August 2013, by Eleanor Nairne, Frieze
There were just nine works in Julia Wachtelâ€™s first solo exhibition in the UK: six in the central space of Vilma Gold, one around the corner, one in the office and one sound work, which was discreetly turned off when the gallery was empty to save the staff from going insane. You Disappear Me (1987) comprises a two-minute looped piece of a sobbing woman, intercut with cries of â€˜He loves meâ€™, which had the melodramatic tenor of an American talk show. Puncturing the main space, the work introduced the central concern of Wachtelâ€™s practice: namely, how material from popular culture can be appropriated, manipulated, repeated and juxtaposed in order to irk and unsettle the visitor, encouraging a reflection on the all-pervasive power of the media. As the artist commented last year: â€˜My work is very much about how subjectivity is constructed, how we view ourselves and [â€¦] the media constructions of that. We had certain talk-show hosts on television at that time that would interview people and it was a forum for [them] to expose themselves, cryingâ€™.
The time Wachtel refers to is the early 1980s, which witnessed a boom in talk shows, because they were cheap to produce and, thanks to new satellite technologies, could now feature call-in speakers from virtually any location in the world. The proliferation of satellite channels and the invention of infra-red remote controls, created the possibility of â€˜flickingâ€™ between dizzyingly different content â€“ a precursor to the experience of â€˜surfing the netâ€™. This collision of â€˜highâ€™ and â€˜lowâ€™ was captured best in Narrative Collapse I and II (1981/2013), both of which feature six posters arranged in a four-metre horizontal line. Here, repetition bound together otherwise divergent images: the backside of a pig, a curious otter, the same pig, a bikini-clad Raquel Welch, a fierce Mussolini and then back to the otter again. Drawn in marker pen over each series of posters was a crude silhouette â€“ an invitation, perhaps, for the visitor to shape their own view of the content, or the deathly shadow of the author.
The title of these works alludes to Jean-FranÃ§ois Lyotard and his advocation in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) of â€˜incredulity towards meta-narrativesâ€™ â€“ a reference which was reinforced by the exhibitionâ€™s title, â€˜Post Cultureâ€™. I was reminded of Don DeLilloâ€™s White Noise(1985), in which Babette is addicted to confessional â€˜call-inâ€™ programmes while Murray Siskind presents a pastiche of the Postmodern academic. A strident defender of television â€“ â€˜look at the wealth of data concealed in the grid, in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice-of life commercials, the products hurtling out of darkness, the coded messages and endless repetitionsâ€™ â€“ his students, meanwhile, consider it to be â€˜the death throes of human consciousnessâ€™. Wachtel seems to respond to this ambivalence in a work like Iâ€™m Ok, Youâ€™re Ok (1992), in which a paunchy male face is silk-screened twice, one image upright and the other inverted, and set within two oblong panels, one mustard yellow, the other a dank brown. Caught mid-speech and bisected by a horizontal bar, he has clearly been culled from a daytime talk show, while the canvases, which dramatize the 4:3 aspect ratio of television, are painted in colours lifted from corporate logos and fast-food restaurant uniforms.