The Difficulty of Being Oneself: David Rosetzky's Moving Image Portraits
Daniel Palmer

For as long as I can recall, well over a decade, David Rosetzky's biography has stated that his work ‘investigates the possibilities of contemporary portraiture'. Specifically, Rosetzky's 'video portraits' deal with the fraught issue of subject formation within contemporary lifestyle culture, and the self's uneasy relationship with others. In this sense, Portrait of Cate Blanchett (2008) – while unusual in being a commission for Canberra's National Portrait Gallery and portraying a high-profile celebrity – is not atypical. Inevitably one of his best-known works, this skilfully layered portrait of the actor is unmistakably Rosetzky.1 Its production involved his familiar procedure of interviewing his subject and then inviting her to read an edited script based on her responses. Shot at a Sydney Theatre Company studio, Blanchett appears elegant but casually dressed, musing about performing roles and how the more people project things onto her, the less she thinks about who she is. Rosetzky makes no attempt to reveal the ‘essence' of Blanchett's character. She is, in a sense, Rosetzky's ultimate flexible subject, metaphorically underpinned by the initial blurring into focus of her face and the ritual of her dressing and then shedding layers of clothing. And from initially small choreographed hand gestures, the piece culminates in an unexpectedly playful dance routine involving nimble soft-shoe steps.

Always highly stylised, Rosetzky's earlier work was starker in its artifice but contained all the ingredients of his more recent explorations. His typical cast of the anxiously self-absorbed, beautiful middle class and their protracted adolescence has long invoked commentaries on narcissism and therapy culture. The artist says he wishes to ‘explore the fracturing effects that global lifestyle culture can have on contemporary subjectivity and how interpersonal anxieties manifest as a result of a highly individualised and consumer focused culture'.2 Rosetzky has in fact made a singularly compelling body of work based on the postmodern truisms that subjectivity is fragmented and we can only identify ourselves through the eyes and language of others. That his works get under your skin is something to do with their fatalistic rather than critical tone, and their proposition that individuals are fluid and imitative rather than definitive and singular. But it is also testament to an unswerving attention to detail, an elaborate collaborative method and an extraordinary craft developed over many years.

Rosetzky first used video in 1996, having studied painting and exhibited in various media at 1st Floor Artists and Writers Space Inc, of which he was founding director in 1994.3 By the late 1990s he had produced a series of stylised single portraits of individuals chosen from among his circle of friends. Sarah (1997); Luke (1998); and Helen (1999), feature young men and women delivering embarrassingly intimate confessions of grooming routines, desires and aspirations, in affectless monologues. Based on interviews, and updating Andy Warhol's 1964–66 Screen tests, the characters are presented against a simple monochrome beige or grey backdrop.4 Justine (2000), a more elaborate single portrait work, features a snappy young woman with a dyed-red bob. Pictured alone with a slinky cat in a stylised interior setting, listening to a retro reel-to-reel tape player through white headphones, she confesses such banal insecurities as the fact that she needs to have people around her to feel truly herself. Another sequence shows her flipping idly through a fashion magazine, and we also see her seated at the round table of a Chinese restaurant with friends, while an interior monologue voice-over speaks about how ‘interchangeable' they all are. Like the Blanchett work, these early video portraits scrutinise aspects of an individual's ‘personal style', exploring the distance between a public persona and their psychological disposition. Although Rosetzky fuses documentary with highly seductive artifice, he extracts personal confessions that place the viewer in a disarmingly intimate relationship with his subjects – encouraging identification, comparison and judgments.

Custom made (2000) advanced the confessional mode into multiple overlapping subjects, pioneering a dynamic mode of viewer involvement in its elaborate sculptural installation. A constructed wood-veneer corridor – evoking both contemporary designer interiors and 1970s family rooms – provided the set for twin back-lit video projections of life-size seated figures who, dissolving one after another, delivered self-conscious monologues about an unnamed yet clearly significant person in their lives (romantic, social and familial). The viewer, seated opposite in the same alcoves the figures were actually filmed in, becomes complicit in their confessionals. Their voices, in particular, functioned to enhance a sense of their corporeal presence, and a simple musical refrain provided a precise existential motif. Exhibited just as reality television was turning voyeurism into a form of entertainment – still some years before Facebook – this work took the self's active and vulnerable relationship with others as its subject.

