Althea Thauberger

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Althea Thauberger, Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Toronto

Jon Davies
Toronto: Canadian Art | 2006

Althea Thauberger’s half-hour, single-channel video “opera” A Memory Lasts Forever (2004-5) triumphs by courting embarrassment and failure. The sole artwork by Thauberger in the touring exhibition of the 2004 Sobey Art Award finalists–she represents the West Coast–mines glorious moments from the most mundane and frequently absurd and pathetic material. The result is pure joy, a monumental piece of ridiculous theatre whose success hinges on the earnestness of its young performers, who act their blessed hearts out in a preposterous piece of melodrama revolving around the discovery of a dead dog in a swimming pool. The whole vulgar plot is repeated four times, with a different girl playing the lead in each segment.

One night, four swimsuit-clad young women who have been drinking stumble towards an in-ground pool in a posh suburban backyard. One of them spots the corpse and notifies the others, at which point the protagonist reacts quite strongly—in two cases hysterically—to the waterlogged cadaver, reaching such a frenzied state that she runs away and seeks solitude. We then cut to a new scene wherein the heroine has the opportunity to musically lament her emotional isolation until the other girls reappear and join her. The group is reunited through sharing a song—confessional pop lyrics testifying to the adolescent girl’s alienation laid over synthesizer music—and emoting together, recalling how the musical numbers in classic Hollywood musicals served to resolve narrative conflicts.

Thauberger, in collaboration with her young actresses and through their excessive sentiments and clear belief in their own affective power, speaks volumes about the ways that drama—live and filmed—has crated a set of conventions about what true feeling should look like. It is an alienating standard that makes us self-conscious about our own emotional performances.

Thauberger crafts a disturbingly voyeuristic cinematic style that hovers between gritty vérité and extreme artificiality; shot with theatrical lighting and alternating predominantly between medium shots and close-ups, the work is eerie and claustrophobic—like a diorama in a natural-history museum.

The beauty of Thauberger’s work is in the way that the video’s ostensible realism is ruptured, first by the sheer outlandishness of a grotesquely comic dog-carcass prop and then by the over-the-top emoting of her young actresses during the cathartic emotional and musical scenes. Other moments stand out for their abject verisimilitude: a rear-view shot of one of these lumpy, intoxicated young lasses bending over to puke is indelible, sad and sublime. Some scenes among the plentiful bathos, however, cut like a knife: one girl’s violent screams and spine-chilling shrieks of “Get away from him!” as she cradles her pet’s lifeless body are positively feral. Real trauma ruptures the Grand Guignol here and it stings…until she starts to sing, all puffy cheeks and cheap jewellery.