Rodney Graham — a polymathic Canadian artist known for his absurdist short films and “photo-conceptualist” practice — died from cancer at age 73 on Saturday, October 22.
During his more than 50-year-long career, in addition to his work in photography and film, Graham staged performance art, created video and graphic art, made sculptures, wrote historical and poetic texts, and was a member of the post-punk band UJ3RK5. Graham, whom the Vancouver Sun memorialized as “a genial man who was extremely generous,” would often fly his bandmates to his international exhibition openings, where they would perform.
Graham’s early work took inspiration from Photoconceptualism, a movement that took hold from the late 1960s to ’80s, using photography and video for purposes that were not principally aesthetic or narrative. A concentration of artists working in this mold — such as Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Ken Lum, Vikky Alexander, and Graham himself — congregated in Vancouver, and they were later termed the Vancouver School by critics and curators (though the label was resisted by many of its members). Their photographs and videos often blended documentary and fiction to portray the urban texture of the city and its social realities.
In one of his earliest works, Graham created a camera obscura, an early precursor to the camera that uses a darkened room and admits light through a tiny hole to project images onto a flat surface. His interest in camera obscuras led to a series of photographs in which he captured oak trees and showed them upside-down — a reference to the mechanisms of photographic technology and how the human brain processes images. One of these works, titled “Welsh Oaks #1” (1998), was acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which wrote in a text accompanying the photograph, “The almost hallucinatory transformation wrought by the inversion of these images is profound, as disorienting as if the ground were to become transparent, branches become roots, and the sky fall.”
One of Graham’s best-known works today is “Vexation Island” (1997), a short film that was his contribution to the 47th Venice Biennale. In most of the nine-minute, 35mm short, Graham stars as a man, dressed like Robinson Crusoe with a pet parrot in tow, resting under a coconut tree. The island, with its pristine shores framed by an electric blue ocean, looks like something straight out of a tourism ad. Little happens. When he gets up to shake a coconut out of a palm tree, the coconut lands right on his head. He returns to rest, and the video loops.
Vancouver locals might be most well-acquainted with his work “Spinning Chandelier” (2019), a public art piece that hangs under the city’s iconic Granville Bridge, which lights up and spins three times a day. Instead of appearing as a decadent fixture of a ballroom, the work is tucked in the gritty zone beneath a concrete underpass. The installation caused some controversy when construction difficulties increased its price tag to $4.8 million, a cost paid by a luxury developer.
By the end of his life, Graham had participated in the Venice Biennale, Documenta, and the Whitney Biennial. His work was celebrated in retrospectives at the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, and he was officially named to the Order of Canada.
“There’s a roguish charm to Rodney Graham’s art, but it is ultimately aloof, as if intended to entertain a party of one, namely himself,” New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote in 2008 about the artist. “The rest of us can certainly watch if we choose to, but it’s not required.” This insight seemed to also apply to the illness that led up to the artist’s death. Artist Ian Wallace, a friend of Graham’s for over 50 years, told the Vancouver Sun that he was supposed to meet up with Graham just last week. Downplaying the disease up until his death, Wallace recounted that he had said, “Sorry, I had to go back in the hospital. I’ll see you when I get out.”