Blending original and found materials, Michael Robinson creates collaged films exploring the emotional mechanics of popular media, the nature of heartache, and the instability of the reality we inhabit.
“There’s something about taking things that are so fundamentally kitsch and nostalgic and by really clever editing, turning them into something poignant with these multiple readings.”
Curator Ruth Carroll originally came across Michael Robinson’s work several years ago. The piece, entitled These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us, combined Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra with Michael Jackson’s video for Remember the Times. Carroll was instantly intrigued.
“There’s something about taking things that are so fundamentally kitsch and nostalgic and by really clever editing, turning them into something poignant with these multiple readings. Something that makes you highly anxious, but at the same time, you can’t tear yourself away.”
Years later, Carroll reached out to Robinson to do an exhibition. The result is Under the Wrong Star, which displays two of Robinson’s works. They’re wildly different pieces, but share Robinson’s uncanny ability to mine new and unexpected meanings out of found footage.
When we binge watch shows, we tend to see patterns, repetitious behaviour that comes from stressed writers and exhausted cast and crew burning the midnight oil to get it done. Robinson noticed this when he started watching Dynasty for the first time, compiling all these recurring gestures into a video collage called The Dark, Krystle.
“Dynasty was a bit of a blind spot for me in TV history,” he admits. “I was too young to have cared about it when it aired, and although I knew what it was and what it meant – mostly as a reference in gay culture, like Paris is Burning and RuPaul’s Drag Race – I had never encountered an episode.
“In watching just a few episodes, I immediately noticed that Krystle is upset in nearly every scene, that Alexis is rarely seen without a drink in her hand. I watched all of season 2, and from there I began scanning each episode for the desired bits of Krystle and Alexis.”
The finished piece rides a thin line between making fun of this kitsch soap opera and finding something surprisingly poignant in its female characters. The viewer is immediately invited to laugh at the high camp, but by repeating these gestures over and over again, these women start to seem trapped within the confines of this soap opera construct, doomed to play reductive roles that deny them any agency or complexity – namely crying, drinking, and more crying, with the odd fall down a stairs.
Robinson occasionally dissolves into footage of a burning house, which is then overlaid on these gestures. There’s something malevolent about this motif, a sense that there’s something violent and unstable underneath these recurring moments.
“I really just started with wanting the base satisfaction of seeing the two characters’ repeated gestures condensed,” Robinson explains. “But once I actually started cutting them together, something else was happening. The campy surface gave way to the humanity of the people we’re watching as they go through the motions of their characters’ archetypes. We’re perhaps able to more clearly question what those gestures and archetypes mean. It remains funny, fast and fun, but there’s a lot to be said about what these women represented in 1980s culture, and much of that is quite dark and complicated.”
“Dallas and Dynasty in the ‘80s were this little window into a glamorous other world,” Carroll continues. “It was more than a soap opera, and in two or three channel land, everyone watched it. It was this complete fabricated narrative that was so distinct from any reality. It just became this way to turn off our world and watch these things.”
The companion piece in the exhibition, Onward Lossless Follows is a kaleidoscopic journey through Robinson’s anxieties in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Unlike The Dark, Krystle, Onwards Lossless Follows takes material from a wide variety of sources, ranging from Getty’s stock footage of people clapping at their computers, to videos of arid deserts, to a dashcam feed of a truck overturning on a highway. A text conversation between two lovers links these sections.
“Many of the elements that make up Onward Lossless Follows were things I’d been sitting on for nearly a decade, sometimes even longer, without a clear sense of where I’d ever find a place for them. In sitting down to edit, I had no idea if any of these various elements would cohere until the lovers began texting ‘off screen’ and the film’s many parts fell into place around their warped correspondence.
“Editing is always a process of trial and error for me, sifting and skewing elements around until a kind of internal logic emerges and I can feel surprised and scared by the piece myself. This piece was particularly satisfying and cathartic to make, but also really heavy.”
Throughout Onward Lossless Follows, the recurring sensation is danger, as personal apocalypses collide with planetary ones. As a car overturns on the high way, audience’s applause gives way to the dire warnings of a preacher warning us not to look to the stars for our future. On screen, surveyors walk through a forest, presumably sizing things up before tearing it down.
“Trump ‘winning’ the 2016 election brought about a collective sadness and trauma unlike anything I have ever experienced,” says Robinson. “I saw myself and nearly everyone around me thrown into an emotional free-fall. With one’s sense of reality flipped upside down and all futures made suddenly unclear… A deep sense of abandonment and confusion filled the air.
“So I wanted this piece to be a kind of portrait of the contemporary American psyche, and play with instability in its narration and structure. I ended up gravitating towards the escapism of a love story as the through-line.
“Granted that love story is grafted onto a low-budget portrayal of child abduction, so there’s both sweetness and terror in what it offers.”
Under the Wrong Star is in the RHA Gallery until Sunday January 26
Words: Jack O’Higgins