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A Short Lesson

Donigan Cumming

2001 00:01:00 United StatesEnglishColorMono4:3


One minute, two mysteries: The shelf-life of genius and why we try to make pictures when, as Robert Lowell put it, "No voice outsings the serpent's flawed, euphoric hiss.

This title is also available on Donigan Cumming Videoworks: Volume 3.

About Donigan Cumming

Donigan Cumming is an artist who uses video, photography, and multi-media installation to challenge the taboos of representation. His treatment of society’s abject heroes began with a three-part cycle of photographs, Reality and Motive in Documentary Photography (1986) which created a fictional community whose struggles and exits he has continued to explore on video. The pivotal works were Pretty Ribbons (1993), a startling photographic portrait of an elderly woman, Nettie Harris, and A Prayer for Nettie (1995), an elegy for the departed Nettie, improvised by six players on tape. Cumming’s portraits of others are unforgettable; his self-portraits are equally unsparing.

Cumming’s tapes have been screened annually at the Rotterdam International Film Festival since 1998 when his work was featured in the program, The Cruel Machine.  In 2000, his video installation Moving Stills was part of Rotterdam’s Exploding Cinema. In New York, his tapes have been screened at MoMA, the New York Video Festival, Monkey Town, and the Whitney. The FCMM in Montreal has been showing his work since 1996 when he won the Telefilm Canada Video Prize for Canadian Discoveries. In 2002, there were two retrospectives of his work: at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California, and the Visions du Réel festival at Nyon, Switzerland.

Cumming’s work has been acquired for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and by national museums in Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States. His work has been supported by Telefilm Canada and senior visual arts grants from the Canada Council and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. He has been a fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

"Using photography, light, sound recordings and installation, Donigan Cumming tells stories with an acute, disturbing, shocking, and in the eyes of some people, even scandalous, realism. Nettie, Albert, Brenda, Pierre, Colin... are temperamental angels fallen from heaven. They play at being terribly true to character and, whilst being distanced actors of their own lives, their voices, their faces and their bodies are exposed to the extreme. The encounters Donigan Cumming orchestrates with them are dizzying."
—Visions du Reel, Nyon, Festival catalog 2002

"Like fellow Canadian Jeff Wall, photographer/filmmaker Donigan Cumming approaches [his work] from an unconventional, eccentric perspective. While Wall reaches toward essentially formalist resolutions that expand the parameters of his work, Cumming burrows deeply into the abyss of human spirit, human capacity, and a sense of human beauty that few of us choose to capture. In Pretty Ribbons, Cumming records in pictures the shameless, uncommon behavior of a very old woman, whose nudity, which is viewed throughout, is unique in the history of pictures. Nettie Harris, Cumming's spirited elderly subject, was a former journalist and actress, who permitted Cumming to film and photograph her for his ever-expanding genre-breaking body of documentary work. Harris is shown living a decrepit, yet animated life, visited by male friends, who also expose their naked bodies, and who take part in her theatrical reality. Although impoverished, and seemingly isolated in her lifestyle, Harris reveals herself to be the ideal photographer's subject. Like some of photography's most vivid models, Harris was generous in giving Cumming her singularity of presence, and an ample amount of time to record her behavior. As far as I know, there are no subjects in art quite like Nettie Harris, who defy our preconceptions about who should be shown nude and expand our awareness of human richness. Cumming gives us pictures as unsparing as Diane Arbus, whose formal strength is secondary to their emotional depth, and originality of purpose. These pictures do not try to be attractive, or technically seductive; they stick to photojournalism's mandate to tell the truth, but like many postmodernist works, they straddle a plurality of genres: documentary, performance art, and art photography. Cumming's Pretty Ribbons is a landmark book achievement, as significant in its way as Robert Frank's The Americans, or Larry Clark's Tulsa."
--George Pitts, Parsons School of Design, New York

Lying Quiet is Donigan Cumming's most recent artist's book, consisting of 211 images drawn from ten years of video production, and a new essay on his work by Peggy Gale.  He also published Splitting the Choir in 2011, which can be purchased directly from the Canadian Film Institute.

"Working with the same characters over many years, the history of their relationships will also become memory, and the characters in turn will remember the others, or events now gone. Images from several periods are intercut until we lose track of personality, event, timeline, even character. We are left with moving pictures, underlined by sensations of lives lived."
—Peggy Gale