Jul 18 2017

Ambush of the Absurd: Profile of Liam O’Brien

by Scott Norton

Portrait of LIAM O’BRIEN. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan + Strumpf Fine Art.

In A Life Worth Living, a biography on the 20th century writer-philosopher Albert Camus, Robert Zaretsky argues that the inquiry into the nature of the absurd is fundamental to the human condition: “If the question abides, it is because it is more than a matter of historical or biographical interest. Our pursuit of meaning, and the consequences should we come up empty-handed, are matters of eternal immediacy.” Taking up these matters has been the interest and focus of Australian-born artist Liam O’Brien. Much like Camus, whose 1942 essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” delved into the absurdity of action and existence, O’Brien’s video works rely on mythologies—narratives of the origins of meaning—that he develops around absurd characters. Man personified by rubber blow-up sex dolls, amalgamations of home goods, or disembodied hands become the players in his stories, which vacillate between the comic and the tragic. Rooted in these images is a panoply of philosophical tropes and references, including nihilism, sadomasochism, and existentialism.

Although not a student of philosophy—O’Brien had studied photojournalism in university, later abandoning it in favor for art practice—the artist is an avid reader of the likes of Camus and Erich Fromm. It was through their writings, notably Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941), that the artist became interested in Absurdism: the notion that humanity’s search for meaning is futile, yet necessary. This is evidenced throughout O’Brien’s works, many of which play with the tension of freedom and, its antithesis, hopelessness.

LIAM O’BRIEN, production still of Whistling In The Dark, 2013, HD single-channel video: 4 min 50 sec. Commissioned by Artbank. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan + Strumpf Fine Art.

In Whistling in the Dark (2013), where a disembodied hand is shown feebly, yet determinedly pulling a hulking sack, this tension is revealed in a droll manner. On a surface level, the removal of the hand from the body references the alienation of labor, however, the hand, too, is a personification of man’s quixotic endeavor for meaning. Upon the climax of the video, with the “death” or defeat of the protagonist, the camera pulls out, revealing the living artist, who abruptly leaves the cinematic frame, breaking the fourth wall. Surreal in nature, dark in tone and adopting a murky palette that is more akin to the works of Pierre Huyghe—The Journey That Wasn’t (2005) and (Untitled) Human Mask (2014) come to mind—O’Brien creates a comical foil to human tragedy within his heavy staging, a gesture that O’Brien will utilize in many of his future works.

LIAM O’BRIEN, still from At Arm’s Length, 2016, HD single-channel video: 15 min 21 sec. Commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan + Strumpf Fine Art.

Other works are less dramatic, more brooding. At Arm’s Length (2016), O’Brien’s semi-autobiographic homage to Australia, crawls ploddingly through vignettes of modern interactions between individuals within the context of our over-saturated social media age. Replacing dialog and action with the inactivity of browsing, the work explores the process by which the individual dissolves their own identity through self-representation and constructs a self-image for the consumption of others. Admittedly evoking Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, O’Brien essentially pits his subjects against their own desires; the more each individual begins to associate themselves in the representations they create, the more apparent it is that neither the individual nor the social network can create a satisfying sense of self-consciousness. O’Brien couches this absurdist tragedy in the sensation of pervasive boredom. Remarking that “most people hate this work,” he clearly articulates to his viewers a voluntary anguish that is perhaps too real for most audiences to acknowledge, let alone endure for 15 minutes and 21 seconds.

Over his recent six-month residency with Brooklyn’s International Studio and Curatorial Program  in New York City, however, O’Brien’s practice and philosophical leanings have shifted, becoming more existentialist, partly due to the influence of America’s political climate. The “inflation” and “deflation” of the self is a central feature to his most recent work, Early April (2017), which depicts an inflatable sex doll going through a series of banal actions: showering, commuting, eating. These routines are ultimately unproductive in providing meaning, and instead reflect a sense of hopelessness.

LIAM O’BRIEN, still from Early April, 2016, HD single-channel video: 5 min 15 sec. Commissioned by Open City Inc. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan + Strumpf Fine Art.

O’Brien’s characters never seem to reveal whether they are conscious that their actions lead to a particular outcome. Similarly, O’Brien’s videos, which pair lightheartedness with a sense of self-induced defeat, do not hope to offer resolution. Rather, as the artist remarked in a recent conversation, his works are a means by which he can interrogate himself and question the validity of his own beliefs. Through his artistic practice, O’Brien, as Zaretsky argued of Camus, depicts the pursuit of “the perennial prey of philosophy—the questions of who we are, where and whether we can find meaning, and what we can truly know about ourselves and the world—less with the intention of capturing them than continuing the chase.”

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