Vera Frenkel

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Video still from <b>This Is Your Messiah Speaking</b> by Vera Frenkel

Vera Frenkel, This Is Your Messiah Speaking, (1991), 4:47 min. excerpt from the 9:50 min. original

Video still from <b>Body Missing</b> by Vera Frenkel

Vera Frenkel, Body Missing, (1995), 5:54 min. excerpt from the 36:00 min. original

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About these works

This Is Your Messiah Speaking (1991)
Distributed by Vtape.

Frenkel performs her own text here, interwoven with the same message presented by a woman using American Sign Language. The words are spoken, signed, hand-written in chalk and paint, sometimes subtitled, and repeated with subtle changes and at varying speeds. The words are both poetic and ironic, mesmerizing, intended "to trace and disclose the bond between messianism and consumerism, our two most prevalent romances of rescue, next to Romance itself" (Frenkel, Vtape online catalogue). Or, as enjoined by the speaker in the tape, "This is your Messiah speaking, instructing you to shop." In 1990 an animated version of Messiah Speaking was created for display on the Spectacolor Board, an illuminated signboard primarily used for advertising and public information, at busy Piccadilly Circus in London.

Body Missing (1995)
Distributed by Vtape.

Body Missing is a complex work existing in several forms: videotape, installation, and multi-layered Website. The segment here is the first of six six-minute videotapes brought together to play simultaneously on six monitors.

Body Missing is also a thirty-six-minute video work with accompanying photo-transparencies that builds on an earlier installation, ...from the Transit Bar (1992), first shown at documenta IX in Kassel, Germany. Body Missing is based on casual conversation overheard in a bar, a classic place for transitional moments and for sharing stories. Prepared as a site-specific installation at the Offenes Kulturhaus in Linz, Austria, Body Missing exists in a space between historical document and fictional construction, indicting the Third Reich's practice of confiscating art from public museums and private homes. Remarkably, the Offenes Kulturhaus building, now an important contemporary exhibition space, was originally an Ursuline convent, used during the Second World War as a Wehrmacht prison. Memories linger. We know that thousands of artworks were taken from museums and private collections and transported to Linz, Adolf Hitler's boyhood home, where he planned a monumental museum to display the masterpieces. Meanwhile, they were cached in the nearby salt mine of Altaussee.

Body Missing begins with a German children's song, a familiar tune: "Ladybird, ladybird, fly away. Your father is in the War, your mother is in Pomerania. Pomerania is burnt down. Ladybird, fly." We see feet standing on a mosaic floor that has curious and evocative designs. And we hear numbers, long lists of many numbers spoken in German, and begin to feel anxious. Other lists are mentioned, of works "collected, shipped, stored, but somehow gone; endless identification numbers; transcripts of interrogations from Spandau prison; Canadian and Austrian radio news reports; recent footage of art crates in the basement of the Akademie in Vienna; and as a metaphorical thread, the monument to the Plague (Pestsaüle) in the main square of Linz, site of Hitler's first public speech to the citizens of his hometown after the Anschluss. From the many conversations the barkeeper overhears in the Transit Bar, two contradictory narratives persist: indications of growing neo-Nazi activity in town, and a quiet plan by certain artists who have each chosen from the list of missing artworks one in particular to reconstruct, as an homage or Trauerarbeit and labour of love" (Vtape 1996 Video Reference Guide 66).

About Vera Frenkel

Vera Frenkel is a master storyteller. Her tales are never simple-narratives are winding trails, suggesting analogies and implying subtexts. One becomes complicit in constructing the work's meaning, reading into her intentions and revelations. Her humour is subtle and insinuating; one is charmed as the text unfolds.

First known as a poet and printmaker (Mostra Grafica, Biennale di Venezia, 1972; National Gallery of Canada tour 1971-72), in 1974 Vera Frenkel presented String Games: Improvisations for Inter-City Video, three live transmissions from Bell Canada Teleconferencing Studios in Montreal and Toronto with cumulative playback at Montreal's Galerie Espace 5. The piece was notable for, amongst other things, its early use of media and corporate sponsorship. As the first to use the Bell Studios this way, Frenkel referred to issues of long-distance manipulation and control, along with irony and humour, leading viewers to new interpretations. String Games was prophetic of Frenkel's use of traditional games or stories, her ability to rework formats and direct other participants, and her ability to recontextualize-here, re-working the conventional operating procedures used in the Bell facility to accommodate her insights.