In a similar vein, the ambitious installation Untouchable (2003) – featuring a modular layout for three synchronised projections – distilled the ritualised emotional power of soap-opera confessionals. From the partial views offered by various seating positions, multiple relations were established between a series of estranged couples in three designed interiors visible on double-sided screens (including a same-sex couple and mother and child). It gradually became clear that the series of monologues were identical, rotated among the characters – disrupting our presumed access to a unique psychological interior. And when the figures broke into an unexpected, simultaneous dance routine – perhaps a moment of connection – we were forced to ponder the inadequacies of our shared emotional language.5

Rosetzky has utilised the motif of the weekend road trip on several occasions. In Weekender (2001), a filmic single-channel video, six good-looking twenty-somethings share a weekend at a stylish beach house. Wearing harmonious shades of pink, yellow and orange, they appear superficially at ease as they lounge around and stroll the surrounding woodland – however, a voiceover offers glimpses into their personal anxieties and difficult relations to intimacy. Their rosy Alex Katz-like appearance betrays all manner of emotional frustration and banal narcissistic preoccupation – highlighted by frequent preening in the mirror. And once again, the interior monologues unfold disconnectedly, freeing themselves from the images of specific individuals. Nothing like this (2007) is something of a remake of Weekender, as another young group of friends wander around an idyllic country estate. Beneath the relaxed fashion magazine glamour, an audio track features monologues of holiday despair, from romantic discomfort to alienation from friends. To date Rosetzky's only work shot on 16-mm film, and bearing the influence of French film director Éric Rohmer, the work features some aesthetically exquisite scenes of languid splendour. But calm appearances betray internal chaos.

Rosetzky's most recent video, ♥ forever (2010) places the road trip itself at the heart of the narrative, but marks a departure from his distinctive voice-over technique. In this work, appropriately first exhibited at TarraWarra Museum of Art, desire – or more specifically a romantic winter's day trip to the Yarra Valley – is gently deconstructed through a sequence of character switches. The narrative begins with a young woman holding up a series of coloured gels to a bedside light in front a sleeping man, establishing the notion that desire is something mediated. A playful dressing scene follows – somewhat reminiscent of an underwear advertisement – accompanied by upbeat guitar music, and then we see the couple drive through the streets of inner-city Carlton and along a freeway in an old yellow Land Cruiser (even Rosetzky's cars are retro-stylish). Before long, however, one half of the couple has been mysteriously replaced by another person. And then the other half is replaced, and so on it goes. Different genders and ethnicities, all with the same breezy detachment, play out the same common journey. Essentially an experimental film, relying on editing rather than voiceover, the natural countryside – including picturesque romantic clichés such as a rowboat on a lake and a stroll through an orchard – becomes the counterpoint to the city, but the escape is illusory. In an echo of the opening scene, the work concludes with a couple canoodling, Hollywood-style, on a grassy hill in front of a film-set scale floodlight they have set up to simulate a sunset. This idealised image of amorous unity – the first kiss in any of his works – is undercut by its staging, suggesting either a kind of narcissistic transcendentalism or more simply that we're all seeking the same illusion.

Some clues to Rosetzky's approach to portraiture may be found in his more overtly sensual works that, in their attention to pure surface, borrow explicitly from the language of advertising. Summer blend (2000), for instance, depicts a series of young figures dressed only in skin-toned underwear applying some kind of moisturiser or sun cream. The endless application over evenly smooth skin generates a rhythmic, hypnotic dimension to the autoerotic consumption. In the distinctly clammy and claustrophobic Hothouse (2001) a sequence of attractive young people dressed in matching pale green swimsuits are isolated in a diorama box, with small round holes in the floor and sides through which disembodied arms caress their bare skin. Despite being stroked like an object by multiple anonymous hands, the figures talk in banal terms about their relationships, solitude and achieving a sense of balance. One of a series of memorable still images from this work was presented as a public billboard with the text: Living together is easy. Indeed, Rosetzky has ventured into the terrain of photo-sculptural portraits on several occasions via a series of three-dimensional photographic cut-outs, mounted onto wood, or framed within Perspex. In Without you (2003) this procedure is reconfigured: over three hundred individual ‘glamour' portrait images were laboriously extracted from digital video footage as still prints and then subjected to a kind of low-tech video morphing involving old-school cutting and pasting. The result is an animation in which the faces of models and Rosetzky's friends are deconstructed and blurred with one another – dramatically raising the question of where our selves begin and end.

