An essay reprint, ‘Where the grass is green’, by JESSICA REID, appears courtesy of The Physics Room contemporary art space, Christchurch, New Zealand.

SARAH JANE PARTON’s ‘Guidance’ marries allusions to contemporary pop culture and failed utopian ideals, excessive cultural displays, political propaganda and the intentional blurring of ideological boundaries. These contextual layers acknowledge the wary and cynical minds of the post-baby boomer generation, whilst expressing a nostalgic longing for the promises and possibilities ideological constructs of the 20th century proffered.

While inspiration for ‘Guidance‘, may have been sparked by a journey through Central Europe in 2005 and by the British documentary A State of Mind (2004) – which features two young female gymnasts in their preparations for the North Korean mass games – the work is also littered with references more familiar to us here in our un/comfortably capitalist democracy.

In Parton’s video she casts herself in the role of a gymnast as she performs a routine in a stylised competition and makes an acceptance speech. Parton’s practice can be defined by her performative videos in which fantasies of her adolescence are acted out with the awkward self-consciousness we associate with that period of our lives. There exists a nice parallel between the conviction and idealism of youth and how this is potentially played out in large-scale ideologies.

Gymnastics, and particularly mass gymnastics where the individual is subordinated to become a mere unit within an organised crowd, have long been the sports of choice for dictatorships of extreme political regimes of both the left and the right. A line can be drawn between both the parades of the Nuremberg rallies under Nazi rule and the huge displays still regularly practiced in modern day communist North Korea. Such displays embrace the cult of the male warrior and military virtues tempering these ideas with the self-restraint and control expected of a modern citizen. Female participants have traditionally been utilised to represent the beauty, fertility and happiness of the people in question. The exhibition of strength and discipline, and the necessity of gymnastics trainees to be youthful, makes it an ideal vehicle for the dissemination of nationalistic messages of racial superiority. Successes in gymnastics, whether through competing in international championships or as part of massive and spectacular performances, have been employed to symbolise a strong, healthy, happy and obedient society(1).

In contrast to these grand exhibitions, in Parton’s video work she appears alone, often spot-lit against a deep dark beyond. The camera flashes as the figure waits in the wings give the faintest allusion to an unseen audience. However, the falling glitter and eerily quiet and dark stadium let us know all our focus is on her and positions this solipsistic scenario as the naïve indulgence of a youthful daydream.

The Modern Olympic games were founded on a utopian premise. Olympics revivalist, Pierre de Coubertin, seeking an explanation for France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) concluded that the youth of France had not received proper physical education. Coubertin sought to both bring nations closer together – having them compete in sport rather than war – and destroy class distinctions within France. ‘The essential thing’ Coubertin wrote in Sport Pedagogy ‘is that bourgeois youth and proletarian youth drink from the same fountain of muscular joy.’(2) However, as the 1936 Berlin Olympics proved, such altruistic intentions were not beyond manipulation. Architect and designer Le Corbusier (1887-1965), whose ideas Parton addresses in her drawings, was a comparable social activist. While an influential thinker and celebrated for his furniture design, his housing projects have been criticised for the sterility of their design and ghettoising of a community’s poor.

In Parton’s video the artist also recognises the phenomenon of the late Seventies and Eighties that was the re-emergence of gymnastics as a popular sport for young girls, as Parton herself was, of both capitalist democracies and communist autocracies of the time. This revival was influenced in no small part by the gold medal winning performances of Russian gymnast Olga Korbut (Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976) and Romanian Nadia Comaneci (in Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980). The camera close-ups of Parton’s face, looking wide-eyed and earnestly innocent, and her short croppy haircut give her the appearance of one of those young Eastern European gymnasts. Parton’s video pays tribute to the superficial and kitschy tropes of that era too – her pink Lycra leotard and the heart and star-shaped editing cuts, the showering glitter – all imbue a glitzy and romantic take on the music videos of the Eighties.

I can’t help but think of the music video Spike Jonze directed for The Chemical Brother’s 1997 track Elektrobank, which has parallels with Parton’s work in feel as well as content. The music video runs like an inspiring story of hardship overcome with the feel-good element typical of 1980’s popular culture. Like a cynical spin on teen movies of that era, Jonze’ video employs condensed narrative and over the top dramatics, casting Sofia Coppola as a gymnast who despite injuring her ankle completes a winning floor routine. In contrast though, Parton’s video is ambiguous as to whether it is in deed a competition as she is the only person we see. As the lone figure performing, the routine ties in with other sporting displays and demonstrations, such as the opening or closing performances of an Olympics.

The soundtrack throughout Parton’s video work is an adapted version of the Guns n’ Roses’ super hit of 1987, Paradise City. Guns n’ Roses currently hold the dubious records of making the ninth most expensive music video ever, for ‘November Rain’(3), and the most expensive unreleased album ever for ‘Chinese Democracy’ – ten years in production and with thirteen million dollars and counting spent on recording costs(4). Dedicated fans have come up with various interpretations of Paradise City’s meaning over the years, but given the legendary excesses of the band, the view that the song is a paean to heroin seem plausible.

The soft and synthetic musical cover Parton employs, removes the song from the darker associations of heavy metal and the violent, bigoted and hedonistic reputation of band Guns n’ Roses. On a superficial level the lyrics abstracted from their original context have an almost biblical quality – yearning for the green grasses of home – which are suggestive of a Garden of Eden or heavenly resting place, which will be the reward for the struggle of a hardship endured through life.

At the end of her routine, Parton recites a speech – the chorus of Paradise City – in Esperanto. Literally meaning ‘one who hopes’, Esperanto is an artificially constructed language, designed by Polish physician Ludwik L. Zamenhof in 1887, with the intention of it becoming adopted as a universal language. Zamenhof’s expectation was that Esperanto would foster international understanding and would serve as a useful and easy-to-learn second language.

Despite early enthusiasm, Esperanto has never generated a large enough speaking population for it to become tenable as a truly international language, with the concentration of followers located in Europe(5). There is much dispute regarding how many fluent speakers of the language exist today, but many estimates would put it at around 100,000(6). Whilst having such lofty goals as ‘human emancipation’, as the Prague Manifesto of Esperanto does, may sound quaint, it is important to remember that it is far easier to judge such qualities with hindsight(7).

Sarah Jane Parton’s ‘Guidance’ although critical, is not jaded. There is something undeniably uplifting in her work, where we can see the fulfilment of dreams and playing out of roles on a personal level; potentially both more achievable and more rewarding than when comparable attempts at realising grandiose ambitions are carried out on mass.

Sarah Jane Parton’s ‘Guidance’ exhibited at The Physics Room from April 18 to May 12, 2007....[Read More]