The Western film has always been obsessed with its own impending doom. Time and time again it presents the story of a wild frontier threatened by looming civilization. And yet, like Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter (1973), the Western genre damn well refuses to die.
Visual artist Julian Rosefeldt critically explores the Western in American Night, an immersive, multi-channel video installation currently showing at ACMI. Whilst Rosefeldt celebrates the aesthetics and iconography of the Western in the installation, he also delights in its partial deconstruction as he slowly reveals underlying film sets and juxtaposes Western stereotypes with modern war imagery. Using these techniques, American Night adopts the Western genre as a narrative vehicle to tackle broader social and political issues. Without suppressing the original, epic impact and archaic power of the genre, Rosefeldt uses the Western’s generic traits to critically examine current American history.
Presented like a dislocated panorama across five low-lying screens, Rosefeldt’s installation pays tribute to familiar Western themes of honour, retribution and redemption. On the work’s fourth channel, for example, George W. Bush and Barack Obama appear as puppets in a saloon puppet-show. The farce culminates with Obama fatally shooting Bush – much like the plot of a conventional Western where the establishment of a new, supposedly more civil order comes about through armed force.
On the third channel, five cowboys are gathered around a campfire, musing on the American conception of freedom, the right to bear arms and – stepping outside their roles for a moment of self-reflexivity – on the Western as a filmic genre. Every sentence uttered during their conversation is a quotation, thus appealing largely to a pop-literate audience familiar with contemporary filmmakers Sam Peckinpah and Jean-Luc Godard, rapper 50 Cent, and actor and US National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston, among others.
Whilst it pays a sort of homage to the Western genre, come sundown, American Night is more interested in the construction of meaning and the power of language than it is about the genre itself. The Western is a well-chosen vehicle for this message.
“On one hand”, says Rosefeldt, “I wanted to show…what happens when you try to deconstruct [the Western]…on the other hand, I was interested in showing how the dominant American politics of today still perpetuates the myth of the frontier to uphold certain moral – and immoral – standards.”
American Night is ponderously slow in pace, yet kinetically charged with insight; starkly realistic yet allegorical; psychologically astute and yet politically resonant.
American Night is a free exhibition at ACMI currently showing daily in Gallery 2 until Sunday 31 July.