At almost 30 minutes long, Think of yourself as plural (2008) is perhaps Rosetzky's most elaborate single-channel video portrait to date. Utilising the skills of professional actors and dancers, and working with a now established team – including cinematographer Katie Milwright, choreographer Lucy Guerin and sound designer J. David Franzke, who provides electronic mood music – the awkward social exchanges in this work evoke the early films of Hal Hartley, suggesting the promise of a future feature film. In a strikingly surreal opening scene, a young woman seated on a chair in a fashion photography studio performs a series of erratic moves involving tissues. While she silently contorts her body, two others look on impassively and talk about themselves and their feelings about others – occasionally attending abstractly to her. Combined with various introspective yet glib confessions, another slightly sinister female voice-over sounds like readings from a self-help manual. The work climaxes with one of the beautiful yet insecure subjects performing semi-naked expressive dance in a cafe, before an eventual group nature walk take place at dawn. But morning brings no escape from the self.

It is often claimed that our society is the most narcissistic and superficially self-revealing ever known – witness people's willingness to dissolve conventional public–private boundaries on Facebook. It would be more accurate to say that identity today is self-reflexively protean. Writing of individualisation – the ethic of individual self-fulfilment and responsibility epitomised by the ruling logic of consumer freedom – sociologist Zygmunt Bauman suggests that it consists of transforming human identity from a ‘given' into a ‘task', a ‘performance' for which we are deemed solely responsible.6 Paradoxically, our performance-driven culture exerts a constant pressure to improve oneself and yet be simultaneously natural, authentically individual.

In this sense, the modest confidence of Blanchett the actor underlines the egotistical insecurities of the more ordinary people in Rosetzky's works, who are presumably less positioned to play themselves. Rosetzky's cool and often ambiguous video portraits depict strangely passive subjects in the context of a culture that over-emphasises individualist goals and market-based aspirations. In the face of so much apparent free choice, we are installed in the ephemeral now of appearances and perpetually unfulfilled desire – within which the twin spectres of meaningless and mortality are never far away. The originality of Rosetzky's project lies in its full-scale commitment to exploring self–other relations within this relational dream world.

 

Daniel Palmer is a Senior Lecturer in the Art Theory Program in the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, Monash University. This article was originally published in Art & Australia, vol 48 no 3, Autumn 2011. Reproduced with permission.

 


1. That it functions as a work of art in its own right was underlined by its inclusion in ‘Dress Codes: The Third Triennial of Photography and Video' at the International Center of Photography in New York in 2009.

2. Rosetzky, quoted in Dan Rule, ‘David Rosetzky: (heart) Forever', Broadsheet Melbourne, 10 November 2010, www.broadsheet.com.au/melbourne/arts-and-entertainment/article/david-rosetzky-forever.

3. The Museum of Contemporary Art's 1996 ‘Primavera' exhibition in Sydney was dedicated to the work of 1st Floor artists, and Rosetzky used the opportunity to construct an installation involving a faux waiting room, taped psychoanalytic sessions and found video footage of frolicking bears.

4. Andy Warhol made about 500 screen tests between 1964 and 1966, showcasing Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper, Edie Sedgwick, Susan Sontag and Salvador Dalí, among other lesser-known personalities. In the film world, a screen test is not so much about looking for talent, as seeing how a person's face ‘translates' as a flat two-dimensional image.

5. Rosetzky's video works Foyer, 2004, and Maniac de luxe, 2004, also explore how we negotiate the way that others see us. In Foyer, characters come and go, seated momentarily on colourful moulded plastic designer stools, a stacked lonely pile of which seem to echo the lack of response that their monologues generate from the other characters in the ensemble. The display seems to reference the contrived casual look of retail styling, with daytime-TV style muzak. The installation Maniac de luxe features a two-screen video projection within a modern utopian interior, complete with flokati-style rugs and space-age lamps, and characteristically ill-at-ease confessions. The protagonists' difficulty in being themselves suggests the complexities of staging the self and focuses on uncertainty and doubt in reconciling oneself with others and the world.

6. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000, pp 31–32.