David Rosetzky, Untouchable
Wayne Tunnicliffe

In Untouchable (2003) David Rosetzky considers how we represent our lives to ourselves and how we experience our sense of self in relation to others. The video installation has a ‘house without walls’ feel to it as we look into three rooms whose inhabitants seem impelled to articulate an emotionally charged experience which is preoccupying them. On one screen a young woman stands in a room painted a similar grey to the gallery space, among blonde wood furniture and near a young girl playing video games. On another screen are two men in an interior that has been lovingly assembled from second-hand shops, one wearing a homemade jacket and sitting crocheting while the other is standing near the window. On the third screen a middle-aged woman dressed in black moves around a room and sits on a sofa, and is later joined by a man who does not speak and who is dressed only in underwear and a shirt. The experience that each speaker narrates seems, at least initially, to refer to the other person in the room.

The relationship between the people we are observing becomes increasingly ambiguous as speakers on different screens swap narratives. The middle-aged woman who has been wondering whether someone wanted to kiss her or if she only imagined the attraction, suddenly says she didn’t speak English well when she first arrived. The frustrated man who seems either to be berating himself or his friend about his/their inability to take responsibility for his/their situation, then talks about not being able to communicate with someone because they are so caught up in their own happiness. The young woman who was previously talking about the person caught up in their own happiness begins to say that someone is letting their emotions out on her but that she knows it is not really about her. There is something of a Rear window element to Untouchable as we look into these peoples’ living spaces and listen to narratives which we may empathise with or which may cause us anxiety, but over which we can have no instrumentality. Our role is that of passive observer no matter how much we may wish to question, offer advice or intervene.

While the scenes in Untouchable are obviously directed, we remain unsure as to whether the spoken narratives are entirely scripted or if the experiences ‘belong’ to one of the speakers. Each narrative seems to tell us as much about the speaker and their preoccupations and emotional life as it does about the person they are talking about, who is never clearly identified. Yet the swapping of narratives insists that these situations are not unique and contributes to a sense of commonality of experience between the speakers and with ourselves. As anthropologist Marc Augé has observed, ‘any representation of the individual is also a representation of the social link consubstantial with him.’1 At the same time this swapping is disconcerting, recalling the over-familiar way in which human experiences are discussed publicly on daytime confessional TV, where a similar set of problems seem to reappear from week to week with another person articulating them. However Rosetzky does not venture into the extremes of ‘trauma discourse’, as he concentrates on more familiar emotions of the kind that shape our daily living.2

The emotional range of the monologues in Untouchable may also be intensely felt but it does not privilege the speakers’ experience as unique and it is their familiarity and repetition that gives a greater effect of realism. The nuances of experience and meaning that accumulate in the sound of speech add another important element to the materiality of this work. Rosetzky refers to a performative realism, however, and makes this clear through the emphasis on the appearance of things in his carefully styled videos and installations. With his usual attention to detail Rosetzky presents these videos in a precisely configured environment that surrounds the viewer. Mid-grey walls and modular viewing benches frame a platform in the centre of the gallery which supports the three screens. The architecture of the installation is as important a component of this work as the spoken narratives, projected images and immersive soundtrack. Designed to make us linger, with a familiar retro-now aesthetic, the deliberate cool neutrality of the installation focuses our attention on the narrative action while retaining a quietly assertive and almost sculptural presence.

Untouchable also recalls the genre of the confessional or self-revelatory pop-song as it traverses a similar territory of confidence, anxiety and optimism. This comparison is reinforced by the sudden shift of the ambient soundtrack into up-tempo beats and the narrators move into a choreographed dance sequence simultaneously across all three screens. These are not the spontaneous moves we may break into at home when the sound-system is turned up and there is no one else around. Rather it is a carefully rehearsed routine that could be straight out of any recent MTV video. At this point the dancers are looking directly to the camera/audience, seemingly to address us. But it is also the moment when potentially we may feel most distanced from the screen as the video shifts from the visual cues for a stylised realism into a far more deliberately artificial sequence. Yet anyone who has grown up with video hits knows that choreography can embed you further in the song, not leave you outside it, as sound and image combine with highly contrived movement to achieve an almost physical identification with what is on the screen.

While the title Untouchable puns on the art gallery edict against touching or physically experiencing art works, it also adds further meaning to the interplay between image, emotion and materiality. ‘Untouchable’ suggests that we remain distanced from what we are seeing, hearing and experiencing, despite any screen identification we may have with the protagonists, echoing the protagonists’ own seeming inability to touch each other. This distance reflects one of the paradoxes of globalisation: the uncertain relationship between our contemporary drive to individualism and the desire for communality, for a sense of meaning achieved through belonging and interrelationships.3

The title Untouchable also situates itself between unapproachable desirability and undesirable isolation, and the work traces out the nuances between these meanings. It seems to suggest that the performative nature of our own lives, the anxious self-fashioning that we undertake, can also leave us caught in a similar hiatus between distance and connection. This is perhaps the inevitable correlative of a tendency to construct a sense of self through narratives in which we are the chief protagonist, watching ourselves in our own reality media dramas which can leave us on the outside looking in at our own lives as they unfold. As the original hip-hop crossover artist MC Hammer put it, ‘Yeah that’s how we’re living and you know you can’t touch this, look in my eyes man you can’t touch this …’4


Wayne Tunnicliffe is Head Curator of Australian Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales.


This article was originally published in New 03, exhibition catalogue, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2003, and Anne Landa Award 2004, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2004. Reproduced with permission.


1. Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London: Verso, 1995, p 19.

2. Hal Foster discusses trauma discourse as a symptom of the return of the real in The return of the real, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1996.

3. For a discussion of individualism and globalisation, see Augé 1995, chapter 1.

4. MC Hammer, ‘You Can’t Touch This’, Please Hammer, don’t hurt ‘em, Capitol, 1990.