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A Real Work of Art

To use a convention common to mainstream cinema – the framing device – this story opens in October 2010, when ‘Elmina’, the feature length debut film by Doug Fishbone, began its three-month run at Tate Britain.  The film, shot on location in the eponymous Ghanaian region, is the story of a village, a man, his wife and how the discovery of oil effects troubles throughout the community.  Otherwise an entirely Ghanaian production, ‘Elmina’ starred the artist himself in the lead role.  Incongruously, and which is both more and less disarming than you might imagine, the artist himself is white.  This show of work by Doug Fishbone uses ‘Elmina’ as a point of convergence between the strands that have connected his work since his first film, made in 2003.

Prior to making films, Fishbone was known best for creating impermanent installations.  Notably he created a series of works where bought and piled up enormous quantities of bananas, before giving them away for free, one each, to the general public.  ‘20,000 Bananas’ was installed in New York in 2002, ‘30,000 Bananas’ in Trafalgar Square in 2004, and with similar events in Ecuador, Costa Rica and Poland.  This work (among others) typifies Fishbone’s confrontation of globalisation and consumerism.

In 2003, Fishbone adopted video as his primary medium.  At the same time, Fishbone made a logo.  Together, these acts displayed a further concern for address: Fishbone was at the beginning of using devices of mass media to explore, critique, and potentially undermine, some of the more questionable aspects of western consumer society - in his words: ‘greed, violence, pornography or indifference’.  Combining juxtaposed still images with his own sardonic voiceover narrative, Fishbone’s work at this point sought to combine the essay film or moving image photo-roman, with the tropes of a video culture that was growing up with television and the internet.

The nine films presented here provide a chronological path through Doug Fishbone’s video work (2003 – 2007).  In each of these films, Fishbone acts as narrator, and in the later films also as actor.  As an artist, his work is conceptually driven, and he relies heavily on humour as a mode of address and a deconstruction of barriers between audience and performer.  The films use similar methods to interrogate some of the more indelicate and crass behaviours that twenty-first century living affords the common consumer.  Fishbone’s later films demonstrate an increasing comfort in the performative elements of his films.  As a result, their narratives are more keen and more astute; their messages become ever more complex.  Doug Fishbone doesn’t fall into the trappings of conceptualism.  Too often, conceptual art is dry, patronisingly humoured and aesthetically unappealing.  Doug Fishbone’s films smart, funny and punchy.

Which brings us back to ‘Elmina’.  As he became more successful in translating those conceptual notions through his ‘slideshow’ films, Doug Fishbone the Filmmaker adopted those mass media conventions into Doug Fishbone the Performer.  By taking the leading the role in ‘Elmina’, Fishbone demonstrated that a shrewdness and subtlety had entered his work.  He himself became the medium and mode of address through which to explore these themes of greed, commerce, presentation, how one chooses to represent him or herself and, beyond that, the limits of acceptability.  Perhaps it is no surprise that on the logo Fishbone devised, it’s text reads: ‘Doug Fishbone, Conceptual Art’.

One last thing, a note to our younger viewers: Discretion is advised, some of these films contain content that some may find offensive. 

Doug Fishbone was born in New York in 1969.  He earned an MA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2003.  He regularly exhibits internationally.  Selected solo exhibitions include Rokeby, London (2009), Gimpel Fils, London (2006), 30,000 Bananas in Trafalgar Square, London (2004).  Selected group exhibitions include Rude Britannia: British Comic Art, Tate Britain (2010); Busan Biennale Expenditure, Busan, South Korea (2008); Laughing in a Foreign Language, Hayward Gallery, London (2008); British Art Show 6, Newcastle, Bristol, Nottingham and Manchester (2006). He performs regularly at both international and UK venues, including appearances at ICA and Southbank Centre, London. Fishbone lives and works in London.