Amanda Beech: All Obstructing Walls Have Been Broken Down

Catalyst Arts, Belfast

By Sara Greavu

Image by Jordan Hutchings

All Obstructing Walls Have Been Broken Down was the first solo show in Northern Ireland of British-born artist Amanda Beech, who is currently based in Los Angeles, where she is Dean of Critical Studies at Cal Arts. Given Beech’s academically-situated practice, it was appropriate that the exhibition was accompanied by public events - an artist's talk in Ulster University and a related presentation by writer and critic Maeve Connolly, Televisual Transport: Freeways, Museums and Model Homes - that served to help unpack the work’s complex ideas around philosophical realism, the ontological underpinnings of art, spectatorship and public space.

Beech proposes “a new realist politics of the artwork and its possibilities in the context of contingency and neo-rationalist conceptions of power.” Since 1998 these ideas have been developed through a wide-ranging practice including video, installation, drawing and writing. In All Obstructing Walls Have Been Broken Down, this proposition is manifested in an installation of the video Sanity Assassin (2010) and a suite of new works on paper.

Image by Jordan Hutchings

The first room of the show, conceived of as an antechamber - or in Beech’s terms, a ‘waiting area’ - contains unframed paper works with stencil-cut style text and burned images, pinned directly to the wall. Deteriorated graphics and logos from US haulage lorries, re-imagined as Nietzschean slogans and insignias of power, are sliced and burnt with a pyrography pen in grid formations.

The second of Catalyst’s spaces contains Beech’s immersive video installation with three freestanding screens arrayed around the viewer in a darkened room. Beech envisages the relationship between the two rooms as akin to that in a doctor's surgery, where the waiting room bears no relation to what happens in the examination room yet the two are inextricably linked. In previous iterations of the installation of Sanity Assassin, this anteroom has held mirrored showroom plinths displaying an arrangement of glossy chainsaws, perhaps setting the stage more directly for the densely-layered video element of the work.

The three synchronised videos alternate between filmed images, text and CGI scenarios, accompanied by a rhythmic, driving, noise-based soundtrack, full of resounding slams, clunks and distorted engine whine. The installation delivers a full frontal assault of flashing colour, text, image and sound.

Image by Jordan Hutchings

The footage, largely shot on location in Los Angeles and featuring unpopulated architectural interiors and exteriors, mines the sunshine/noir dichotomy of the LA mythos and references a range of visual tropes familiar from mainstream media including horror films and music videos. It is divided into two halves, beginning with tracking shots of the interior of a sumptuous LA home with ornate, pentagram wood panelling on the ceiling, a leather-bound library and an excessive display of cut flowers - punctuated by ersatz VHS video-tracking glitches reminiscent of surveillance tapes. Interspersed are scenes of stylized digital ‘rain’ and CGI fly-throughs of architectural structures floating in space. Other tracking shots describe a manicured garden and its smoggy, menacing view to the valley beyond; still another interior shot tracks through a modest home furnished with familiar mid-century-modern furniture.

These scenes are intercut with rapid-fire overlaid texts seemingly drawn from scripted dialogue portraying heightened situations of violence and conflict, a kind of automatic writing recalling pulpy cop procedurals, noir and heist films.

Image by Jordan Hutchings

The second half employs that arch-cliché of LA experience, the driving shot, accompanied by the whine of the engine, cutting scenes of helter-skelter nighttime journeys on canyon roads with exterior shots of LA bungalows. Some are filmed from the viewpoint of the street - reminiscent of a stakeout vantage point - and others from a more intimate distance. Read against the first part of the work, these scenes evoke Frank Gehry’s urban architectural strategy of the ‘dumb box’ or ‘stealth wealth’ fortress in which shabby, anonymous facades of chain link, concrete and plywood belie the luxurious interiors they conceal.

Segments within these two halves are framed by ‘quotes’ from characters Beech has adopted or created, Arnold Rottweiler and Artemis Starr, which mimic the ‘referenciness’ of research-based approaches: one articulates the position of a mid-century European exile; the second a voice of new age mysticism, descending into dark horror and nihilism.

In Cataylst’s literature accompanying the exhibition, Beech sites a dizzying array of source material and reference points: seminal LA rap pioneers NWA; James Ellroy; Adorno; Horkheimer; Althusser; Roger Corman; photographic chronicler of LA Modernism, Julius Shulman; the Manson family; Kafka; and Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serial music. All Obstructing Walls Have Been Broken Down, in particular the video element of the work, offers an immersive, affective experience that is gripping, almost overwhelming. It evokes a sense of the paranoid fragmented self, under attack and hyper-vigilant. Within this dysphoric self-consciousness there is a sense of information piling up, filtered through arousal, fear, threat, anxiety. As the viewer works to read the show, to what extent are the aforementioned references markers that situate the work in a critical context, and to what extent are they embodied within the work?