For William Burroughs 'a punk was someone who took it up the ass'. For the late Joey Ramone Punk was about 'kicking ass', at least musically speaking. It was an attitude, a force that kicked against middle-class complacency and avoided overt definition. Today Punk is a glitter T-shirt available from Hennes & Mauritz. For his video installation The Return of Jackie and Judy (+Joey) (2002) Mark Dean re-mixed and synched an early Ramones tune, 'Judy is a Punk' (1976), with archival footage of Jackie Kennedy and Judy Garland. Originally written in memoriam to two Ramones fans, the song is an endless amphetamine-fuelled three-chord chorus of 'Jackie is a punk, Judy is a runt'.
Dean's split-screen projection consists of two looped grainy images that slide through endless colour spectra. In the first of these images Jackie Kennedy, dressed in riding hat and leather gloves, sits astride a show horse. Every inch the affluent débutante, she appears at ease and in control, riding with snake-like rhythm. The second image, a clip from The Wizard of Oz (1939), reveals a young Judy Garland in pigtails and white dress. Arms outstretched, she is caught performing a balancing trick on a pigsty fence. The balancing act fails and she falls. As farm girl Dorothy, it is an unselfconscious act performed, possibly out of boredom, with her back to the camera. It is a moment of quiet endeavour that ends in an elaborate stage dive, amid a flurry of skirt, straight into the pigshit below, only to be resurrected courtesy of Dean's digital rewind and then slowly looped ad infinitum.
Such distended and carefully selected components suggest there is meaning to be found in Dean's bricolage. Is it an allegorical take on class and privilege? Jackie Kennedy was the undisputed queen of a country that claims no royalty. The First Lady - a title she disliked ('it sounds like a saddle horse') - was riding at the age of four and winning equestrian championships by the time she was five. Trapped in endless horse displays, the image reveals a public poise that countered the internal anxiety of a woman who was twice widowed.
Garland too was forced to perform, and first appeared on stage at the tender age of six. By the time she starred in The Wizard of Oz at the age of 17, the pressure of performing and the need to maintain her voice and physical appearance led to the prescription of psychotropic drugs such as amphetamines. Euphemistically described by the Hollywood industry as her 'artistic medicine', these would later lead to her death as the result of a drug overdose.
Dean's push and pull of implied meaning rub against each other, an approach that results in more questions than answers. Is he really asking us to reconsider the First Lady as a punk or the drug-crippled Garland as a runt? As public and private lives tumble into each other, interpretations arrive and dissolve in equal measure. Dean's work begs to be deciphered; it is an activity that stays in the mind long after the initial gut response to the soundtrack. Perhaps what is most clear and compelling is the artist's take on risk and privilege. What is risky for one is not for the other. When Judy falls there's no back-up, save for the rewind button; were Jackie ever to falter, it is easy to imagine the clamour of eager support. The implied relation of Judy's failure and Jackie's success speaks of class division, yet the lived reality of both was bitter-sweet.
Dean revels in the mechanics of manipulated experience, cranking the moods of his video to paranoiac levels. An earlier work, Goin' Back (The Birds/The Byrds x 32 + 1) (1997), sees the actress Tippi Hedren trapped in a slow-motion loop, reliving the horror of being attacked in Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). In another, Dennis Hopper's voice rises and falls hypnotically as he struggles with the mantra 'there is nothing to fear but fear itself'. Dean's latest work again allows re-entry into the celluloid moments of the past; a considered cultural mining that ponders lost energy, power and class. If Punk no longer constitutes a moral or political threat to society, then Dean's co-opting of its questioning energy is perhaps enough. As with the fusion of Pop and political history employed in the work of Sam Durant - in particular his video work examining the fateful Rolling Stones festival at Altamont, California - Dean proposes new meanings in the fragments of the past. It is a slight yet beguiling return for Jackie, Judy and Joey. A compelling last gig.
First published in Issue 68