Olaf Breuning

Brave New Worlds

Four art-school boys in rolled-down wetsuits, red Indonesian masks and camouflage bodypaint run from the scrappy roadside forest near the Waitakere visitors centre. Red smoke gutters from the marine flares they hold. The setting sun is temporarily clear of the fast-moving clouds. There is a cold wind blowing. On either side of the ridge Manukau and Waitemata harbours stretch picturesquely. A couple of cars pull into the lay-by – tourists keep stopping to check out what it is we’re looking at. Swiss artist Olaf Breuning and his cast and crew from Elam are shooting the final scene to his video. Day after tomorrow he flies back to New York.

Breuning makes videos and photographs; he is master of the constructed scenario. Descriptions of his work catalogue props – paring knives scotch-taped to fake-blooded hands, woolly hats, trainers, ski pants, monster makeup; big tractors and chainsaws, fake rubber pecs, smoke machines; or they promote hi-concept hybrids ” Cremaster meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre in a Swiss chalet”, “Part Xena, part Apocalypse Now”. Descriptions slide over the work’s glossy surface. Breuning’s set-ups are sheaves of stereotype, layer upon layer upon layer. Artworld references, pop culture steals. He’s one of those movie-a-day artists who photosynthesises in the cathode light of culture. In New Zealand for five weeks, he’s making a video at Piha, all rain-drenched sheepskin, stick-on beards, camo-paint and campervans. He was trying to recruit Lucy Lawless to his project, but unfortunately, she’s off to appear in The X-Files.

Great art awakens the possibility of parallel worlds adjacent to or beneath the one we inhabit. Movies are deft at doing this. Think Bladerunner, a dystopia so complete that crappier movies sublet its dark alleys and nipponoir bars. Breuning’s works reach for another world. With their exacting set-ups, large casts, buses, cardboard forests, armour and gorilla suits, they allude to something. Or do they allude to alluding to something? In describing his new video, Breuning talks about Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games, about the double lives of re-enacters who joust in Sunday armour they bought off the internet. A photograph, Lara features a cut-price TombRaider in crappy shades wielding a cordless drill. It’s a little pathetic, but it reminds me of that superheroine tingle I get when I use powertools. There is a stagy irony at work.  We can see the wig came from some emporium, that the blood is fake. We know, but even so’it’s about enacting our own inadequate versions of global iconologies. Then again, even Angelina Jolie needed padding to fill Lara’s bra.

Vikings in pelts, wetsuits and horned helmets grasp their glossy wooden surfboards. This image is from a series of big photographs – line-ups of cavegirls, albino zombie skaters, knights in shining armour, apes. Archetypes that ran in the wash.  Characters from the video reappear, frozen. The masked and camo-painted boys stand in the dappled sunlight of junglish weedy clearings. This time dressed in cutoff jeans, the four pose awkwardly, holding cigarettes in a wary non-smoker’s grip. There is something National Geographic here; pop-anthropology induced by the touristy masks. Breuning’s video documents the metamorphosis of these Javamen from the beardy, soggy surfvikings. Washed up on Piha beach they encounter fire in a prehistoric epiphany. They paint each other by the light of the fire, change costumes, brawl in a camper-van. They sit at the fold-down table in their masks like a bunch of mutant tourists, the night black behind condensation-covered windows.

Breuning incorporates the continuous contemporaneity of fashion, the simultaneously lush and tacky. His images abound in what he calls “power signs” – late model SUVs, fast cars, art-historical references. His props are expensive – jetskis, powerboats, enormous tractors; but his production values are low. Breuning makes ample use of the DIY aesthetic of Hammer Horror. A video from last year, Ugly Yelp is shot in night-vision green. Nasty nylon wigs and silly violence are accompanied by a looped Pantera guitar-surge. The video is screened in a late-model scooter: not quite a motorbike, not quite a car, not quite a cycle. This in-between quality distinguishes the hyphenated nationality of the Swiss: their not quite French, not quite German, not quite Italian cosmopolitanism. Cheese and mountains; neutrality and Nazi gold; museli and banking. They’re the original internationalists. Olaf declaims “I am not Swiss”. But is this Swissness at work? He lives in New York.

Breuning’s photographs worry away at the specifics of a mediated imaginary, that uneasy lurch from the local to the global and back again. His use of West Coast locations echoes Xena, with its coalescence of local gender politics, geography and the liquid movement of global capital. American-produced in New Zealand. Watching it on TV in Texas once, I felt homesick for the incidental cabbage trees and pongas, the flaxy swamps our heroine bush-bashes through on her mythic journey. Treasuring my local knowledge that Lucy and Kevin, and all those other familiar guest-stars, don’t normally speak in that American Esperanto.

Breuning’s modular mythologies are insidious, self-deconstructing. These days intertextuality hardly raises anyone’s pulse, the notion that we live in a slippy simulacral mediated world is a given.  But the cheerful oddness of his dystopias, their new car smell, their whacky Structuralism, allows them to exceed while symulaneously failing their models.

First Published in Olaf Breuning: Group, Artspace Auckland, 2001