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Seán Lynch: Joseph Beuys’ Irish Energies (reconstruction) 2007; peat briquettes, butter; original made in 1974

A number of discussions with fellow artists recently have involved the idea of re-enactment, and why so many artists seem to be so drawn to it as a strategy at present. In Ireland this might include artists like Jesse Jones and the 12 Angry Films project, or Seán Lynch, whose work frequently revists anecdotal, unreliable or surprising histories, or Brendan Earley’s revistations of Modernism. My own interest in re-enactment tends to veer towards the kitsch and an interest in unearthing political threads embedded in such popular cultural productions – this is explored particularly with a body of work being made with Gareth Kennedy. Sources for retelling and re-enactment here have included a Dallas TV script (1987), the film King Kong (1977), and an advertising jingle for Gulf Oil, based in Bantry Bay (1968).

This trend has also being reflected inwards within the art world itself, particularly within performance art, for example Marina Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces (2005), which involved the re-enactment of key performance works by other artists. (See Caitlin Jones’ post on the topic at Rhizome here). She suggests that the impulse to re-enact is either an homage or a repetition, but there are perhaps other impulses at work too.

It seems to me that the impulse to re-enact is caught up with a sense of nostalgia, maybe a ‘revolutionary nostalgia’ like that suggested by Walter Benjamin. It seems clear that the artist re-enactment is related though distinct from the Hollywood remake, which is a different impulse altogether. Where Hollywood seeks to remake stories already told, artists seek to re-enact stories that went unrealised. Svetlana Boym points out that the twentieth century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia – they are twin impulses, caught up with a sense of optimism and potential failure.

July 2020