Since then, Frenkel's works in video, installation, and new media have proliferated and gone beyond Canada and into contexts unusual for art. Her media work grew from her interest in narrative forms and strategies, and often expanded into installations staged with furniture, props, and architectural elements. The series of works titled No Solution-A Suspense Thriller moved to video for its fourth installment, Introduction to Some of the Players (1977), and the following year saw her hour-long two-channel video Signs of a Plot: A Text, True Story & Work of Art continue the "whodunit" form. At the same time, Frenkel notes, "Issues such as evidence and its meaning, context and its effect on perception, language as agent of both lies and truths, and the relation between image and word, silence and sound, and art and artifice are addressed" (Frenkel, Vtape online catalogue). Despite the many intervening years and alterations in apparent subject matter, Frenkel has continued to mine similar territory, moving ever deeper into issues of personal and historical consequence.

She has addressed censorship in such works as The Last Screening Room: A Valentine (1984) - a piece accompanied by two other video works, The Contraband Tape and Epilogue. Set in a time when storytelling has been outlawed and the Canada Council for the Arts, a funding agency, has become a branch of the Ministry of Health, Frenkel's tape becomes an ironic "electronic valentine" for the only festival still permitted in the country. In Censored: The Business of Frightened Desires (1987) she "traces the collusive relation between government censorship, pornography and tourism and the devices by which the contemporary world teaches people how to comply with its requirements" (Frenkel, Vtape online catalogue). More recently, ... from the Transit Bar (1992) and Body Missing (1995) broach displacement or expulsion and exile. As art historian Elizabeth Legge cautions, "There is potentially a real body in Body Missing: the body of lost art, the corridors of art crates taken as standing for the piles of confiscated suitcases, the dead, the Holocaust. ... But there is a paradoxical caution in Frenkel's work against our sealing the lost artworks and lost people into a closed metaphorical loop; closure would force too limited, and too trivial, a meaning. 'Loss', like the 'other' is not one strong homogeneous thing. Frenkel, more subtly, multiplies the possibilities and shifting categories of loss. While each may project the shadow of another disappearance, losses are not equivalences" (Legge 72).

Frenkel's newest work is The Institute™ Or, What We Do for Love (2003 and ongoing), an elaborate integrated Website springing from Frenkel's observations of widespread closures of hospitals, an aging population, and shrinking autonomy and funding for such agencies as the Canada Council. She first tackled the subject in a text for n.paradoxa in 1998 and formally initiated The Institute™ in 2000 during a residency at The Banff Centre. This ongoing project is built of converging elements, as in the Body Missing project, a work that incorporates single-channel video, installation, and a Website. With The Institute™ interactivity has increased; viewers become active participants in creating the work. They may also "speak to" Institute™ residents who respond via an artificial-intelligence interface from texts prepared by collaborating artists and writers. The site's underlying principle is that hospitals be refitted as residence-studios for older artists, while former arts bureaucrats are re-purposed as caregivers. The Institute™ motto is: "Creativity and care-home to the conscience of the nation." Every aspect of the piece-Website and gallery installation-rings warning bells: its euphemisms and bland catchwords an Orwellian perfection of rationalization or, as Frenkel sums up, "the curious tangle of control and chaos that characterizes even our most cherished institutions" (Frenkel 69).

Born in Czechoslovakia and raised in England, Frenkel has lived her adult life in Canada. Her many solo exhibitions include Likely Stories: Text/Image/Sound Works for Video and Installation (Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario, 1982), Raincoats, Suitcases, Palms (Art Gallery of York University, Toronto, 1993), ...from the Transit Bar (Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 1994-95, and National Gallery of Canada, 1996), Body Missing (Offenes Kulturhaus, Linz, Austria 1996; Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst, Bremen, Germany, 1996-97). Further, ...from the Transit Bar / Body Missing toured in 1997-98 in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Poland. More recently, Frenkel has shown at Centre cultural canadien (Paris, 2002) and the Freud Museum (London, UK, 2003). Important group exhibitions include OKanada (Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 1982-83), Vestiges of Empire (Camden Arts Centre, London, UK, 1984), documenta IX (Kassel, Germany, 1992), Shifting Paradigms (Bucharest, 1994), and Beyond National Identities (Tokyo, Kyoto, and Sapporo, Japan, 1995) among many others.

Frenkel has been awarded the Canada Council Molson Prize (1989) for her contribution to the cultural and intellectual heritage of Canada, the Gershon Iskowitz Prize (1993), an annual award to celebrate and promote visual artists, and, in 1999, the Bell Canada Award in Video Art. A professor for several years in the Interdisciplinary Studio Programme at York University in Toronto, she has also been artist-in-residence at the Slade School of Art (London, UK), Academy of Fine Arts (Vienna), School of the Chicago Arts Institute, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Newcastle Polytechnic, the Royal University, Stockholm, and the Banff Centre for the Arts.

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