Seamus Harahan: Cold Open (Gimpel Fils, London) Art Monthly #360, October 2012

Seamus Harahan’s is a ludic world of porous borders in which the agency of the author hesitates and modulates, confronts then eludes the viewer. In two new video works Cold Open, 2010, and Auftakt, 2011, the artist pursues a game of and about chance, and about the construction of meaning via inference and implication, creating a vertiginous shift in the assumed roles of artist and audience.

Both works circle notions of verifiability and authorship, specifically the veracity of the document and the received truths around the conventions of the singular versus plural perspectives. But while they unpick a knotty conceptual core, they remain alive, rooted; generous and bold enough to resist dissolution in sterility. Brief, unassuming and bashfully, even perversely installed – Auftakt presented to chairs on a semi-derelict CRT television set, Cold Open on a crumpled projection screen almost grazing the floor that requires the viewer either to stoop or lie down – the works at Gimpel Fils explore an aleatory, associative mode: the unexpected assonance between unrelated instances and dissonance between the known.

The six short sequences of Cold Open, part of a larger series, veer from the oblique to the voyeuristic. At points elegiac, romantic even; at others, inscrutable, sinister, the scenes which this portmanteau project presents – and they are scenes – impose a narrative, or at least begin to locate one, while simultaneously refuting any sensible account of events; cancelling the very idea, or value, of a narrative.

Harahan maintains a sense of rupture both within each fragment of Cold Open and in terms of its position in the whole, creating a strange sense of anomie in which sequences strive to pertain to one another but also challenge themselves; and a similarly dichotomous apprehension of lucidity and confusion reflected in the interior of each section. The artist is wily, ungraspable, complicating and bewildering then pacifying with easy answers, solutions which are dead ends or which resolve locally but then create exceptions elsewhere.

Though it feels in passing as though it shares something of the timbre of narrativisation employed in, for instance, Corin Sworn’s After School Special, 2009, or the associative edit of Morgan Fisher’s ( ), 2003, the machinery of the appropriation of meaning in Cold Open is entirely dissimilar to that of Sworn’s film, which proposes an alternative dialogue for an extant work located instead in a first-person process, whereas Harahan’s is original material. He cloaks the work adroitly by assuming a position of continual movement, shifting sides, implying and refuting in turn; obfuscating at every move in order to evade the viewer and to remain in the work, not above it. His is a position of agency, yet a privilege he divests himself of whenever possible. And, oddly, given the high camera angle and furtive form of much of the piece, it is not an altogether dominant, nor indeed unsympathetic position that he assumes.

In Auftakt, this process is perhaps more manifest due to the presence of a spoken narrative, but this conventional device becomes unstable, untrustworthy, swinging in and out of phase with the image until it is clear that while one could describe the other, the reverse is also possible – or, indeed, neither. All meaning exists in suspension, at once threatening to implode while offering a momentary yet brilliant clarity.

As with Cold Open, Harahan seems to retreat behind the work to suggest that meaning is only and always inferred, not implied. ‘It’s not the tune that matters so much here,’ Arvo Pärt intones in the unseen workshop he is undertaking on his work Für Alina, the basis for the narration, ‘it’s the combination with this triad.’ And indeed, this could function well as a description of Harahan’s synthetic, syncretistic work, not least in that the Estonian composer too favours a loose, semi-improvised, interpretative style of notation. The viewer of Harahan’s work must take a sidelong glance, a route around, receiving reflected meaning as one might view the sun during an eclipse. They must accept or reject associations within sequences or between them, yet perhaps tend towards the former, guided of course by the artist, and by a tendency to perceive that like attracts like – a Goethean elective affinity: a desire to construct meaning, narrative, pattern.

While it would simplify Cold Open and Auftakt to assert that through them Harahan traffics in chance, it is nevertheless central to both works. Rather than employing aleatory mechanics as a means to an end, though, it is these mechanics themselves that the artist pursues. The works enjoy a fluid, shifting status, able at once to dissect the parameters and principles of chance as artistic methodology and to revel in its effects which are by turns poetic and absurd, profound and banal, yet foregrounded, always, by the artist, the hand of God: omniscient, but never disinterested.