A man sits in a derelict industrial building, hooded and bound to an office swivel chair perched on top of a wooden pallet. The whole animated scene bristles and judders with anxious biro lines as pieces of the walls and ceiling crumble and collapse into the space. He struggles against his bonds, swivelling slightly from left to right in his chair, its wheels so close to the palette’s edge that he might topple at any moment. With his bound hands tugging at the air in one direction and his bound legs lashing out in the other, he starts to slowly pivot anticlockwise as more masonry crashes to the floor. The image trembles and flickers. There is something at once sad and darkly comic about this anonymous man’s predicament. His kidnappers have left or forgotten him on a stage set of banality and ruin, tied to a generic office chair – with all its allusions to repetitive, soulless desk work – to fight haplessly against the inevitable laws of nature: gravity, entropy, force, counter-force and death. Having completed his laborious writhing rotation twice, the man, appearing confounded and exhausted, raises his cowled head up and towards the viewer. In the final moments of the film, any sense of comfortable detachment or suspended disbelief is undone by the man’s unwavering violation of the fourth wall.
The screen turns black.
A black screen becomes a black mirror which both reflects and conceals.
The animation begins again.
The infinite repetition of actions or scenarios which never attain resolution, or which fail entirely, find their roots in the Greek myths of Sisyphus and Tantalus. King Sisyphus was punished by the gods for his crimes against them, doomed to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back down again each time he reached the top. A similar fate befell Tantalus, guilty of filicide and cannibalism, who the gods condemned to an eternity of unrequited desire. He was forced to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree, and every time he reached for a fruit or knelt to take a drink the bounty would shrink from his grasp.
‘Sisyphean’ loops of hapless endeavour are understood to illustrate pointless effort and meaningless existence, connected to the order, rules and punishments of a system larger than the individual. With iterations in philosophy, literature and art over the last two centuries,1 Sisyphean repetitions have come to embody a plurality of possible meanings and ends. In Bas Jan Ader’s performances and actions in the 1970s (some of which are recorded in silent black-and-white films and photographs), he sets up situations which repeatedly, inevitably end in failure. In his series of ‘falls’, the artist balances himself on a chair on a slanting roof, hangs onto a tree branch or cycles alongside a canal until he inevitably topples off the roof, into a dirty stream or into the canal. Similarly, in Andrew McDonald’s ‘Comfort Falls’ (2015) and ‘Bucket’ (2013), there is a kind of playful humour to these repeated, doomed acts. But to read them as merely slapstick, according to the artist, would be ‘missing the point’. By imposing a system of repetition and failure both Ader and McDonald are performing (knowingly or not) a kind of resistance to teleology and success-orientated ideologies. They are also, in their own ways, platforming the fallibility of art, life and ambition.
…I think art should be very serious… and that’s what I like about art, I like the seriousness of it… but then I think it’s part of my nature to want to take the piss out of it at the same time…2
A lush, overgrown tropical garden of palm fronds, tree ferns and bird of paradise flowers teems, ripples and drips with humidity. Suspended between two neo-Greco pillars a hammock cradles a corpulent, sleeping man with a fedora-esque hat resting over his face. The marks of the artist’s biro, a flickering index of lived time, shimmer and dance through the scene like dappled sunlight. The man wriggles slightly and with a sleepy, half-conscious effort raises his hand, groping at the air before it slackens and falls back. Once more – straining with a great, sleep-laden effort – he stretches out his hand from the verge of wakefulness. The sweeping, grasping hand steadies for a moment in the air and forms a faint pointing gesture. Succumbing to gravity, the hand slides drowsily downwards. For a hovering moment, the man seems to point out towards the viewer before his hand falls back into unconscious repose.
Cut to black.
The animation begins again.
Repetition is the beating heart of McDonald’s animations. Over the course of weeks, months and even years in the studio, the artist performs seemingly endless repetitions to create each animation: in staging, filming, reviewing and restaging actions; and in drawing and redrawing tens of thousands of frames, each made of tens of thousands of individual marks. The outcomes, which emerge from McDonald’s gestures, are not predictable or homogenous (unlike those of mechanical repetition) but, due to the accumulations of slight inconsistencies and disparities, are vacillating, unpredictable and impossible to grasp. These Deleuzean repetitions are ‘productive of difference’,3 generating all sorts of unexpected qualities and results, from the vibratory feel of the animations to the landscapes in which they unfold. Beginning a new piece of work, McDonald sets out with an action in mind and gradually crafts it through the animating process. The context or stages in which these actions take place emerge out of his processes of making, looking, thinking, reflecting and remaking.
A desolate, barren scene of what appears to be a crumbling penal institution or enclosure peppered incongruously with discarded water bottles. An impossibly Stygian sky hangs down to a low horizon, partially barred from the viewer by a tall fence; its weathered grid of wire (the conceptual and ideological skeleton of Modernism) is topped by a comically gestural, almost calligraphic, razor wire. From behind a block of scarred concrete a gaunt man, his face concealed by a chequered scarf, painfully hauls himself to his feet. The man looks around furtively at his surroundings, the scene twitches. He glances up at the break in the wire, his anxious, unstill lines standing out against the seeming solidity of the fence. Still feverishly surveying his surroundings, as though to assure himself that this isn’t a trick and half anticipating an ambush, he reaches out and grasps the fence, hooking his foot into the grid. Slowly, painstakingly, the man begins to climb up, over and through the breach in the wire. Once he has finally made it to the other side, after taking several nervous, wary glances, he vaults away into the blackness which enfolds him like a heavy stage curtain… The fence, concrete, scattered bottles and razor wire continue to twitch and flicker…
Cut to black.
The animation begins again.
Many of McDonald’s animations deal with various diverse forms of entrapment. In ‘Fence/Hammock’ (2017) we witness two parallel yet asynchronous escape attempts: the ambiguous character in the fenced compound and the dreaming figure in the hammock who appears ensnared inside his own sleeping stupor. Both characters are trapped in their own individual situations and, in the endless loop of the films, condemned to forever return to their imprisonment. Themes of entrapment and imprisonment inevitably conjure the ghost of their opposite: freedom. But freedom is a contested state, an impossible destination for the characters in these two scenarios (reinforced through their constantly thwarted attempts to attain it). A ‘free’ person may be held prisoner by their own thoughts, fears or habits whilst an ‘imprisoned’ person may be free to dream, think or aspire. Albert Camus asserts that an individual’s freedom, and ability to create meaning in life, only comes about through recognising and embracing the essential absurdity of our situation.
“Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death, and I refuse suicide.”4
We are always, as humans, in a state of becoming. In our limited grasp of the phenomenal world we exist only through repetition: the repeated envelope of the present tense; that moment of now, now and now; the ticking of the second hand on the clock; the heartbeat; the renewing of cells. As in McDonald’s animations, all reality is a reality of repetitions, productive of differences and impossible to grasp.
- Soren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Paul Auster, Arthur Adamov, Bas Jan Ader, John Baldessari, Tacita Dean, etc.
- Andrew McDonald in conversation with Iris Priest, Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, 18 May 2017.
- Gilles Deleuze in Adrian Parr, ed., Deleuze Dictionary Revised Edition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), p.59.
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (London: Penguin Books, 2015; originally published 1942), p.62.