Manifold Man Catalogue Essay

Dylan’s Manifold Man is both knowing and youthfully optimistic, its charm lying in never allowing its satirical tone to descend into smartaresery or cynicism. It is a body of work that demonstrates a clear knowledge of video’s history with nods to Nam Jun Paik, George Barber, Pipoltti Rist, and the feminist appropriations of televisual form by artists like Suzanne Lacy and Nina Sobell.

To unpack those references a little, there is in the facetted backgrounds of the work a lurid saturation and ‘very video’ aesthetic that recalls Nam Jun Paik’s work with video synthesis. The tiling quality of Dylan’s screen space also evokes Paik’s use of televisions as colourfully oscillating visual units to be configured in endlessly psychedelic variations. In this vein George Barber and the Duvet brothers also used appropriation in combination with video synthesis to create the scratch video look that was so influential on 80’s music video aesthetics. Pipilotti Rist picked up and continues to carry the ‘very video’ look. Rist makes an apt point of comparison with this exhibition as she combined the lurid colours and distorted perspectives of this aesthetic with gender politics, the aesthetics of desire, and the construction of identity in her video oeuvre. Dylan’s backgrounds, the appropriated footage that makes up the multi plane ground on which he performs, bear examination but not because I can summarise them or analyse why they might have been chosen. It is their diversity and obscurity that make them a point of interest: crowds at a diving competition, power lines, flocks of birds, swimming pools, shoals of fish, sausage production lines, caterpillars, freeways, lava and so on. Video here is reduced to the texture, saturation, movement and sticky viscerality that were its essence before it d/evolved to collapse into a cinematic high definition singularity, post-film.

The figure to this ground is Dylan himself, channelling the great tradition of artist performers that video spawned. As mentioned, a first reference would be feminist makers like Lacy and Sobell but there are limitless examples. The ‘auto-narrative’ mode in which Dylan and other artists in this tradition operate is simultaneously true and constructed, a series of performed selves, operating in the space between inner and outer. This tradition of performative video art practices utilise the artist’s own sound and image to address the nature of the subject/object/text relationship and/or the maker/context/video relationship.  In the reflexive environment into which video art emerged in the 1960’s, narrative and performance were reflected upon as fundamental self-constructing impulses. Impulses that the videographic mirror reflected, and captured, so well. This type of work is further characterised by the maker’s self-conscious or even self-reflexive frame of reference. A useful term in this context may be the German ‘selbstdarsteller’ (literally translated as ‘self performer’). The work of the late monologist, Spalding Gray, provides a clear and exhaustive example, but video art is littered with examples from Linda Montano to the much glossier Matthew Barney and home-grown, and slightly more down market, local practitioners like Anastasia Klose.

This transgressive and self-questioning tradition is embodied in the deceptively blokey tone of Dylan’s performance - which stays just this side of hammy… maybe. The blokeyness is completely undercut by the fact that, as he tells us, he is wearing his sister’s Céline Dion top. The gender role-play is but one element of the complex self that is Manifold Man. Part confessionist, part friendly and encouraging gym buddy, his role and educative intention are not easily summarised - or even understood. Over the course of the videos though, I became convinced of his good intentions, a gentle and supportive life coach who isn’t aiming too high, with practical advice on how to be the early guest at a cocktail party and the importance of remembering that other people don’t really know what they’re talking about - despite appearances.

The multiplicity that his character embodies is a motif throughout the work and the final element of this multi-text are the sub-titles. A call and response between an unseen chorus and leader that is by turns quasi-mystical and evasive in a classically catholic and slippery manner, “Everything that comes thereafter is your fault or was intended”. Tying it all back together though is the gym sweats font that points us back to our youthful, chipper and red-blooded protagonist.

I think Dylan’s youthfulness, by which I do not mean so much his age but the positive attitude his screen persona embodies, is a key element to the work. It keeps him out of the cynical mud, which is all too easy to slip into. I enjoy the work of artists who are able to combine critical distance and humane engagement, and what makes this work engaging owes something to Dylan’s savvy humour certainly, but more to his sincerity.

Dominic Redfern May 2013