to Feel, exhibition catalogue, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

1. Rosetzky cites artists such as Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince as early influences. Interestingly, the Geert Hofstede analysis of Australia reflects Australia’s individualism index is 90, the second-highest score of any country in Hofstede’s survey, behind the United States’ ranking of 91. This individuality is reinforced in all aspects of Australians’ daily lives.

2. David Rosetzky, email correspondence, 2 September 2011.

3. ‘It was easier to govern, to manage and to minister to the needs of a society that responded to deference. It is chaotic trying to do the same to a society in which everyone thinks they are special; that their view is important.’ Bernard Salt, ‘It’s all about me: the rise and rise of individualism’, The Australian, 1 September 2011.

4. The sensibility of his work may be closer to one recently described as about feeling: ‘a constant repositioning between attitudes and mindsets that are evocative of the modern and of the postmodern but are ultimately suggestive of another sensibility that is neither of them; one that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths and relativism, between a desire for sense and a doubt about the sense of it all, between hope and melancholy, sincerity and irony, knowingness and naivety, construction and deconstruction.’ Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin Van den Akker, ‘Notes on metamodernism’, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol 2, 2010.

5. These works were first exhibited in Primavera, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and then in a two-person exhibition with Brett Vallance, at 200 Gertrude Street, Melbourne. The Primavera version included an audio of a simulated therapy session played on a Walkman attached to the wall.

6. Rosetzky works across a number of media, including photography, video, installation, sculpture and drawing, but his video-based works are the primary focus of this essay. Singular portraits include Sarah (1997), Luke (1998), Helen (1999), Justine (2000).

7. Kate Rhodes, interview with David Rosetzky, Remote Control – Contemporary Photomedia, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2005.

8. ibid.

9. In the same year Rosetzky worked with choreographer Lucy Guerin as part of Plasticine Park, a live dance performance at Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. He has increasingly drawn on collaborations in the development of works: Lucy Guerin also worked with Rosetzky on Portrait of Cate Blanchett and Stephanie Lake choreographed How to Feel. Rosetzky has also worked closely with sound designer and composer J. David Franzke over a number of years and with dramaturg Margaret Cameron on many occasions.

10. The greater emphasis on individualism is paired in 1990s with the re-emergence of the romantic comedy film genre.

11. The ♥ may be the first English usage of a word to develop via the medium of T-shirts and bumper stickers.